Williams: Starting second base job is up for grabs

VIERA, Fla. - Danny Espinosa said at NatsFest last month that he had been told by general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Matt Williams that he would have a chance this spring to - as he phrased it - win his starting second base job back.

Today, Williams essentially confirmed that, saying that the Nationals will have an "open competition" for the second base job between Espinosa and Anthony Rendon this spring.

"That's all you can say about it at this point," Williams said. "They haven't even taken their first grounder officially yet. But I think that it's good to have competition in spring. It makes guys come into camp ready and they're both going to be competing. And I think that's a good thing. So there's no favorite at this point. We're going to give them both ample opportunity to become the starter and we'll see where we go."

Espinosa's struggles last season are well-documented. He hit .158/.193/.272 with the Nats before landing on the disabled list with a fractured wrist, and then subsequently was demoted to Triple-A Syracuse. The offensive issues continued at Syracuse, where Espinosa hit .216 and struck out 101 times in 283 at-bats. He was not called up by the Nats when rosters expanded in September.

Rendon was promoted to the majors after Espinosa was sent down, and stepped in as the Nats' everyday second baseman despite minimal previous experience playing the position. He handled the job nicely, considering the circumstances, and hit .265/.329/.396 with seven homers and 35 RBIs in 98 big league games.

Despite the contrast in the seasons that Espinosa and Rendon put up in 2013, the Nats still want to leave things open for Espinosa this spring. Their belief in his ability hasn't changed, and they feel he has the potential to help them in a number of ways this season.

"First, we know Danny has the capability of playing Gold Glove-caliber defense," Williams said. "He can hit 20 balls out of the ballpark a year and he can be competitive in every at-bat. I've been that guy, so I understand him. Way back early in my career, I had some pretty good years and then had a really bad one. And so I understand what that feels like. So I asked him to relax and play and let him know how valuable he is to our club and what he can do on an everyday basis to help this team win.

"Often times, we need to be reminded of how good we are. I think he's a really good player. So that's all I've told him. I asked him to just simply play. He's going to get a lot of playing time in spring, he's going to play multiple positions and I'm going to write his name in the lineup and let it fly and see what happens."

As far as the "multiple positions" thing goes, Williams wants to get Espinosa playing time at second base this spring, but he also wants to see a lot of him at short, which is his natural position and the one he primarily played coming up through the minor league ranks. Espinosa could end up seeing some time at third base, as well.

"It's important (that he gets time at short)," Williams said. "Again, he's one of our guys that can play short. You never know, going through the season, how things are going to go. If Danny's on the club, then he's going to get some time at short, certainly. Ian (Desmond) needs days off. He'll certainly play some second base, of course. I told him my hope is to get him a lot of at-bats, if he makes the club, to give guys days and insert him and match him up and all of those things.

"I just think he's very valuable for us and I just want him to relax and play."

Espinosa isn't the only infielder that Williams talked up today. He also has nothing but good things to say about Rendon, who he managed in the fall of 2012 in the Arizona Fall League.

"Last year it was a little bit rushed for him," Williams said. "He had his wisdom teeth pulled and then had a few days of second base before he got to the big leagues. Otherwise he played third most of the time. So I think he did a great job of adjusting on the fly. It's not easy. So I think he can play (second and third base) and be good at both, which is a good thing. The need last year was for somebody to come up and play second and he handled it fine. I think he did really well his first year in the big leagues and we look for more of that."

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