With shortstop open at last, Espinosa wants to seize job

VIERA, Fla. - There was a time, about five years ago, when a good number of people who followed the Nationals on a daily basis believed their starting shortstop should not be Ian Desmond, but rather Danny Espinosa.

Espinosa, many thought, was a far superior defensive shortstop than Desmond. And at that time, he was thought of as a better offensive threat, a switch-hitter who could both drive the ball over the fence while also showing impressive patience at the plate.

That, of course, isn't how everything played out. Then-manager Davey Johnson believed in Desmond as his shortstop and watched as he blossomed into a three-time Silver Slugger Award winner, a Gold Glove Award finalist and an All-Star in 2012.

Espinosa, meanwhile, became the Nationals second baseman. He excelled defensively, but fell into some bad habits at the plate, ultimately losing his regular playing time to the likes of Asdrubal Cabrera and Anthony Rendon.

espinosa-grey-fielding-col-sidebar.jpgNow, all these years later, with Desmond a free agent, the shortstop job is open. And Espinosa wants to seize it before anyone else can.

"It's exciting for me," the 28-year-old said. "It's where I've wanted to be. Desi is a good friend, and he had a lot of good years with us. But the fact that I get an opportunity now, I'm excited for it."

Though 522 of his 607 career major league appearances have come at second base, Espinosa has always considered himself a natural shortstop. It's the position he played growing up in Southern California, the position he played at Long Beach State (where he replaced Troy Tulowitzki), the position he played as he ascended through the Nationals' farm system.

It wasn't until he was on the cusp of reaching the majors in Sept. 2010 that Espinosa shifted to second base, with Desmond starting to entrench himself at shortstop. He quickly became a master at his new position, possessing an arm that rivaled any other second baseman in the game. But even five years later, there remains a familiarity with the other side of the diamond that simply doesn't exist elsewhere.

"It's home for me," Espinosa said. "When you have a guy in your natural position, I think that just helps your entire game. When you're comfortable playing, you feel comfortable in all aspects. That's how I'm looking at it. Not to say that I was uncomfortable at second, but you're just going to be more comfortable where you've always played."

Espinosa hardly is being handed the starting job this spring. Trea Turner is the organization's top prospect among position players, and it's widely assumed he'll become the Nationals' long-term starting shortstop at some point in 2016, perhaps as soon as opening day. The club also signed veteran Stephen Drew over the winter, and new manager Dusty Baker says he'll look at all three players "with eyes wide open."

Espinosa insists he's comfortable with the situation.

"I think first and foremost we're here to compete and see where that goes," he said. "For me, it's competing to get the job. ... I have no problem with it."

Make no mistake, though: Espinosa believes he should play every day. He was rejuvenated last season, with a shortened left-handed swing that earned him regular playing time for months. He started 81 of the Nationals' first 97 games, hitting .250 with a .321 on-base percentage and .733 OPS. Then, once Rendon was healthy down the stretch, Espinosa started only 14 of the Nationals' final 65 games, during which time he hit a scant .197 with a .266 on-base percentage and .660 OPS.

Whether there was correlation to it or not, the Nationals did enjoy significantly more success with Espinosa in the lineup. They were 54-41 in games he started, 29-38 in games he came off the bench.

"When I was playing every day, my average was better," he said. "I think I was floating in the .260s there, and I was happy with that. I was putting the ball in play a lot more. I was walking. For that part of the season, I was very happy."

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