I don’t want to exaggerate but I’ve probably said it no less than a million times – Danny Espinosa is the team’s best defensive infielder, and he kills left handed pitching. In 2014 he hit .301/.374/.485 against them, albeit in only 115 PAs. For his career, too, he’s hit .273/.343/.460 against them.
A career OPS over 800 is enticing, but his numbers against righties are so bad that he can’t be a full time player right now. Well, that’s not necessarily true – his 645 OPS vs RHP is actually a tick above Alcides Escobar’s, who is the starting SS in the World Series this year. But, well, that doesn’t make it good.
So there’s a whole lot of chatter about trying to make Danny stop switch hitting, perhaps that would help his RHP troubles. I’m all for this, I think Espi, if he could manage even a 700 OPS against RHP, becomes a very good player. But there is, unfortunately, no guarantee. And if they make the switch, they won’t know what he can do until a month or two into next season. That’s too late if it doesn’t work.
Hedging Their Bets
One possibility is to get some Danny insurance. They could pick up a guy that can hit RHP, and make an old fashioned platoon. If they find the right guy, he’s good against righties but can’t hit lefties, so his numbers look worse than they’d be as a platoon player, and he might be undervalued.
One thing to keep in mind is that person would, if Danny can’t hit RHP after becoming a pure right handed hitter, start more than half the games. Therefore, whoever gets this role is expected to be able to start 2/3 of the games in the infield. A guy like Skip Schumaker, who can technically play 2B, is more of an outfielder now, and probably wouldn’t work as a platoon-sharing infielder.
I’m not going to list guys that might fit statistical bill but are really full time starters. In this scenario we’re not going for an Espi replacement, we’re going for a platoon guy. Also, besides 2Bs, it’s worth looking at shortstops, of course – insurance for Espinosa with another SS, if it works out, can allow the Nats flexibility to move the duo to SS in 2016, if they don’t keep Ian Desmond. It also makes sense to look at 3Bs. If need be, on the days this guy needs to play, Anthony Rendon could move to 2B.
Free Agent/Trade targets
Marco Scutaro – A .740 OPS against RHP over the last 5 seasons is pretty nice, but he’s going to be 39 years old (he was the 7th oldest player in the league in 2014), and he’s got some chronic back issue that’s kept him on the DL since mid-July. The Giants have to pay him for one more season, though, so he’s probably someone the Nats could get pretty easily in a trade.
Lonnie Chisenhall – This season, his first as a full timer, his OPS was .782 against RHP, much better than his .729 against LHP. For his career, his .742 vs RHP looks much better than his OPS vs LHP at .668. As a 25 year old in 2014, this is likely the line of an improving young player who is starting to look like a maybe starter. But those numbers aren’t exactly great for a corner infielder, they’re just serviceable. His relative offensive production for his position should make him a relatively tradable asset.
Juan Francisco – Francisco isn’t quite as young of a guy, he’ll be 28 next year, so don’t expect too much more improvement. His career .236/.297/.439 numbers are pretty abysmal, but his .248/.310/.476 line versus RHP are actually pretty good. The split was even more pronounced in 2014, where he had an .810 OPS versus RHP and was so bad versus LHPs (.390 OPS) that he only managed 49 PAs. He is still under Toronto’s control, but could probably be had without giving up too much.
Conor Gillaspie – Another journeyman-type under team control, Gillaspie has now been the most-of-the-time starter at 3B for the White Sox for two seasons. In that time, he’s hit .265/.322/.404, another line that’s just too low for the position. And he’s going to be 27 this year, so while improvement may be in order, it probably won’t be too much. Against righties, though, his numbers look better, with a .773 OPS over his last two seasons. Versus lefties, it’s been a measly .522.
Didi Gregorius – Gregorius had an awful offensive season in 2014, hitting .226/.290/.363, and the Diamondbacks have some other options there, so even though he’s young and under control for a while, he might be had relatively cheaply. And he has a .743 OPS career versus righties, even last year he had a .706 OPS against them. The OBP wasn’t good, but .247/.304/.402 he hit vs RHP actually ranked middle of the pack compared with overall 2B performance. So if he improves at all from 2014, and platoons with Espi, it’s a pretty strong bat.
Stephen Drew – If Gregorius’ season was awful in 2014, Drew’s was disastrous. He’s a lefty, and his OPS vs. RHP last year was 200 points higher than against LHP… but it was still awful. If that was just one bad year, since he’s only 31, then he could be useful. Over the last 5 years, he’s hit .256/.335/.425 against righties, and in 2013 he was great against them, hitting .284/.377/.498. This is probably as unrepeatable as his 2014 season – if there is reason to believe he’s able to hit somewhere in the middle, he could be a great platoon partner.
Brad Miller – Another so-far-unimpressive offensive player, Miller has a career .241/.302/.365 line in two seasons. But he’s got a .724 OPS against righties, and it looks like the young left handed hitter he can be useful against them. He wasn’t atop the Mariners depth chart, but essentially backed up 2B and SS, so he’s gotten a little over 300 PA in each of his two seasons. He wouldn’t go for starter value, and looks like he could handle the platoon role.
The Path Forward
The obvious target – a platoon partner at second base – isn’t that promising. Scutaro is at an age where you’d be wary of his abilities to perform the role, especially with his injury concerns. At third base, there are some options, but it’s not ideal to have to move Rendon back and forth all season. It’s not a bad scenario, it’s just not the best scenario.
If the Nats do decide to go this route, pursuing one of the young shortstops first seems to be the best choice. Both Gregorius and Miller could provide good platoon insurance for Espinosa, if moving to a full time RH hitter doesn’t work, assuming that’s the way they go. And additionally, it gives them more flexibility to deal with the impending end of Ian Desmond’s contract.