The Washington Times - June 12, 2013, 08:20PM

DENVER — Washington Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa will play in a rehab game on Thursday, manager Davey Johnson said, about a week after receiving a cortisone shot in his fractured right wrist.

Espinosa, who has played the entire season with a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder and the majority of the season with a fracture and a bone chip in his right wrist, is expected to play three innings with Triple-A Syracuse. The following day, he’s expected to play five innings. Then seven, and nine, as they gradually build him back up.

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“I asked, ‘Is he a relief pitcher? Starting pitcher?” Johnson joked. “But they’re just taking it easy with him.”

The plan for Espinosa from this point, however, is a bit unclear. The second baseman can stay on a rehab assignment for 20 days. The Nationals have not bluntly said that they plan to option him to the minor leagues after that time has run out if they do not feel he has fully righted himself at the plate, but it it appears they could go that route.

“He’s going to go to Syracuse,” Johnson said on Tuesday. “That’s where he’s going to start rehab, at Syracuse. He’ll be playing second base. Hopefully playing every day and getting everything together.”

The way the Nationals have proceeded with Espinosa and his injuries has been a bit confusing.

All parties insist that the shoulder injury, which he spent all offseason rehabbing and strengthening the muscles around the rotator cuff on the advice of Dr. Lewis Yocum, is not an issue for him. And while there is a bone chip in his right wrist, the result of a fracture that happened when he was hit with a pitch from Paul Maholm in April, the doctors are confident it won’t be an issue for him. 

So Espinosa received a cortisone shot last week in the wrist area, along with a contrast-dye MRI on his shoulder that confirmed nothing had changed in there. And now the team has decided he is ready to gradually return to playing.

“There’s certain injuries that, it’s not going to worsen the case by letting him play through it,” general manager Mike Rizzo said on Sunday. “The bone is healed. It’s structurally sound. There’s a chip in there. But cortisone will relieve the pain and the inflammation. We shut him down to rest, and once the inflammation is totally gone, he’ll start his baseball progression again because there’s no further damage that can be done to the wrist.

“We felt, and (Nationals medical director Wiemi Douoguih and hand specialist Dr. Ken Means) feel, he should be able to participate. He may never need an operation on his wrist… We’ll decide after the season if the chip should be removed.”

So the question remains, then, what the Nationals will do with Espinosa if and when he is deemed to be fully healthy. With Anthony Rendon entering Wednesday night’s game having gone 7-for-20 (.350) since getting called back up, the Nationals would likely be reluctant to remove his bat from the lineup.

And when it comes to Espinosa, the unknown is how much of his .158 average, .193 on-base percentage and .272 slugging percentage was a product of the injuries, and how much of it was his own issues at the plate?

“That’s a question for him,” Rizzo said. “How much did it affect his playing capabilities? I don’t know. All we can do is when a player says he’s healthy, and our doctors say he’s healthy enough to play, our decision is to let him play.

“The rotator cuff is an injury that should not curtail his performance whatsoever. He is one of 90 percent of the players in this clubhouse who have some sort of rotator cuff issue. if you play this game long enough you’re going to have some kind of rotator cuff issue. It’s a non-throwing rotator cuff tear, it’s a non-thickness tear which means he has 100 percent range of motion and 100 percent strength. The rotator cuff is not an issue and the wrist should, if the rehab goes as it should, the wrist shouldn’t be an issue either.”