What a Difference a Year Makes

Danny Espinosa was so incredibly bad in 2013 that his Baseball Prospectus WARP ranked 544th out of the 558 players that had 50 or more plate appearances. Keeping in mind that WARP is in essence a counting stat, and there were only 4 guys with fewer PAs than him that were lower on the list, you could make the case that he was the 5th worst position player in all of baseball last year.

Espinosa is very excited it's 2014, not longer 2013

Espinosa is very excited it is 2014, not 2013

There was talk that he was hurt. There were denials. Some of us suggested maybe it was his torn rotator cuff, and without surgery, he’d never get better. He went down to the minors and stunk up the joint. Then we learned he had a broken wrist for most of the season. It’s all a bit much, so forgive me for not knowing what to expect from him this year.

The spring brought us news from camp that he and Anthony Rendon were going to battle for the second base spot. I’m not sure anyone truly believed that, and Rendon is hitting a lofty .316/.352/.544 right now, so its a good thing he didn’t get benched. But the Nats were on to something when they said Espinosa was starting to look like his old self.

He hit an effortless looking home run last night in Houston, and he’s now hitting .288/.341/.488, which compares, let’s say favorably, to the .173/.212/.333 he was hitting on May 1, 2013. It’s the third best OPS among qualified NL 2Bs, and he’s behind two guys with unsustainable averages about .340. His numbers, while they may sink a bit, look entirely real.

He’s an asset now, not the liability he was at this time last year. When you think about how good of a fielder he is, he’s showing that he could be a starting-caliber shortstop, let alone second baseman. It’s an incredible recovery for a guy who played a significant role in the Nats missing the playoffs by only a few games last year. And if they make it this year, he will a big part of the reason.

What Next

The question now, for Espinosa, is what to do with him when Ryan Zimmerman does come back? Some suggest to start him at shortstop. The way Ian Desmond is playing right now, it’s tempting to say the Espi should slot in to his spot. But while Espinosa’s numbers are nice, it’s hard to imagine them getting significantly better.

Desi, on the other hand, was essentially the best hitting SS in baseball over the last two years. By measures of value (VORP, fWAR, etc.) he was the only guy in the top 5 of MLB shortstops in both seasons. Fangraphs ranked him #3 in WAR last year, #2 the year before. So while he’s in an awful slump right now, he’s got a track record that suggests he’s a better hitter than Espi. It would probably take at least another month of this poor hitting to make them seriously consider that move.

Another possibility is to try to trade him. According to Bill Ladsen, “at least a dozen teams” expressed interest in Espi during the offseason, but the Nats wouldn’t bite. As a buy-low project, he might have garnered more interest due to his assumed price, but as a good hitting middle infielder, there should still be plenty of interest even with a higher price.  The Nats should be careful, though, with the age of the corner guys, the injury history of Rendon, and the current struggles of Desmond. They’ll almost certainly want to keep Espinosa as insurance.

So for 2014, once Zimmerman comes back, Espinosa will probably be a bit of a super sub. He can certainly play middle infield whenever Desi or Rendon needs a break. Zimmerman will need the occasional off day to rest his shoulder, and LaRoche will probably continue to sit against tougher lefties. How they shift the infield around depending on who’s out doesn’t matter that much, what’s important is that Espinosa gets some ABs.

The secondary benefit of this, besides that safe feeling that if someone gets hurt you have a backup that you aren’t so worried about, is the ability to rest the other guys. It’s a long season, and guys like Zim and LaRoche will benefit form some time off. Desmond and Rendon, too, shouldn’t need to play every day, especially if the team wants to be fresh in October.

Barring any setbacks, this also should make it pretty clear what the Nats infield could look like next year. LaRoche has a $15M option, and despite how well he’s playing right now, it might not make the most sense to pick it up. An infield of Zim at first, with Espinosa, Desmond and Rendon looks pretty great. Then again, maybe they could get real trade value for Espinosa at that point and would choose to go that route.

Whatever the decision is, Danny Espinosa has made an incredible recovery. He’s come back from being, essentially, one of the 5 worst players in baseball, to a strong defensive middle infielder with a very good bat. It’s a long way from May 1, 2013.

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