Matt Williams to Danny Espinosa: Relax and play

VIERA, FL - FEBRUARY 14:   Washington Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa (8) hugs third base coach, Bobby Henley, at the start of  spring training workouts on February 14, 2014 in Viera, Fl.  (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Danny Espinosa hugs third base coach Bobby Henley. (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

In his first week on the job, Manager Matt Williams launched the campaign to resuscitate Danny Espinosa. Even after Espinosa’s lost 2013 season, Williams views him as a crucial player. Williams today declared the second base position an “open competition” between Espinosa and Anthony Rendon, stating that he sees “no favorite” at the moment.

Williams delivered a quieter boost to Espinosa earlier this week. Williams met with Espinosa in his office and delivered dual messages that Espinosa appreciated: I’ve been there, and be yourself.

“He’s someone you can relate to,” Espinosa said. “The guy was a great ballplayer for a long time, and he went through a couple down seasons himself. He can sit there and understand what I went through. To [hear] him say, ‘We just want you to play your game, not try to be someone you’re not, use your speed, use your bunt, use everything,’ for me, that feels great. I can free myself up. I feel like I can be me when I play.”

The deepest impression Williams has made so far at spring training is his obsessive attention to detail. With Espinosa, he has shown his ability to connect with players. He let Espinosa know he sympathized with his 2013 season, when he hit .158/.193/.272 before the Nationals demoted him to June. Early in his playing career, Williams hit .227 two seasons after he led the National League in RBIs.

“Way back early in my career I had some pretty good years and then had a really bad one,” Williams said. “And so I understand what that feels like.”

Williams also told Espinosa to accentuate his strengths. He doesn’t want him to think, just react. He believes Espinosa can hit 20 homers and play Gold Glove defense.

“I asked him to relax and play and let him know how valuable he is to our club, and what he can do on an everyday basis to help this team win,” Williams said. “Oftentimes, we need to be reminded of how good we are. I think he’s a really good player. So that’s all I’ve told him. I asked him to just simply play.”

“I worked this whole offseason to get comfortable with the ballplayer that I am and who I want to be,” Espinosa said. “It was a good thing to hear, so I can just come in and enjoy being the ballplayer that I am.”

With his promising rookie season, Rendon seemed to seize the second base job; in December, General Manager Mike Rizzo even said he foresaw Rendon as the starter at least entering the spring. But Williams wants to foster competition, and he vowed Espinosa would have a chance to win back the job he lost last season.

“I believe it’s open competition,” Williams said. “And that’s all you can say about it at this point. They haven’t even taken their first grounder officially yet. But I think that it’s good to have competition in spring. It makes guys come into camp ready and they’re both going to be competing. And I think that’s a good thing. So there’s no favorite at this point. We’re going to give them both ample opportunity to become the starter and we’ll see where we go.”

Williams plans to prep Espinosa for a possible utility role, too. Today, Espinosa took groundballs at shortstop, showcasing his missile arm. Espinosa’s value to the Nationals could been seen in those moments – if Ian Desmond suffered an injury, the Nationals would have no better option at shortstop.

“If Danny’s on the club, then he’s going to get some time at short, certainly,” Williams said. “Ian needs days off. He’ll certainly play some second base, of course. I told him my hope is to get him a lot of at bats, if he makes the club, to give guys days and insert him and match him up and all of those things. I just think he’s very valuable for us and I just want him to relax and play.”

Williams said he may also give Espinosa some time at third base, “because you never know what might happen.”

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