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Danny Espinosa says he will compete for starting job

(Evan Vucci / AP)

Sifting through the wreckage of his 2013 season, it is hard for Danny Espinosa to draw any other conclusion than that the Nationals let him down. His offensive performance made his June demotion to Class AAA Syracuse unavoidable. But that performance, perhaps, could have been avoided if the Nationals had properly diagnosed his right wrist.

Speaking to reporters at NatsFest this afternoon, Espinosa did not run from the .158 average he posted, the 47  strikeouts against four walks, the 12 extra-base hits over 167 plate appearances. But, as defiant and irascible as ever, he laid out why, in his mind, his season had gone so wrong. His torn rotator cuff never bothered him. But his right wrist, initially diagnosed as a bone bruise, later revealed to be a fracture, left him so weak he could not lift a bat with one hand some days.

“I shouldn’t have been” playing, Espinosa said. “At the same time, I’m not a doctor reading the film. So, yeah, I shouldn’t have been playing on a broken wrist the whole year. But when you’ve been told you got a bruise, you’re going to play through a bruise. Everyone plays through bumps and bruises. I’m not going to play through a broken wrist. If I would have known it was a broken wrist, I wouldn’t have been playing at all.”

After Anthony Rendon settled in at second base while Espinosa muddled through the final half of 2013 at Syracuse, Espinosa believes he can recapture his place in the organization. He dismissed his season as “a fluke.” Both Manager Matt Williams and General Manager Mike Rizzo, he said, have told him he will have the chance to seize the starting second base spot he lost last season.

“Matt and Mike have both called me in the offseason and told me I’m going to get a fair opportunity to win my job back,” Espinosa said. “That’s all I can ask for. I’ve never asked for anything to be handed to me. But if I can get a fair opportunity to win my job, I feel like I can do it.”

“If I can come and do what I did in spring last year,” Espinosa added later, “there’s no reason I shouldn’t have my job.”

At the winter meetings in December, Rizzo told reporters he could envision Espinosa as a utility infielder. Espinosa has no designs on that role, at least until he is told he will not be the starting second baseman.

“Mike’s never said anything about being a utility guy or being a backup role guy,” Espinosa said. “The only he said is, he’s going to give me a fair opportunity to win my job back. I guess if I don’t win my job, that could be something that I fall into, maybe. But he’s never said, ‘You’re the utility guy now.’ He said, ‘I’m going to give you a chance to win your job back.’ ”

Espinosa has a supporter in his new manager. Williams believes Espinosa will be a major part of the team, whether he is the opening day second baseman or not.

“I viewed him from across the diamond,” Williams said. “And I know that he is Gold Glove-caliber defense not only at second but at short as well, which plays an integral part in our team potentially. I know that he’s got the ability to hit 21 homers, 19 homers in successive seasons. And that last year was a down year for him. That being said, I want him to be him. I want him to play. And not have expectations going in other than competing for a job and letting him fly in spring training. And do what he does – because if he does that, he’s a valuable part of our team.”

Last year, Espinosa and the Nationals insisted his rotator cuff never hampered him. The only problem came in preparation for the season, when the tear prevented him from his usual weight lifting routine. Those concerns have evaporated. This winter, he hired his the trainer he had worked with for the past five years to work with him alone. He looked more muscular, thick through the chest.

“I’m probably stronger at this point in my career than I’ve ever been in my life,” Espinosa said. “My trainer has done an unbelievable job. He’s put me in a really good place. I feel that physically, I’m at the top of where I could ever be, almost. He’s done everything for me to get back to where I was, and go beyond that, strength-wise. I feel great.”

Through injury and constant slumping, Espinosa’s swing fell apart last year. This season, he plans to simplify his approach. He led the league in strikeouts in 2012, and he blamed his high strikeout total, in part, on Nationals hitting instructors who altered his swing in the minor leagues.

“I’m not just going to sit here and pull the ball the whole time,” Espinosa said. “That’s not the type of hitter I am. When I’m going my best, I’m hitting the ball gap-to-gap. I’m not going up there trying to kill the ball. I don’t want to be that way. I was never that type of hitter. I was a contact hitter coming up, and in the minor leagues, I had some strikeout issues. To me, that was more their adjusting of my swing, what they wanted me to become.

“As an amateur, I was more of a contract hitter. I never had power. That’s what I’m trying to get back to – my swing as just a pure swing, just to hit. Have a simple state of mind to see the ball, hit the ball, rather than looking inside, looking outside, trying to pull the ball, trying to go the other way. I’m just trying to keep it as simple as I can, make contact, put the ball in play and get on base.”