SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — If the Washington Nationals’ season began this week, Trea Turner would start in center field and Danny Espinosa would play shortstop, Mike Rizzo said Tuesday. Rizzo wore jeans and was standing in a thoroughly air-conditioned ballroom at the Omni Resort just outside Phoenix at the time, a setting that provided a powerful reminder that the season does not begin for quite some time, a long, long way from here.
As he addressed reporters at the general managers’ meetings Tuesday afternoon, Rizzo said Turner’s future position will depend on the moves the Nationals make this offseason. He also said those moves could include bumping Espinosa from shortstop — or even trading him.
“I could see him as utility player. I could see him as a player you could utilize in a trade context to get another piece that you need,” Rizzo said. “There’s a lot of moving parts we can go, and a lot of different avenues we can attack.”
Right now, and for the duration of the 2016 season, Turner was prevented from playing shortstop by Espinosa, who will be a free agent after the 2017 season. Rizzo said Espinosa, who will be 30 for most of next season, was exactly the player the Nationals expected him to be this season, as he hit .209 with 24 homers. Only three full-time shortstops hit more.
“I’m comfortable with Danny at shortstop,” said Rizzo, who chose to move Turner to center field midway through last season despite Espinosa’s low- contact, high-strikeout tendencies. . . .
“We know what his strengths are, and what his weaknesses are.”
Those strengths — rare potency at a traditionally contact-oriented position, strong and versatile defense, relentless grit — are the kind of assets that could make Espinosa a fit for contending teams and low-budget teams, alike. His weaknesses, best summed up by the fact that he had the second-highest strikeout rate in the National League this year, make him a square peg in the round hole that is the Nationals’ increased emphasis on contact. Only three teams in the National League struck out less often than the Nationals did this season, by recent design.
Bolstering the case for dealing Espinosa is that Rizzo wants to “upgrade our offense” but has six players locked into the seven positions outside of catcher. The Nationals have proven veterans locked in at third base, second base, first base and in two of three outfield spots. Turner will be a part of the lineup somewhere, either shortstop or center field. Barring the unlikely acquisition of a middle-of-the-order-type catcher that will be healthy for opening day (Wilson Ramos, for example, does not qualify), any upgrades will therefore have to come in the outfield, at which point Turner would come in to play shortstop, or at shortstop, at which point Turner would stay in center.
Rizzo said he wants Turner, who has seized the leadoff spot in the order, to settle in one defensive position, too. He just isn’t sure what that position is just yet.
“We see Trea as an everyday shortstop in the big leagues, capable of being very good at shortstop,” Rizzo said, “but he’s a unique player because he gives us the positional flexibility to move him around the field.”
Less flexible is Turner’s crucial place in the Nationals offense moving forward. Middle-of-the-order offensive talents are found more often in outfielders than they are in shortstops, meaning Turner’s value to the Nationals is likely higher in the middle infield than in center. If Turner is playing shortstop on opening day, Espinosa will not be — at least not in a Nationals uniform.
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