Could the Nationals trade Danny Espinosa?

Gary Cameron / Reuters

The winter meetings have started to churn at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville, with baseball people checking in, occupying lobby couches and making so many poor folks on vacation wonder who all these people covered in tobacco and mustard are. Veterans know that is how you tell the scouts apart from the writers. And, oh, right, the guy signing autographs. That’s Scott Boras.

The Nationals will embark on the four-nights, four-day Rumorpalooza with first baseman Adam LaRoche still the main linchpin of their offseason. If they feel confident in re-signing LaRoche, they can begin shopping Michael Morse, whom they could use to acquire the starting pitcher they need or bullpen help.

Morse may not be the Nationals’ only regular from 2012 to be bandied about in trade discussions. The Nationals could very well discuss second baseman Danny Espinosa in trade talks, a major piece that could help them land a starter to replace the departed Edwin Jackson. The Nationals could then make Steve Lombardozzi their second baseman, with the possibility of top prospect Anthony Rendon giving the Nationals more infield depth later in the season or in 2014.

In some corners of the Nationals’ organization, Lombardozzi is the preferred choice. Espinosa led the National League in strikeouts, and some thought Espinosa has not made proper adjustments to cut down on whiffs or change his situational hitting approach. But General Manager Mike Rizzo and Manager Davey Johnson are major advocates of Espinosa, and being the primary decision-makers, they hold the trump cards.

Would it be smart to trade Espinosa? The Nationals would be selling while his value is a bit down — Espinosa finished the season playing through a shoulder injury that clearly hampered him during the playoffs. Solid as Lombardozzi is, he had an underwhelming 83 OPS+ in 416 plate appearances. It would be tough to part with a 25-year-old who can play both second base and shortstop at an elite level, who has the potential to hit 30 home runs and who has one of the strongest infield arms in baseball. Despite all those strikeouts, Espinosa has been worth 3.5 and 3.8 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs, the past two seasons. If you focus on the strikeouts too much, you are missing the point.

There would be benefits to choosing Lombardozzi at second. He is less prone to streaks, and he has a shown a knack for years for steady improvement. He can’t throw like Espinosa, but he has good range and almost never makes errors. He will not hit for power like Espinosa, but he will put the ball in play more often and he could develop into a hitter who socks eight to 12 homers a year. He has one less year of service time, and so the Nationals would receive a financial benefit. Lombardozzi and Espinosa give the Nationals redundancy at second base, and Espinosa would garner much more in a return.

Put everything else aside, and the main argument for parting with Espinosa is this: To land an impact player, you need to give up an impact player. Since the Nationals are deeper at infield than any other position and Ian Desmond isn’t going anywhere, Espinosa is the impact player they can afford to part with, painful as it would be.

If the Nationals want to add a top-level starting pitcher, they could even package Espinosa and Morse together in a deal — and they would have an ideal trading partner.

The Rays are the rare team with a surplus of starting pitchers, and they also desperately need offense. Espinosa and Morse may be enough to pry away right-hander James Shields, a 31-year-old workhorse who will make $9 million in 2013 and has a $12 million team option for 2014. Shields may be too expensive for the small-market Rays. Morse, set to make $6.5 million this year, and Espinosa, still a year away from arbitration, would presumably fit their budget.

Shields would be a perfect match with the Nationals’ four twenty-something fireballers. He has been a leader on the Rays’ young staff years, but he will still be in his prime, or at least the back end of it, for the next two seasons. Over the past six years, he has averaged 222 innings per seasons.

The Nationals would love to make a run at free agent Zack Greinke, but the price may be out of their range. Much like Denard Span offered similar value to free agent Michael Bourn for a fraction of the cost, Shields compares well to Greinke. Over the past three seasons, Shields has a lower ERA (3.76) than Greinke (3.84) in 76 more innings. (Greinke, though, has a much better FIP and three more WAR over the same time frame.)

In the end, the Nationals, especially with Rizzo having the only word that matters, may find it too unpalatable to part with Espinosa. They could decide they would rather part with money than a controllable, young player to land their starter. 

Rizzo said on Saturday the Nationals have “narrowed it down to a group” of free agent starters they are interest in and have engaged in “parallel discussions” with those pitchers.

But “if a trade makes more sense,” Rizzo said, “we wouldn’t hesitate to go down that road.”

Whether or not Espinosa as part of a trade would make sense for them remains to be seen. You can bet it will be something the Nationals talk about in the next four days.

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