Danny Espinosa shows his value on defense

Though the Nationals believe Danny Espinosa has the chance to be a solid offensive player in the major leagues, a disruptive force who can take pitches and hit 15-20 homers a year, he’s going through the pains of learning to deal with big league pitching in his first full season.

Espinosa went 1-for-3 Saturday night against the Marlins, but that only served to raise his average to .223. He entered Saturday in a 5-for-44 skid, and had struck out 17 times in his last 18 games before Saturday.

But manager Jim Riggleman has said Espinosa - and to a lesser extent, shortstop Ian Desmond - would earn their keep in the majors early in their careers with their defense. And even while he’s not hitting, Espinosa is showing he belongs with the way he’s playing in the field.

His Ultimate Zone Rating before Saturday’s game was a run above replacement, and though that stat should be taken with a grain of salt because of the small sample size, Espinosa backed it up with some on-field evidence on Saturday.

He made an impressive sprawling catch in the third inning to rob Hanley Ramirez of a base hit, getting a pat from right fielder Jayson Werth as the two ran off the field. In the sixth, he ranged to his left and made a sliding stop of a Ramirez grounder before spinning and throwing out the speedy Emilio Bonifacio at second base. And in the eighth, he leapt to snare a rising liner from Bonifacio to end the inning.

The Nationals expect Espinosa to come around at the plate at some point, and they love his gritty approach to the game; he crowds the plate, and leads the league with five hit-by-pitches already. But it’s his glove that’s going to be his main asset right now. He came up as a shortstop, and has some of the best range in the league at second base. And with Desmond starting to clean up his fielding, the Nationals could see their ideal of an athletic middle infield come to fruition.