In 2011 Danny Espinosa finished sixth in Rookie of the Year voting and was a 3.2 fWAR player. In 2012 he took a small step backwards offensively but was off the charts defensively and was a 3.4 fWAR player. As an offensive player his OPS was average to above for a second baseman and his defense was above average. He could also play short when needed and did so very well in 2012 when Ian Desmond spent a month on the DL. Add it all up and for two seasons Danny Espinosa was a decent offensive middle infielder and played above average defense at two positions.
The Nationals are currently in need of a utility infielder that can hit better and has more versatility than Steve Lombardozzi. In 2013 the Nationals considered Lombardozzi such a below average short stop and third baseman that they started Rendon and Chad Tracy at those positions when giving the starters days off. Rendon looked good at second base and the advanced stats agreed, but he is not a short stop. The Nationals organization deemed Rendon a better short stop than Steve Lombardozzi and as for third base Lombardozzi doesn’t have the arm for the position. Lombardozzi is also not a great offensive player. He can put the ball in play but the vast majority of the time it is a ground ball which doesn’t often lead to a hit. Combine his lack of power with his low walk rate and you have a player that struggles to get on base. Danny Espinosa had a horrid offensive season in 2013 but his career .698 OPS far outclasses Steve Lombardozzi’s .639.
Now a .698 OPS isn’t starter quality for even a middle infielder, but Rendon showed flashes of his potential in 2013 and remains a player projected to one day win a batting title. Rendon has a line drive swing with power to all fields and excellent plate discipline. When it comes to the second base job it is lost to Danny Espinosa, but that doesn’t mean he still can’t be a useful player for the Nationals. He is still pre-arbitration eligible and will only be making between $500,000.00 and $600,000.00 in 2014. Utility infielders don’t cost a lot but why spend a couple million to bring in Willie Bloomquist and his .666 career OPS when the Nats have a player under control who has better career numbers and if healthy has the potential to be even better.
When thinking about the construction of the bench keep in mind that the average NL team used 1.5 pinch hitters a game and that the average OPS of a pinch hitter in the NL was .622. The standard for a pinch hitter isn’t high, but a utility infielder’s primary role on the bench isn’t to be a pinch hitter. A good bench will have a left and right handed power hitters with defensive liabilities that are the pinch hitters and because of their defensive liabilities they need a fourth outfielder that can play three outfield positions to an average or above degree and a utility infielder that can play three infield positions to an average or above degree. As far as defense goes Danny Espinosa has proven he can play second and short to an above average level at the majors and he has both the range and arm for third base.
Having Danny Espinosa as the utility infielder comes with some risks. It is as of yet unknown if he is healthy and his 2013 numbers are so far below average that they aren’t even good enough for a defensive first bench role, but considering Espinosa an option and handing him the job are two very different things. Espinosa should have the chance to compete for the role in 2014 and the Nats should sign a few utility infielders to minor league deals as well as invite in-house candidates Jeff Kobernus and Zach Walters to Spring Training. If Danny Espinosa is healthy then he is the best option, and if that is the case it is possible to imagine him getting 400 at bats with a .710-.740 OPS and 10-15 homeruns. Those numbers are very good for a bench player and combined with his defense could see him be as much as a 2.0 fWAR player for the Nats. That might not sound like much but consider that Lombardozzi was a -0.7 fWAR player in 2013 and three extra wins is nothing to scoff at, especially when coming off the bench. Danny Espinosa is not the starting second baseman for the Nationals, but that doesn’t mean he still can’t be a very important and integral player for them moving forward.