VIERA, Fla. - Matt Williams’ comments yesterday about the Nationals having an “open competition” this spring between Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa for the team’s starting second base job seemingly drew a lot of attention from fans.
Rendon came up as a rookie last season, adapted on the fly to a position he had barely played since Little League, and fared pretty well. He improved at second base as the season went on and showed some offensive promise, despite the fact he made his big league debut before his 23rd birthday.
Espinosa, on the other hand, had an awful start to the 2013 season offensively, was demoted to Triple-A, and struggled there as he battled through a fractured wrist.
In reality, though, the Nationals are probably handling things correctly by publicly declaring their second base job up for grabs. Espinosa needs to come into spring with the proper mindset and belief that the organization stands behind him, and the Nats telling him that he has a chance to win his job back puts Espinosa in the right place mentally. He can now come in focused and can try and heed Williams’ advice about relaxing and just letting himself play.
The Nats will get Espinosa a lot of playing time this spring, both so that he can try and work past all that went wrong last season, and so that other teams can get a look at him. Espinosa is a plus defender at both second base and short, and if he has a strong spring, the trade interest in him (which was already pretty strong this offseason) could increase. The Nats also see Espinosa as a possible utility infielder should Rendon start on opening day, and they want to give him time at a few infield positions this spring, third base included.
If Espinosa has a dynamite spring and Rendon regresses, Espinosa could certainly end up as the starting second baseman on opening day. But if the gap between the two is not too significant this spring, Rendon will likely be the guy. Williams might not say that the job is Rendon’s to lose right now, but after the 2013 that Rendon had, I find it hard to believe that he isn’t the favorite in the eyes of Williams and general manager Mike Rizzo.
Just because Williams declared this an “open competition” doesn’t mean that it’s truly 50-50 on who starts at second base on opening day.
One guy who will line up alongside Rendon and Espinosa during second base drills this spring is Jamey Carroll, who signed a minor league deal with the Nats this offseason.
The 39-year-old infielder reported to camp a couple of days ago, but he didn’t need to travel too far to get to Space Coast Stadium. Carroll lives within a mile or two of the Nats’ spring complex.
Carroll, who was with the Nats during their first season in D.C. in 2005, cited a few reasons for wanting to return to the organization: his proximity to the team facility, being back in the National League and wanting to be a part of a winner, especially as his career winds down.
There’s also the opportunity that he has to win a roster spot. Like Espinosa, Carroll could end up becoming the Nats’ utility infielder, a position he is used to from his 12 years in the big leagues.
“I don’t think I would have signed if I didn’t think that would be the case, where if I have a good spring, it does work out,” Carroll said. “But it’s a matter of going out and playing and not giving them a reason not to not bring you along.”
Carroll’s experience and veteran presence makes him an attractive bench option for the Nats, who lacked experience on the bench early in 2013.
“I’ve played a while now, that could be an added bonus,” Carroll said. “I’ve learned over the last three or four years to really start helping out more and being more involved in that way, more than just worrying about myself and being out there and getting my work in. It’s been fun. I had that opportunity with some young guys last year in Minnesota, that seeing them start to have some success was rewarding in that way. So hopefully I can bring whatever it is that I’ve learned in this time (in the majors) and help out.
“You get in this game, you start to play long enough and you understand who was before you and who helped you. I think that’s a part of it. I think that’s what makes a good team is guys helping each other out with not only on-the-field stuff but off-the-field stuff. How to handle the mentality of it, because that’s a huge part of this game. In Minnesota, there were guys who asked a lot of questions, and you sat down and talked about it. And you realized, heck, you may know more than you really thought. And then talking about it helps you understand it even more, too. So yeah, that’s hopefully something that I can add to the table.”
One other thing Carroll brings to the table is his success as a pinch-hitter over his career. Carroll has a ridiculous .339/.417/.397 slash line as a pinch-hitter, and for a Nats team that really lacked a quality bench presence last season, those numbers look pretty attractive.
Carroll might be getting up there in years at this point, and he didn’t exactly have the best 2013 season from an offensive perspective, hitting .211/.267/.251 in 73 games between the Twins and Royals, but he still feels he has plenty left in the tank. As a guy capable of playing second base, shortstop, third base and even a little outfield, Carroll brings versatility from a defensive perspective, and he feels good entering yet another spring.
“I measure myself at the end of every offseason, and I’m still right there with everything I’ve done before,” Carroll said. “Just another reason why I wanted to continue to play. I felt like I can contribute in some way, some form. But I feel pretty good, and as long as I do that, I’m excited about it.”