December 20, 2014

Washington Nationals and their second base conundrum

The Washington Nationals seem to be in a bit of a pickle with their second base situation. The incumbent, Danny Espinosa, has been miserable at the plate this season. On top of the torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder that we knew about dating all the way back to the end of last season, turns out he’s been playing since late April 14 with bone chips and a broken right wrist, sustained when the Braves Paul Maholm hit him with a fastball.

For now, the Nationals plan to rest Espinosa for a few days in the hopes that the swelling and discomfort lingering in his wrist will subside to the point that he can play again. They hope to avoid a D.L. stint for Espinosa. But here’s what we know: when Espinosa originally sustained the injury, the x-rays showed no break. Now, that might have been clouding due to the swelling associated with the injury, or there just could have been no break. After five weeks, after re-examination, a break with bone chips showed up.

The Nats had Espinosa sit for a couple days back in April, then when he felt better he was reinserted into the lineup. But he continued to play through the pain.

“It’s not getting worse,” Espinosa told reporters the other day. “But by no means has it  gotten any better. So I wanted to get it checked out.”

Turns out, he’d been playing with a broken wrist. Yet, the Nats at this point will go through the same procedure as the first time: a couple of days of rest, then see how he feels.

Why are the Nats so reluctant to put Espinosa on the disabled list and get his injuries fixed instead of trotting him out onto the field in a reduced capacity? The answer is multi-faceted.

First, Espinosa has an incredibly high pain tolerance and he’s willing to play at a reduced capacity. That’s honorable, but in cases such as this the player isn’t always the best judge of whether to play or not. We know he played almost two months at the end of last season when most guys would have just gotten the rotator cuff surgery and been ready for spring training. But that’s kind of the point here.

There’s a big difference between playing through pain and playing with an injury. And now Espinosa has two different injuries we know about. The shoulder might not be causing him much pain, so he felt like playing with it wasn’t that big of a deal. But the joint sustained major injury, and as such will have a reduced capacity, strength and range of motion. Now, he’s got bone chips floating around in his wrist area, to go along with the break site. Bone chips don’t heal, they need to be removed. So he’ll need surgery at some point.

It’s absolutely no wonder that Espinosa is hitting .163/.196/.291 this season.

So we’re left to consider the other options for second base right now, and it leads us to why the team hoped Espinosa could play through his injuries.

Steve Lombardozzi will get the first shot to fill in for Espinosa regardless of how long Espi’s out of the lineup. Lombardozzi is a fan favorite, much like Espinosa was last year before Ian Desmond’s career year (remember how many fans wanted to dump Desmond and have Espi to slide over to his natural position), and much like the backup quarterback for the Redskins is every year since the beginning of time. The promise of a younger, lesser known player is brighter than the player filling the position currently. Sometimes it’s the case that the promise bestowed by the fan base is justified. Usually it is not.

Lombardozzi is many things, but a full-time MLB starter is not one of them. He is defensively capable of playing several positions on the field at an average, or near-average level. That makes Lombo a valuable member of a National League bench, in that he can fill in for a night or two just about anywhere on the field. But his flexibility also masks the problem: but he is by no means an exceptional fielder at any single position, as Espinosa is.

At bat, Lombardozzi is even less qualified to be an MLB starter. His calling card in the minor leagues was his ability to slap singles and draw an occasional walk, as his career MiLB .298/.369/.411 slash line would attest to. He has no power. His speed is merely average, as his stolen base attempts per season have gone down as he rose through the organization. He is, in baseball vernacular, a grinder. He gets by on mediocre talent by his willingness to outwork others and play whatever position he’s asked to. He is, simply, his father.

Jeff Kobernus got the call today to make his Major League debut for the Nats, and will bide his time on the bench until a long range plan on Espinosa becomes apparent. Kobernus was drafted by the Nats in the second round of the 2009 draft, becoming the third player from that draft to don the Curly W, joining Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen. He’ll be 25 in June, so he’s not really a kid anymore (for perspective, Chris Marrero is actually younger than Kobernus).

He was left unprotected by the Nats and selected by Detroit in the Rule 5 draft. The Tigers switched him from his natural second base position to outfield to take advantage of his elite speed. He took to the outfield, but couldn’t stick on the Tigers roster, so the Nats happily took him back and left him in the outfield for the most part (28 games in OF, 18 at 2B this season). Kobernus’ biggest tool is his speed. he’s stolen 141 bases in 333 minor league games at an 80.1% clip.

He’s a good defender at second, but not elite, and it looks like he can handle himself in the outfield, though there’s not nearly enough evidence to justify that claim. His hit tool is only average though, and his minor league career slash line (.286/.324/.364) suggests at the plate he’ll be no more effective than Lombardozzi. But he at least has one elite tool, in contrast to Lombo. He could have a future as a utility player in the bigs if he can hit enough.

One other option in the minor leagues is Will Rhymes. The 30-year-old was signed as a minor league free agent by the Nats and has been Syracuse’s full-time second baseman this season. He’s enjoying a productive season (.291/.361/.335), which is remarkably similar to his career slash line (.290/.356/.375). He’s had a couple of cups of coffee with the Tigers in 2010, ’11 and ’12 (449 plate appearances), but he’s a career minor leaguer, a last-ditch insurance policy at best.

The question on everyone’s minds is “What about Rendon?” Ever since Anthony Rendon was drafted by the Nats in the first round of the 2011 draft, everyone has wondered what position he’d play in the majors. Third base is covered by Ryan Zimmerman (at least, for now). Many speculated Rendon could move to second, left field or even first base. Rendon’s bat will play at third, second or left field easily. So why wouldn’t the Nats considered their prized prospect for the second base slot if they need a long-term replacement.

The answer is: they could. If Espinosa needs surgery to remove the bone chips, and they decided to go ahead and do the shoulder at the same time, they could consider Rendon. But they don’t want him learning the position at the Major League level. To this date, Rendon has played a grand total of five games at second base in his professional career, despite what some major media outlets would have you believe. The Nats think he’s a good enough athlete to make that transition, but not every left-side infielder can make the transition to playing with their back to the runner at second base. Also, Rendon is thought to have gold glove capability at third base, and it’s a different skill set and mind set to play third as opposed to second.

Can Rendon play second? I’m sure he can. But he’s a third baseman. For now, anyway.

I’ve spent about 1,000 words now trying to explain why the Nats are so willing to allow Espinosa to play through injury. Simply, it’s because the other options aren’t the greatest. Espinosa is this team’s second baseman, and if he’s to go down long-term, it will hurt this team’s chances to compete. It’s a big problem. Already, playing through these injuries he’s one of the least productive players in the league this season by WAR. How much further does he have to drop to consider replacing him?

Only Mike Rizzo can answer that.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

Trackbacks

  1. […] Dave Nichols writes up perfectly why the Nationals refuse to make Steve Lombardozzi a starter over Danny Espinosa.  I, as well as many others, have been beating this drum for a while-but Dave does the best job of […]

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