Especially when Bryce Harper returned to the lineup June 30, Espinosa was relegated to the bench for spot duty in the late innings on defense or a pinch-hit appearance here and there.
General manager Mike Rizzo has fielded calls from prospective teams in search of an infielder like Espinosa. A switch-hitter with outstanding defensive skills could fit in nicely as a starter for several teams rebuilding or surging to the postseason.
But Espinosa has huge value to the Nationals. He is a plus-plus defender at shortstop and second base. He can back up Anthony Rendon and Ian Desmond especially in critical moments when the team needs a big out or solid defense against a hot-hitting contender.
Usually there is a dropoff for other teams when they head to their bench. Most utility players can get by for an inning or two, but it usually hurts the most when you use that backup player for a longer period of time and his weaknesses are exposed.
Playoff teams need a player like Espinosa come crunch time. So many teams covet a player with his skills to be that final piece as they make that pennant run.
But the Nationals already have Espinosa in their pocket. Although he hasn’t played that much the past three weeks, he showed what he was capable of with a run-scoring double and and an RBI triple Monday in the 7-2 series-opening win over Colorado. His bat speed clocked at 101 mph and 102 mph.
Rizzo never pulled the trigger on a deal involving Espinosa last season because the return on investment was never good enough. Espinosa was just too valuable.
Now with third baseman Ryan Zimmerman out with what appears to be a hamstring injury, Espinosa’s value becomes paramount to the Nationals as they continue their 11-5 July run.
There are few defenders that work the glove better than Espinosa. He has great chemistry with Desmond and Adam LaRoche in working the bases on grounders and double play relays.
His splits against left-handed and right-handed pitchers have been well-documented. This season, he is hitting .271 versus lefties and .191 versus righties. He still needs to work on not going after bad pitches. But Monday’s demonstration of offensive power harkens back to late 2012, when he surged at the plate to help the Nationals win their first pennant.
Now, Rizzo and company have once again been rewarded for their patience in not dealing Espinosa. The former Long Beach State infielder has also had his patience tested. He will now be rewarded with a lot more playing time. With Zimmerman down, Espinosa represents a critical part of what the Nationals need to take the National League East again. His value is at its highest point.