Point/Counterpoint: Espinosa as Nats utilityman?

Point/Counterpoint: Espinosa as Nats utilityman?
December 27, 2013, 2:00 pm
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THIS WEEK'S DEBATE: SHOULD THE NATIONALS MAKE DANNY ESPINOSA THEIR UTILITY INFIELDER, OR SHOULD THEY LOOK ELSEWHERE TO FILL THAT POSITION?

MARK ZUCKERMAN: This may be the unpopular answer, but I say the Nationals absolutely should give Espinosa a shot here. To me, the most important trait for a utility infielder is defense. And you aren't going to find anybody out there who's better in the field — at both second base and shortstop — than Espinosa. Yes, he'll still need to hit better than he did last season before (and, for that matter, after) his demotion, but we know it's in there somewhere. This is a guy who hit 21 homers in 2011, produced 37 doubles in 2012, gets hit by a lot of pitches and runs the bases well. The bar would be lower for Espinosa as a utilityman than as an everyday player. Maybe that would be good for him. Lower the expectations and he could yet prove quite valuable to the Nats.

CHASE HUGHES: I think Espinosa deserves a chance … to an extent. You can't knock his defense, but he was so bad at the plate last year — even at Class AAA — that it's hard to envision him contributing even at the level you expect from your bench. The Nats got so little from their reserves last season, they may want a guy in that role with more to offer offensively. I feel like a veteran option would be the smarter move here, at least one to have in the mix. I'm not saying they need a borderline starter like they have in Nate McLouth for the outfield, but a proven veteran would be nice. Plus, if Anthony Rendon struggles terribly in 2014, or gets hurt, you could be looking at Espinosa as your starter again.

MZ: Look, it's going to take a significant mindset change from Espinosa. He's going to have to embrace the idea of being a bench player and not think he's still trying to prove he can play every day. But what other choice does he have this year? Would he rather get 600 at-bats in Syracuse or 300 at-bats in Washington? Prior to 2013, he owned a career .239 batting average, .315 OBP and .727 OPS. (His OBP and OPS, by the way, were far superior to Steve Lombardozzi, whose only offensive advantage was in batting average.) Combine those offensive numbers with Gold Glove-caliber defense at both middle infield positions, and that's one heck of a bench player. Are you saying you'd rather have Robert Andino, Paul Janish or Cesar Izturis? Because that's what's still available on the open market right now. Given the choice, I'll take Espinosa.

CH: Well, in his defense, Izturis did hit .500 in his five games with the Nats in 2012. Anyways, you make very good points about Espinosa's ceiling as a bench player. If he could bring the power he showed two years ago and the defense he's always had, he could be a valuable asset for the Nationals behind Rendon. Plus, you can't deny his work ethic and intensity both on the field and in the clubhouse. He is a positive presence. I think it's more about his 'basement' being so low that I think the Nats would be wise to have a backup plan. When struggling, he is a black hole in the lineup. They have depth at second base if you look down into their system, but there is a lack of experience. I doubt they are ready to rely on Jeff Kobernus, and Tony Renda is a ways away. I think that lack of experienced depth would easily be exposed if Rendon doesn't continue his development this season. As for specific names, Jeff Baker and Jayson Nix would be options. One more veteran for peace of mind so you don't have to acquire one midseason in case of emergency.