General Manager Mike Rizzo informed second baseman Danny Espinosa he will not be included in the Nationals’ ensuing September call-ups, putting an end to Espinosa’s difficult season and leaving a talented player facing a more open-ended future than could have been expected at the start of year.
“You know, I’m disappointed,” Espinosa said. “At the same time, I understood why. I didn’t do enough hitting. I was kind of surprised. At the same time, they’re in a push for a wild card, and I feel that at least defensively I would be a huge help to that team. In late innings, to come in and be a defensive replacement, I think I could be a huge help. But the decision was made.”
The decision not to bring Espinosa to the majors includes financial ramifications. He will likely fall a matter of days short of achieving “Super Two” status and qualifying for salary arbitration this offseason. If Espinosa plays in the majors next season, he will make the league minimum. Had he qualified for arbitration, he could have expected a salary of roughly $1.5 million.
Espinosa hit .217/.283/.290 at Class AAA Syracuse after the Nationals sent him down in early June, though in the past 10 days he went 14 for 42 with three doubles. The Nationals demoted Espinosa after he hit .158 with a .464 OPS over 167 plate appearances as the their everyday second baseman. He played for six weeks with a minor fracture in his left wrist.
Espinosa’s athleticism and throwing arm make him elite as a defender at second base and above average at shortstop. As the Nationals try to surge into the wild-card race, he could have been an effective late-inning defensive replacement – playing a new position, Anthony Rendon has made nine errors in 65 games at second base.
When Espinosa and Rizzo spoke this afternoon, Espinosa expressed his willingness to contribute strictly as a defensive player.
“I understood that if I came back up, I would be a defensive replacement, maybe come off the bench to sac bunt or pinch run,” Espinosa said. “I understood I didn’t hit well this year. I took responsibility for the reason why I was in AAA. At the end of the day, it’s not about me. I think defensively, I could be a huge help to the team to win a wild card.”
Earlier this month, Manager Davey Johnson said he believed Espinosa did not warrant a call-up because he had not enacted the batting adjustments the team asked him to make.
“There was never really an adjustment,” Espinosa said. “No one really said anything to me about what I was going down to do or what they wanted me to do.”
Espinosa credited his improvement over the past two weeks to his work with Class AAA Syracuse hitting coach Troy Gingrich.
“I’ve taken everything that Troy has taught me or re-taught me and put it into play without thinking,” Espinosa said. “I stopped doing all the tons and tons of work. We were at a point where we said, ‘Let’s just go play now. Let’s just go play without thinking.’ That’s what I’ve been doing.”
When Syracuse’s season ends after this weekend, Espinosa plans to head to his home in Orange County, Calif., and “think about what’s happened this year.” He looks forward to starting an offseason lifting program, which he was unable to do last year because of a tear in his rotator cuff.
Espinosa remained adamant all season the rotator cuff tear would not require surgery and had not limited him at the plate. He sees no chance of offseason surgery. The only problem it created, he said, was that he could not build up his upper-body strength last winter.
“The shoulder feels good,” Espinosa said. “I would say the big thing of my overall strength of my upper body is down not being able to prepare due to the shoulder rehab. This winter, I can go get strong again.”
Espinosa, 26, has been viewed as a major part of the Nationals’ future since they drafted him in the third round of the 2008 draft. Many in the Nationals’ front office, Rizzo included, still believe in Espinosa’s talent – a glove capable of winning a Gold Glove and a powerful bat capable of hitting 25 homers.
The arc of his season, though, has naturally made Espinosa’s future with the Nationals murkier. Rendon has entrenched himself as a piece of the infield. He has support within in the organization, but many believe he needs to be more upbeat, not so quick to sulk after a rough game.
Several teams have called the Nationals about trading for Espinosa, but they have not lowered their asking price. In trade talks, the Nationals still value Espinosa as an athletic, strong second baseman, not as a scuffling minor leaguer.
“As long as the Nationals want me to be a part of this organization and be a key comp to helping, than yes, I want to be,” Espinosa said. “If they want me here, I want to be here.
“I talked to Mike this morning, and he says that I’ m a big part of the team, and this year happened and is in the part of the past. He said I’m a big part of this team. He said next year I’ll come back in and fight for a starting spot, just like last year.”
Espinosa has been an important contributor to the Nationals before, and he may be again. He learned this season that the mental grind outweighs the physical toll of baseball, and that the game “is a business,” he said.
For now, he will have to prepare for next year and watch his old teammates try to make an improbable postseason run without him – even if his glove could certainly help.