What’s Going on With Espinosa?

Danny Espinosa had a pretty awful April, but then he recovered and his offense was among the best for any second basemen in the NL. Unfortunately, that was the story from last season, when he was hitting .182/.277/.239 on May 5.EspinosaHR

You can forgive the Nats for being patient, as he spent the rest of the summer, until Sept 14 when he hurt his shoulder, hitting .269/.330/.451. It may not look like much, but if he could’ve done that all year, it would have been the #2 OPS among all NL 2Bs. That wasn’t the case, though, because of that April and then the September injury.

This year, on the other hand, the pretty awful has extended well into May, and shows no sign of letting up. But it should let up. Not because I like Espinosa as a player (which I do), but because he isn’t this bad. No matter how frustrating it is to watch him scuffle this year, there is nothing about his career .727 OPS prior to 2013, or his more impressive minor league numbers, that would suggest we are seeing the real life Danny Espinosa right now.

But don’t take it from me, an admitted Espi fan. Check out Rob Neyer’s article entitled “MLB’s 10 worst hitters, and optimism” (because Danny is one, and because there should be). Here’s what Neyer said:

First thing’s first: Espinosa is not a good hitter. He entered this season with a 727 career OPS, which is good only for a middle infielder. Which, fortunately for his professional future, Espinosa is. At 727, he can play for as long as he likes…

It’s sort of the argument that people like Keith Law made about Espinosa after his great 2011 season when we saw a .737 OPS from a 24 year old and saw the sky as the limit. Many didn’t see it that way, what they saw was a guy who wouldn’t be an All Star with the bat, but he could hit for his position (where he is an exceptional fielder), more than alot of starters, so he’s good enough to play.

But that still doesn’t give confidence that Neyer thinks there is optimism. This quote, however, should:

Actually, what Espinosa’s really got is a track record, and youth. There’s every reason to think we’ve not seen his best, and what we’ve seen already was decent enough.

That, in summation, is what Espi has going for him. He’s only 26, and he’s already had two years of sustained success in the majors. I can almost guarantee you that after 2 full seasons the advance scouts and MLB pitchers have NOT finally “figured him out.” It simply doesn’t take 2 seasons to do that. There is something else going on here, and what that is, well I have a few guesses.

What might be wrong

1. He is not a major league hitter: I think this one should be almost completely dismissed. The track record, as mentioned, is too good to suggest he can’t hit at all. Even if people believed his ceiling was only a .300 OBP guy (which I don’t), that ceiling would have to include 21 HRs, since he’s already been there. This wouldn’t be Robinson Cano, but its still a guy who belongs on a MLB roster. So, sorry, I don’t buy it.

2. He is mentally broken: He was completely lost at the plate in April 2012. Then, as I mention every chance I get, he hit as well as any NL 2B for 4 1/2 months. Which is about 75% of a MLB season. What happened last April? He didn’t appear to be hurt, and yet he stunk for a month and then… he didn’t. Is it possible that he just has a wildly inconstant or flawed approach to the plate that leads to massive, month-long streaks? Maybe it’s a confidence thing and if he can string together a few hits, he’ll improve. Whatever the reason may be, there is certainly reason to believe it could all be in his head.

3. He is physically broken: Maybe it’s not in his head, maybe its in his shoulder. After he injured his shoulder last September, he fell off a cliff with his hitting, and really hasn’t recovered. This includes a horrendous postseason where he went 1 for 15 with 7 Ks. Rather than going in for a surgery that would keep him out for 2 months (albeit these things can always drag out longer), he and the Nats decided to rehab the shoulder and let him play. Perhaps there is an issue there. The only strange thing about this – he hit the cover off the ball in Spring Training. Yes, it was only Spring Training, but it was still .333/.358/.474, regardless. So he wasn’t ailing then. Perhaps he re-aggravated it and is trying to avoid the surgery, or doesn’t even realize that he’s hurt (in that he isn’t in pain, but can’t physically do what he did before). The ST stats are a bit of a monkey wrench in the “still hurt” theory. Still, I think it’s entirely plausible that he’s really hurt and needs surgery.

What can be done

So where does that leave the Nats? Well, it leaves them with a second baseman who isn’t hitting right now. And they need to figure out if this is caused by #2 or #3, because it’s unlikely that it’s #1. If it’s #3, the answer is simple – strap him down and cut open his shoulder. He may not want to miss the time, or deal with the risk of the surgery, but if these stats are the result of an ailing shoulder, he isn’t a major league 2B without the operation.

If the answer is #2, well, that’s more complicated. Perhaps they need to just stick with him and let him play, although that hasn’t worked for close to two months already. Maybe they need to hire a specialist hitting coach to deal with him. Maybe they need a psychologist – while they’re at it, the doctor can talk to Zim about his throwing.

Or maybe he needs to be sent down to AAA to get his head right. He wouldn’t be the first young player to lose his ability to hit and get bussed down to the minor leagues. And if he breaks out of it and comes back, he certainly wouldn’t be the first to do that, either.

Is there a better option?

If Danny needs surgery, or some time in the minors, what are the options at 2B?

  • Steve Lombardozzi is the obvious choice, and will likely get his shot. Unfortunately, his hitting has been barely better than Espi’s. With some extended playing time instead of off and on fill-in time, it’s certainly quite possible he improves, but its quite possible that he never hits like he did last year again.  Even if he does, it’s probably not up to the caliber of a starting 2B. But it beats what Danny’s bringing at the moment.
  • Jeff Kobernus is tearing it up in AAA right now, and he’s certainly another option. The problem with Kobernus is he makes Lombardozzi look like a power hitter. Kobernus is currently hitting .331/.367/.416. It’s easy to see that 4 at the beginning of the SLG and figure there’s some power there, but it’s still a sub-.090 ISO. Go back to his normal .285-ish AVG and that SLG would drop back down to the .360 area, which are both his career numbers for those stats. He probably can’t do either in the majors, cause that’s usually the way it works. He doesn’t walk much, either, but as a temporary fill in he’d probably be ok. The Nats would probably prefer Lombo as the starter and Kobernus as the backup, unless they can catch Kobernus on a hot streak.
  • Anthony Rendon is probably the fan’s choice, but I’m not sure if it’s the team’s choice. Rendon already looks like he has outclassed the rest of AA, hitting .346/.482/.654 in 137 PAs. And while there was talk early in the season about him playing all over the diamond, he has played 5 games at 2B, which really isn’t that many. As a 2B, he’d probably have limited range compared to the others, but as a 2B he’d be a great hitter. His injury history, though, is scary. They are the kind of injuries that limit lateral mobility and make you think he’s at risk to be hurt again. So yeah, his bat would be the best of the bunch, including a good Espinosa, but could he play 2B and could he stay healthy there? That’s the real question, and I have serious doubts that we’d like the answer.

None of the options are perfect. I would guess if they have to do something immediately, they’d plug Lombardozzi in and call up Kobernus as the backup. They’d see how that played out and if it continued to be a disaster, they’d consider bringing up Rendon.

Although at that point, it might be the end of June, and they could consider trading for a 2B from one of the teams that are currently sitting at the bottom of their division. There aren’t too many choices that are appealing at the moment, although a 36 year old Mark Ellis is fresh off the DL, and would probably be pretty easy to get.

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