For a player said to be competing to be the Nationals’ starting second baseman, Danny Espinosa spent a lot time during the team’s first full-squad workout playing shortstop.
In the Nationals’ first portion of practice, a rundown of plays to defend bunts, Espinosa played shortstop for the majority of the drill. When the Nationals took groundballs, Espinosa lined up next to Ian Desmond at shortstop and stayed there.
Espinosa had been entrenched as the Nationals’ starting second baseman coming into last year. And then he played through a misdiagnosed broken wrist, endured a wicked slump and got shipped to Class AAA Syracuse. The Nationals have told Espinosa he will be able to compete for his old position. But on Day 1, they also prepared him for a utility role.
Manager Matt Williams said Espinosa will “flip-flop” between second base and shortstop throughout the spring. The Nationals want to prepare Espinosa to play short – his position in college and the minors – in case Desmond suffers an injury.
“You need somebody that can step in and play that position and play it effectively,” Williams said. “So he’ll work both places. But today he was at short mostly, and he’ll flip-flop back and forth. But he’s a guy that can certainly play it at a very high caliber so we want to make sure that he gets his work there as well.”
Espinosa’s ability at shortstop strengthens the case for why he will make the Nationals’ 25-man roster and for why it would be difficult for the Nationals to trade him. Behind Desmond, they have no one who comes close to Espinosa defensively at shortstop, one of the most important positions on the field.
“I love taking my groundballs at short,” Espinosa said. “It’s a fun place to take groundballs, because the plays are more challenging. You get to use your feet a little bit more. You work around the ball at different angles. I really enjoy it. They rhythm of the game is just so smooth at short. Everything is in front of you.”
Williams’s main priority for Espinosa this spring is getting him ample at-bats. The Nationals know he can play defense. If he has any chance to usurp Anthony Rendon at second base, he would have to earn it through improved hitting. In order to give Espinosa extra playing time, Williams will start him at both short and second once games begin.
“I’m sure it’s more of an insurance policy thing, to make sure I’m still ready to do it,” Espinosa said.
During practice, Espinosa offered a reminder of his skill at short. He may have the strongest infield arm on the team, Desmond included. Goaded by a silly question from (this) reporter, Espinosa said he hit 92 miles per hour the last time he threw in front of a radar gun, which was when he was 17 years old.
“If you work your feet right at shortstop – if you’re really, truly working your feet the right way – you let your feet and the legs do the work,” Espinosa said. “Your arm just gets the ball there easy.”