Welcome to Get To Know A Nat. Thrice a week we will showcase a different Washington National expected to be on the 25 man roster come opening day (as well as a few others that may be on the cusp of making the team). By the end of Spring Training we hope you’ll have a good understanding of just who the guys taking the field at Nationals Park will be, what will be expected of them, and what to be looking for throughout the year.
Name: Daniel Richard Espinosa
DOB: April 25, 1987
Twitter?: Not currently
From: Santa Ana, California
Position: Second Base / Shortstop / Third Base? Role: Utility Infielder Hand: Switch Hitter; throws Righty
With the Nats Since: Drafted by the team in 2008, Debuted in 2010, Finished 2013 in AAA
Just Who Is this guy?: Does anyone really know Danny Espinosa? So much talent. Such a hard worker. Such comprehensive failure. Check out last year’s GTKAN on Danny here to remember a time before it all went so bad.
What Happened in 2013?: Espinosa was arguable the worst major league hitter for the 44 games he “graced” the Bigs. wRC+ tells us how a hitter measures up against everyone else in the league – 100 being average. Espinosa’s 2013 wRC+ was 23. You don’t have to know anything about that stat (but if you’d like to know more click here) to know 23 is terrible if 100 is average. Last year’s GTKAN on Espi mentioned his injured shoulder and wrist as potential reasons for a slight decrease in production.
It’s a year later and I wish I had more to tell you regarding those injuries, but we don’t. He doesn’t need surgery, and for all intents and purposes, he claims to be healthy. So since that’s his line, his agent’s line and the team’s line, that will be our line too. I guess I just want to give him the benefit of the doubt because Espi was not a MLB caliber hitter last year. (Okay, so now the truth – he tells Mark Zuckerman he was, in fact, hurt last year despite his repeated denials and is ready to reclaim his starting role. Alrighty then.) In fact, with a -0.6 WAR, he wasn’t even a replacement level MLB player in ’13. He was a hell of a defender though. According to UZR/150, he was one of the league’s best (12.2 UZR/150) at second base, for the time he was out there. For him to end up with a negative WAR only underscores how tremendously terrible he was at the plate. So…
What’s Expected: Who the hell knows? Mike Rizzo certainly doesn’t. Will the dynamic, power-hitting, spark plug from 2011 show up, or will the sharp decline to irrelevance continue? Anthony Rendon seems entrenched at second after taking over for Espi last year, but Danny can still provide value as a defensive replacement – his arm is the unquestioned best on the infield, if not the strongest on the team. Two weeks ago, he looked like a lock to make the team, but the recent minor league signings of orginial Nat Jamey Carroll, Mike Fontenot and Emmanuel Burriss will make him work for it. Make no mistake – Espinosa is the most talented of the bunch and is, by far, the best defender. With any improvement whatsoever in the hitting department, he’ll make the team as the utility infielder and primary backup for Desmond, Rendon and even Zimmerman.
His inability to hit the curveball doomed his 2012 season. In 2013, he couldn’t hit the fast ball either. In fact, pitchers began throwing him more fastballs and cutters and less curveballs and changeups, yet his success diminished. A quick look at his pitch values on Fangraphs shows us a steady decline against the fastball leading up to last year. His wFB, or runs above average against the fastball, for the last three years, has dropped steadily from 8.8 in ’11 to 3.3 in ’12 before falling to -8.1 last year. That explains why he went from seeing 51.3% fastballs up to 57.4% – ’cause he was getting owned. Perhaps most troubling though is the drop in line-drives and homers. His line-drive percentage dropped from a career high of 18.9% down to 10.1%. His homers per flyballs (HR/FB) percentage also dropped from 12.6% to 7.1%. Those are two leading indicators that Danny just wasn’t hitting the ball as hard as he had been. (Which makes sense if his wrist was broken.) His K% was actually slightly lower in ’13 than ’12 but his walk rate plummeted from 7% to 2.4% from the year before, and that shouldn’t have anything to do with his health.
Despite pretty much every metric being in steep decline, Espinosa does have one stat on his side – age. He’ll only be 26 on opening day and he’s just entering his prime. Turnarounds like the one Danny needs are rare, but the talent is still there. If he can be
somewhat healthier than last year and begin hitting the ball harder, he can be serviceable as a right-handed hitter off the bench where his career wOBA is .50 points higher and his wRC+ is 34 points higher. His defense is elite, which is why he’s posted two season of over 3.0 WAR – above average production. It wasn’t that long ago that people (like me) thought he had more upside than Ian Desmond and it’s that upside that the Nats are hopeful he can recapture – albeit in a limited role. Baseball seasons are long and injuries can happen to anyone. Every starter on the infield has missed significant time to injury during their careers so Danny Espinosa could very well get another opportunity at an everyday role. But who knows if he’ll be ready?
If It All Goes Wrong: The promising days of a power-hitting, defensive dynamo who can mash from both sides of the plate fade into a distant memory and all we’re left with is the shell of the player who we once knew as Danny Espinosa. Espi continues to strikeout at will, fails to hit with any power and ends up back in Syracuse while Jamey Carroll or some other has-been or never-was takes his spot. He’s then traded for a single A reliever with limited upside and begins the journeyman phase of his career until injuries or age rob him of his excellent defense and he ends up out of baseball for good by the time he’s 30. Grim stuff.
What If It All Goes Right: Danny regains strength in his arms and wrists, regains power and makes the team as the backup infielder in Spring Training. He provides excellent defense and begins getting starts against tough left-handers, allowing Zim to go to First and Rendon to Third, upgrading the defense all around (in theory). Then, perhaps through chance or circumstance, he’ll get a chance to play every day and he proves himself to be the 3 WAR player he used to be and reaffirms his status as a MLB-quality starting middle infielder. If everyone stays healthy, then Espi gives the team plenty of late inning options, both during the regular season and especially in the playoffs (God willing).
If Rendon turns out to be as good as we all hope, Espinosa’s days as a Nat could be numbered even if he has the career resurrection we all hope is possible. Quality Major League Shortstops are in rare supply and if Espi can remember how to hit at his old standards – I’m talking low average, high power, and lots of strikeouts – then the Nats can get something of quality back for him due to his excellent defense. As it now, Espi is worth more to the Nats in hopes of fixing him than on the trade market so that’s why I think he’ll be a Nat all year.
Chances are, Danny will get a chance to prove himself at some point this season. That’s just the nature of baseball. I hope last year was some kind of outlier but after years of waiting for an improvement that never came, I’m firmly in the see-it-believe-it category with Espi. He’s got a ton of talent, still has time on his side and he’s just too good of a player to completely collapse. At least I hope. All reports are that Danny is a good guy who works hard and I hope he’s able to figure it all out. Both for his sake as well as the Nationals.