If you were to ask Washington Nationals fans what their biggest concern is entering the season with this 2013 club, you'd likely only get a handful of different responses. That's a refreshing change from past years when we entered the season with way more questions than answers.
Some might point to free-agent acquisition Drew Haren's health problems and question his ability to pitch to his 2011 form. Others might worry that the team traded power hitter Mike Morse and replace him in the lineup with a speed guy, Denard Span. If I were a gambling man, however, I'd bet the house that the majority of those wearing Curly W's in Washington would identify Danny Espinosa's health and 2012 performance as their biggest cause of uncertainty entering Spring Training.
Espinosa recently told the media that he had been playing the end of last year with a torn rotator cuff. The slick fielding second baseman said that he rehabilitated the injury without surgery in the offseason, but that it played a significant role in his poor performance down the stretch in 2012. That decline was noticeable. Espinosa was just one for 15 in the Playoffs last year, with seven strikeouts, and no runs scored.
Most Nats fans, however, will likely tell you that the news of his recent injury isn't the greatest cause of their uncertainty. Quite simply, aside form one month in the middle of the campaign, Espinosa was pretty dreadful at the plate all year. The 25-year-old hit 17 homers and scored 82 runs, but he also led the National League with 182 strikeouts, and walked less than he had the year before. His struggles were so bad, at times, that it seemed that if any rally reached the back of the team's lineup, it was almost a given it would end once his spot in the order came to bat.
So where does that leave Espinosa on a packed roster full of talented young players who all improved last season? Is he the black sheep of a potential World Series winning club? Or is he poised to breakout in a fully-healthy 26-year-old season?
It's hard to say, but there are two things I do know.
First, Nats' General Manager Mike Rizzo is NOT afraid to make a change to improve his team even marginally. We saw him go out and acquire Rafael Soriano just this month to improve their bullpen, despite already having a strong presence there. In the past we've seen him move popular players at his behest, regardless of the popularity of the move. Given that, very few guys on this roster are safe without a high level of performance, and that's something Nats fans should embrace.
Second, Anthony Rendon is going to be knocking on the door to Nats Park a lot sooner than many think. The 22-year-old was considered extremely close to Major League ready when he was drafted by the Nats in 2011, and when we saw him in spring training, we could see why. The Texas native has a Major League swing, with Major League patience and Major League bat speed. What he didn't have in 2012 was good health, as injuries forced him to play just 43 games in the minor last year, the majority of which was a rusty stint in Double-A Harrisburg where he hit just .162 in 82 plate appearances.
That being said, Rendon bounced back in the Arizona Fall League. The former Golden Spikes award winner hit .383/.436/.494 and greatly impressed the Nats scouting team. Rizzo is not one to rush anyone, but if Rendon tears it up in Spring Training, as I expect him to do, and tears it up in the minors in April and May, how long can he keep him off the roster?
It is important to remember, however, that Rendon is not a second baseman. He played third in college and has bounced around the infield so far since joining the Nationals organization. He's a quick guy, and when we had the chance to watch him at second in Spring Training last year it seemed that he was more than capable of fielding the position. Espinosa, on the other hand, is still one of the best with the glove at second base in the game. Danny ranked fifth in the majors at the position in UZR/150, committing just six errors at second base.
We all know how much Rizzo and Davey Johnson value defense. Adam LaRoche, a major re-signing by the Nats this offseason was made for many reasons. While leadership, and a strong 2012 at the plate played a role, his ability to be a force defensively at first base was a huge part. Would the Nats stick with a struggling Espinosa at the plate if he was providing Gold Glove caliber defense? I'd say it's very likely.
It's not to the point to say that Espinosa is on the Hot Seat. In fact, that's one of the most exciting parts about this team this year. No one is on the Hot Seat. This is just to say that Espinosa is the closest thing to a weak link that the Nats are throwing out there this year, and the Anthony Rendon storyline is absolutely one to keep an eye on. According to WAR, Espinosa was the third most valuable second baseman in the National League last season, so if he is a problem, it's a good problem for the Nats to have.