By Jeff Nelson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 7, 2009
It should have hurt.
It should have made Danny Espinosa wince or cringe or react in some way. But the Potomac Nationals shortstop swears by his story.
Florida Marlins ace Josh Johnson threw a fastball. The pitch, likely in the mid-90s, hit Espinosa in the hip. And he happily jogged to first base, impervious to pain.
"I didn't feel a thing," Espinosa said, recalling his only spring training game with the Washington Nationals back in mid-March. "I had so much adrenaline, and all I'm thinking is, 'I'm not going to get taken out after my first at-bat. I'm staying in there.' "
Espinosa played all nine innings and finished 1 for 3 with a run scored. The following day, he went back to minor league camp for the remainder of the spring.
"I got that taste of being in the big league spring training game and I want it again," he said. "But I want to be up there and stay up there."
Based on Espinosa's short time in the organization, his wait might not be that long.
After batting .328 with a .476 on-base percentage in the short-season New York-Penn League last fall, the 2008 third-round pick was rewarded by skipping low-Class A and heading straight to high-Class A this spring.
The 22-year-old switch hitter has responded with a .300 average, a .434 on-base percentage and a .525 slugging percentage for Potomac of the Carolina League.
Through 24 games, he has 3 home runs, 12 RBI and 7 steals, while batting either second or third in the order.
By combining those numbers with his play at shortstop -- Baseball America named him the organization's top defensive infielder coming into the season -- the 6-foot, 190-pound Espinosa has thrilled the Nationals' top brass.
"Guys who can really play a premium position like shortstop and develop into a dangerous switch hitter are really coveted right now," said Mike Rizzo, the Nationals' acting general manager.
"His performance will dictate when he's ready for the next level," said Bobby Williams, the Nationals' director of player development, "but certainly, he's showing he can play at this level."
As well as things are going for Espinosa, he's keenly aware that today's success guarantees nothing.
After batting close to .390 during his junior season at Mater Dei High School, the Santa Ana, Calif., native was told he could be drafted in the top five rounds with a similar showing as a senior. When his average dropped to .295 in a nightmarish season, he went undrafted.
Instead of starting his professional career, Espinosa headed to Long Beach State, a "major league shortstop factory" in Rizzo's words.
Following in the recent lineage of Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki and Oakland's Bobby Crosby, Espinosa became a star as a freshman and sophomore at Long Beach State. Entering his junior season, he was a preseason second-team all-American and potential first-round pick.
Then it happened again.
"For the first three weeks, I was hitting the ball really well and playing great," Espinosa said. "And then I had a bad weekend and kind of got into my own head."
He finished the year with a .309 average -- pedestrian for a top college player -- and his draft stock slipped.
When the Nationals had the opportunity to select him with the 87th overall pick last June, however, they decided to ignore his sub-par season.
"Although statistics tell us certain things, we really liked his approach at the plate and his swing," Rizzo said, "and we kind of chalked the season up to bad luck or a guy that was pressing in his draft year."
Thus far, Espinosa has rewarded that faith.
After signing for an above-slot $525,000 bonus, Espinosa did two things: He traded in his '92 Ford Ranger for a new Cadillac CTS, and he returned his focus at the plate to simply making contact.
It worked in the New York-Penn League, where he hit for a high average despite getting only two extra-base hits. With his confidence back, he's driving the ball again, both to the gaps, and three times in the past two weeks, out of the park. His team-leading .959 on-base plus slugging percentage is an especially high number for a talented defensive shortstop.
"There's no one area of his game we look at and say, 'Boy, we need to make huge strides quickly here,' because he's polished in all areas," Potomac Manager Trent Jewett said. "And you just don't see middle infielders with his type of arm strength."
Before the season started, Baseball America ranked Espinosa as the Nationals' 14th-best prospect, with only one shortstop ahead of him -- Esmailyn "Smiley" González, who was 10th.
Now that González has been exposed as 23-year-old Carlos Daniel Alvarez Lugo, Espinosa would appear to be the Nationals' most highly regarded minor leaguer at his position, though Rizzo refused to give him that label.
"We really have the luxury of having a good shortstop in every level," he said. "Cristian Guzmán is an all-star. Alberto González at AAA is going to be an everyday shortstop in the major leagues really soon. Ian Desmond at AA is on the disabled list right now [with a broken hand], but he is a really good prospect. And then Espinosa at high A has a bright future."
Does that depth mean Espinosa could be blocked from advancing to Washington? "We're going to play the best shortstop we've got," Rizzo said, "and some day he'll probably be the best we have. I'm just not sure what that date will be."
Until that date arrives, Espinosa must continue to prove his bat is major league ready, and try to avoid the type of down year that has hurt him in the past.
"It's not my decision to say when I'm ready, but as long as I play well, I'm giving myself the best chance to make it hard for them to keep me down," he said. "If I can go out and show them I'm working hard and playing hard, they'll give me a chance. I know they will."