Coming into the 2012 season, Washington Nationals fans had plenty to focus on. From the important rotation renovation to the injuries to 2010 MVP Michael Morse and closer Drew Storen, there was almost too much in determining how the season would play out. Amongst these things was an issue that dated back to the beginning of last season. That is, the performance of the young middle infield combination of Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond.
The 2011 season did not exactly solidify a position for both Espinosa and Desmond in the long run. While Desmond hit for a mediocre .253 batting average and stole 25 bases, he made 23 errors, placing third in the NL. Espinosa on the other hand showed Gold Glove-caliber defense but hit .236 with 166 strikeouts, eerily placing him third place in the NL in the category. These shaky performances led to numerous rumors that the Nationals were possibly looking into trading/replacing either player in the off-season, but nothing ever truly came into fruition.
Twenty-one games into this season, only Desmond has shown a semblance of improvement. In his first 11 games, he hit .346 with three 3 hit games. Although he has regressed back towards his average due to a nine game slump where he has hit .111, his defense has been more consistent than in the past. He has only made two errors, which is on pace for approximately 16, a career low.
For Espinosa it has been another story though. In his first 21 games, he has accumulated a .205 batting average with a .300 on-base percentage and only one homerun. He is also defending his third place position in the NL with 27 strikeouts. To go along with this poor offense, his defense has also been lacking. With three errors already, he has the second most in the NL and is on pace for 24, a career high. He also doesn’t seem to be displaying his range as much as in the past. All of these problems have led to a demotion in the batting order, from second to sixth along with a manager induced early rest day, though he did bat third on Sunday after a late Jayson Werth scratch.
Obviously this isn’t the production that the Nationals are looking for from their everyday starting second baseman, but they see the potential that Espinosa possesses. So what is holding him back? In my opinion, it’s pressure, which comes in two forms. The first being his position in the batting order and the second being the talented prospects who are fighting for his position.
Usually at the top of the order, teams place their best contact hitters who get on base the most. They are pressured hard to get on base so that the power hitters can drive them in later. Last season Davey Johnson tested Espinosa in the second spot of the order in 36 games. In these games, he had a horrendous .189 batting average with 44 strikeouts. When moved back to the sixth position everything changed. In 59 games, he accumulated a much improved .272/.372/.485 slash line. This season Johnson decided to try Espinosa again. Once again, in the 17 games he batted second, he struck out 21 times and batted .212. Finally, he has been moved back to the sixth position and only time will tell if he improves or if he can stay there with the increasing injuries.
The other source of pressure has really come to the attention of Nationals supporters just this year. It all started with the Nationals 2011 first round draft pick of Anthony Rendon. Rendon, a third baseman by trade, was considered the number one pick before injury. He fell to the Nationals despite still being known as the best hitter of the class. Many analysts now believe he will be trained to play second base because Ryan Zimmerman locked up third with a long-term contract. This is putting a lot of pressure on Espinosa to play the best he can, so he doesn’t get left when Rendon gets called up.
In addition, another second baseman, Steve Lombardozzi, is pressuring Espinosa right now in the majors. Lombardozzi, who has a minor league gold glove and put together a great spring training, is now one of the Nationals’ best bench utility players. He has been used in numerous positions because of injuries, but when everyone gets healthy, he may get some time to prove himself at second if Espinosa doesn’t improve.
Although it is only one month into the season, Espinosa really needs to kick it into gear if he wants to keep his position in the future. He really cannot afford a season worse than last year and expect to have a position in the everyday roster next year. The pressure is slowly getting greater and greater and based off of past experience, this is not a good sign for Danny Espinosa.