By landing Eaton, who is expected to play center field, Trea Turner is expected to return to his natural position of shortstop, relegating Espinosa to the bench — if the Nationals’ don’t trade him first.
The Nationals declined to comment on Espinosa’s absence.
Trading Espinosa was a possibility Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo acknowledged last month at the GM Meetings in Arizona, over a month before acquiring Eaton. The chances seemingly improved following Eaton’s addition, but the Nationals are also leaving the door open to keeping the 29-year-old Espinosa, at least publicly, two months from the start of spring training.
“Well, it leaves us with a lot of options,” Rizzo said this week at the winter meetings regarding Espinosa, the Nationals’ third-round pick in 2008. “We have positional flexibility, or we continue to have positional flexibility and we will make those decisions down the road as we see fit.”
Espinosa, who is slated to become a free agent after next season, has served as Washington’s super utilityman in the past, splitting time between shortstop, second base, third base, first base, and left field in 2015 before finally earning the starting shortstop job he long coveted. In his first crack as an everyday shortstop, he was reliable with the glove with a cannon arm and boom-or-bust at the plate: he cracked 24 home runs (fourth-most among shortstops), but batted .209 with a .684 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and 174 strikeouts.
The switch-hitter posted a 1.7 FanGraphs WAR in 157 games, good for 11th among National League shortstops, and his strikeout rate was second-highest in the National League. The lack of contact didn’t mesh with the rest of the Nationals, whose offense accumulated the fourth-fewest strikeouts in the NL, but Manager Dusty Baker stuck with him through the postseason, when Espinosa went 2 for 14 with eight strikeouts and three hit by pitches in the National League Division Series against the Dodgers.
Espinosa is eligible for arbitration and MLB Trade Rumors projects he would make $5 million through the process. That’s $2 million more than Stephen Drew made last season as Washington’s primary backup infielder. Drew, a free agent, recorded a .864 OPS in 70 games.
Wilmer Difo is a cheaper alternative than either Espinosa or Drew. If the Nationals elect Difo for the role, they could capitalize on a weak middle infield free agent market to unload Espinosa.