On Espinosa’s chances at cracking the Nats’ roster

If you take the time to consider which players within the Nationals organization benefit most from this week’s trade that brought Doug Fister to D.C. and shipped Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol and Robbie Ray to Detroit, there’s no doubt that Danny Espinosa’s name would be near, if not at, the top of the list.

As of Monday morning, Espinosa sat behind Lombardozzi on the Nats’ middle infield depth chart. Lombardozzi had established himself as a quality utility player on the major league roster, a guy who could play second base, third base and left field, could deliver in a pinch-hitting role, and would do whatever was asked of him and find a way to do it fairly well.

Espinosa, on the other hand, was a talented yet frustratingly inconsistent infielder, a guy with loads of potential but one coming off a massively disappointing 2013 season.

If you assume that Anthony Rendon will be the Nationals’ starting second baseman again in 2014, and you had to handicap the race for the backup middle infield job, Lombardozzi would have certainly been the favorite to take on that role yet again.

As of Monday evening, however, Lombardozzi is gone, now likely poised to back up Ian Kinsler in Detroit. And that certainly appears to open up a window for Espinosa to make the Nats’ 25-man roster out of spring in 2014.

A lot can happen between now and then, of course. The Nats will probably end up signing another experienced utility middle infielder that can compete with Espinosa in spring training, possibly a Justin Turner, Paul Janish or Omar Quintanilla, three guys who were non-tendered the other day. Heck, they could even shock the baseball world and sign Robinson Cano to a monster deal, totally shaking up their infield plans.

But as of right now, Espinosa is the clear favorite to back up Rendon and Ian Desmond. General manager Mike Rizzo made that clear the other day when speaking with reporters after the Fister trade.

This might frustrate some Nationals fans who feel that Espinosa hasn’t done enough to earn a spot on the Nats’ active roster for next season. After all, he’s coming off a year in which he hit .158/.193/.272 at the big league level and .216/.280/.286 at Triple-A Syracuse, with a combined 148 strikeouts and 23 walks at the two levels.

But there are a few things that Espinosa brings to the table that in some ways make him a solid candidate to win a spot on the Nats’ bench.

First of all, he can play second base and he can play shortstop. And he can play both positions at a very high level. Espinosa came up a shortstop, but moved to second in order to get his way into a big league lineup. He excelled at that spot, showing range and a cannon for an arm, and has shown that he can still pick it at a high level at short, as well. (Something that Lombardozzi could not do.) When needed to come in as a late-inning replacement for Rendon, or to fill in should Desmond or Rendon require a day off, Espinosa is a high-quality option from a defensive perspective, something Rizzo values.

Secondly, Espinosa has pretty good speed, despite being rather bulky for a middle infielder. He stole 20 bases in 26 tries in 2012, and swiped 17 bags in 23 attempts in 2011. Espinosa wouldn’t be an ideal candidate should the Nats need to swipe a bag in a key spot next season (he’s no Billy Hamilton, after all), but he does have pretty decent speed and has shown the ability to swipe bags at a pretty good rate.

OK, I know that many of you are now itching to bring up Espinosa’s offensive numbers and how he doesn’t hit enough to be a serviceable bench player. Some of you will point to the high strikeout numbers and say that a guy who failed to put the ball in play in 31 percent of his at-bats last season would be a liability coming off the bench.

Yes, those numbers are not ideal for someone who could be one of four pinch-hitting options for Matt Williams (excluding the backup catcher, who many managers try not to burn as a pinch-hitter in case the starting catcher is injured). But look at Janish’s .214/.284/.288 slash line during his six-year major league career. Quintanilla’s numbers (.221/.288/.296) aren’t much better.

Turner did hit .280/.319/.385 last season, but my guess is he’ll probably have a handful of teams competing to sign him as a backup, with a guaranteed roster spot waiting for him.

The point is, while Espinosa might not be an ideal utility guy off the bench, he does bring a few key qualities to the table. He plays top-notch defense at two positions up the middle, has pretty good base-stealing ability and has major league experience. And the Nats certainly hope that he’ll bounce back from an offensive perspective, showing the power that we saw in previous seasons, which could also make him a force off the bench.

In an ideal world, Espinosa might be best suited to play every day somewhere, allowing him to work on some things and get back on track offensively. That way he could build his stock back up and either become a viable trade chip for the Nats, or a candidate to step into the big league lineup should Rendon falter or Desmond get injured.

But it certainly appears the Nats are open to having Espinosa compete for their backup middle infielder job, and the 26-year-old’s skill-set doesn’t make him an awful candidate for that role.

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