What Happens if Danny Espinosa Wins his Job Back
Today at Natsfest Danny Espinosa said he was promised the chance to compete for the starting second base job in Spring Training and in his opinion if given that opportunity he will win his job back. Given how poorly Espinosa performed in 2013 and how Anthony Rendon seemingly saved the position from total ruin it sounds impossible, but baseball isn't built on recency bias. Rendon's .265/.329/.396 batting line is good for a second baseman but it isn't too much different than Danny Espinosa's .242/.319/.408 batting line from 2011-2012. Over those two season's Danny Espinosa was one of the top second basemen in baseball racking up a 6.6 fWAR and ranking as the sixth best second baseman in baseball.
Much of this was based on Danny Espinosa's defensive ability but his .727 OPS ranked twelfth among second basemen and was over the average MLB OPS for the position of .694 in 2011 and .689 in 2012. Danny Espinosa was an above average hitting second baseman in both 2011 and 2012. When that was paired with his defense it made him one of the best second basemen in baseball. The casual fan had issues with this because they didn't count defense as important, couldn't wrap their head around the concept of positional scarcity, and struggled to realize that strikeouts are just another form of outs. When it comes right down to it in 2013 Danny Espinosa was awful, and because of that both recency bias and confirmation bias took hold and the call to get rid of Danny Espinosa was answered when he went on the DL and Anthony Rendon took his spot.
The simple fact of Anthony Rendon's 2013 is that his final numbers were very Espinosa like. The Nats essentially replaced an injured Danny Espinosa with a healthy Espinosa. Rendon didn't strikeout as much but those extra in play outs didn't amount to as much as casual fans would have you believe. I know you don't want to believe me but in 33 opportunities to make a productive out Anthony made that productive out 30% of the time. For his career when given the opportunity for a productive out Danny Espinosa has done it 25% of the time. I refuse to call making a productive out a success since making an out isn't a successful conclusion to a plate appearance and what really matters is getting on base, and when it comes to that Anthony Rendon and healthy Danny Espinosa are virtual equals as the batting lines of the previous paragraphs prove.
If Anthony Rendon doesn't look like he is ready to take an immediate step forward on offense in 2014 and Danny Espinosa proves he is healthy in Spring Training then they are virtually the same player offensively, and on defense Espinosa is vastly superior. Anthony Rendon clearly has the higher upside and will be an important part of the Nationals future, but if he isn't improving as the season begins then a healthy Danny Espinosa is the better option for second base. That leaves the question of what happens to Rendon and there are a couple options. With his ability to play second, third, and short if necessary Rendon could be the utility infielder and he would be close to the best utility infielder in baseball, but this isn't the best option for his development. The better option for Anthony Rendon is to play every day at AAA and continue to improve as a player.
There is a third option however. It has already been mentioned that Ryan Zimmerman will be playing some first base this season, and if both Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa have an impressive Spring Training while LaRoche struggles then LaRoche could be traded at the end of Spring Training or go to the bench as a left handed bat. That would put Rendon at third and Zimmerman at first with Espinosa reclaiming his spot at second base, but consider that LaRoche had the worst full season of his career in 2013 and still managed to have a better OPS than either Espinosa or Rendon have ever put up in the majors. A middle infielder being as good a hitter as even a below average first baseman is very difficult, but as Anthony Rendon has the offensive upside of a corner infielder it isn't too hard to imagine him progressing to that level. When breaking down Rendon's splits from 2013 it is obvious that his .556 OPS in July did great harm to his overall numbers and if he can be as good as he was in his three other full months in the majors then he is a better line-up option than Adam LaRoche.
That makes Spring Training very interesting as Danny Espinosa isn't just competing with Anthony Rendon for the second base job. He is also competing with Adam LaRoche, and while it is unlikely that Danny Espinosa can out hit Adam LaRoche it is very easy to imagine Mike Rizzo and Matt Williams wanting their best defensive arrangement on the field, and when defense is considered then Danny Espinosa is the best option for second base. If he can get back to hitting like he did in 2011 and 2012 then he is a top six second baseman in baseball and gives the Nationals the best chance to win even if he is going to drive the casual fan nuts, but in the opinion of some that might be an added bonus. And given that Adam LaRoche highlights the free agent first baseman class of 2015 then the Nats best offensive and defensive arrangement for 2015 includes Rendon at third and Espinosa at second, and it is hard to imagine a negative with getting that line-up on the field one season early.