The weaknesses in the Washington Nationals offense is not limited to one player, or even a couple players. The majority of the Nats offense has been non-existent for significant stretches through the first quarter of the 2013 campaign, but Danny Espinosa is absolutely in the worst period of offensive stagnation.
Espinosa, who got an MRI last September after feeling weakness in his shoulder, said that he felt much better this spring after rehabbing all offseason, and his spring training swings looked to show that. He was quick to the ball and was moving the bat through the zone well. As so often happens when spring training ends and the real season begins, things changed quickly.
His swing went back to the loopy, uppercut swing that has a very low probability of making contact with the ball, and he struggled as he did last season, especially late in the year. Slumps can happen at any point in the season, but if a slump is all it is, it's lasted for more than 40 baseball games. It's probably time to consider one of two scenarios. Either Espinosa's shoulder isn't nearly as healthy as he said it was, or he's not as good as everyone hoped he would be.
Espinosa's slash line this season is a staggeringly terrible .163/.191/.296. That OBP is the worst in all of baseball. He has the fourth-worst batting average, and his walk percentage is third-worst in baseball and worst in the National League, too.
It's hard to avoid drawing parallels to Adam LaRoche's injury-shortened season in 2011, where he had shoulder surgery in June. LaRoche posted a bad, though not quite "Espinosa bad," .172/.288/.258 slash line before hitting the disabled list in May 2011. Only Espinosa can truly know if he's still hurting, but if he is, at some point he'll have to own up to his team and tell them. His defense is still among the best second basemen in baseball, but his defensive benefits are being outweighed by his current offensive incompetence.
If Espinosa is healthy, then there are only two viable explanations. His mired in one of the worst and longest slumps ever, or he simply hasn't been able to meet the lofty expectations that people had of him when his career started. In his first two full seasons in 2011 and 2012, he posted .236/.323/.414 and .247/.315/.402 slash lines, respectively. These are obviously far superior to his 2013 numbers thus far, but they're certainly nothing special for a second baseman, or really for any other position. Espinosa also led the National League in strikeouts in 2012.
GM Mike Rizzo told Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post just this weekend he thinks Espinosa is the team's "best option" at second base and that he is both "physically fine" and "mentally fine." It's hard for me to imagine how both of these statements can be true. If he is both physically and mentally fine and this is how he's performed through a quarter of the year, it's hard to see how he can possibly be the best option. Similarly, if he's either physically or mentally not fine, he certainly isn't the best option for the Nats right now.
Though many people prosthelytize about the greatness of Steve Lombardozzi, it's hard to argue he'd be a better option than Espinosa, even through his significant slump. Espinosa provides significantly better defense than Lombardozzi with the threat of power, even if he hasn't been able to realize that threat much this year. Lombardozzi provides regularly weak contact that can provide value off the bench but not much as an every day starter.
In the minors, though, the Nationals may have two viable options to replace Espinosa. Jeff Kobernus, a second baseman by trade, is putting up incredible numbers in Triple-A Syracuse early this season with a .348/.381/.437 slash line. The Hardball Times even predicted he had an excellent chance to make the Tigers 25-man roster as a Rule V draft pick this offseason before being sent back to the Nationals. Meanwhile, top prospect Anthony Rendon, who had a cup of coffee in the majors earlier this season while Ryan Zimmerman was on the DL, is destroying the ball in Double-A Harrisburg and has gotten a couple chances at second base this season.
Maybe neither of these players will be better than Espinosa, but it's hard to imagine how they could possibly be any worse. Obviously, the only way either Kobernus or Rendon will get a chance is if Espinosa winds up on the disabled list. Espinosa has been a full-time starter for two full seasons, and he's absolutely not going to the minor leagues. It wouldn't do anything at all to help him improve by making him face lesser talent. However, something about the second base situation needs to be done. It's not the biggest problem the Nats are facing, but it's not a small one, either.