With his 3-for-5 performance yesterday, including a two-run homer and a triple that came inches from leaving the park, Danny Espinosa did more to burnish his Rookie of the Year credentials. He looks like the favorite in the National League this year, leading all NL rookies in homers (17), RBIs (55), Wins Above Replacement (3.7) and slugging percentage (.472). He could get a run from the Braves’ Craig Kimbrel, but it seems difficult to see a closer beating out a position player.
He’s also become the Nationals’ long-term answer at a position where they’ve essentially been searching for one since they came to town.
They started Jose Vidro for 87 games in 2005, but he missed a third of the season with a sprained ankle, and missed more time later with a knee injury, leading them to fill in with substitutes like Jamey Carroll and Junior Spivey. Vidro played 126 games the next year, but was traded to Seattle after the season, and that’s when things really became unsettled.
The Nationals tried veterans like Felipe Lopez and Ronnie Belliard in 2007 and 2008, but those players either got injured or became malcontents, leading the Nationals to try and find a solution with untested youngsters like Anderson Hernandez, Emilio Bonifacio and Alberto Gonazlez. When those players flopped, the Nationals mostly started utilityman Willie Harris in 2009, and last year, they moved shortstop Cristian Guzman there, rotating him with veteran Adam Kennedy in an arrangement that pleased no one.
There have been a few positions where the Nationals have come up woefully short in looking for a long-term solution, and to this point, second base has probably been behind only center field on that list. The reason it’s not any more is because of what Espinosa’s doing; he’s played superb defense, and though the Nationals thought he might have double-digit power, he’s surpassing expectations there, too.
His weighted on-base average of .357 is sixth among major league second basemen who have enough at-bats to qualify for the league leaders; he trails only Brewers All-Star Rickie Weeks in the NL. And in Wins Above Replacement, he’s also sixth in the majors and second in the NL. He’s hitting .226 from the left side, which hurts his average because he’s facing so many right-handed pitchers, but as he develops into a more complete switch hitter, his numbers should only rise.
The Nationals have made a point of trying to build their team up the middle; center field is still a question, and Ian Desmond still has some things to prove at shortstop. But in Espinosa and catcher Wilson Ramos, the Nationals look like they might have long-term answers. That’s more important than whether or not Espinosa wins Rookie of the Year - and he’s in position to do that, too.