VIERA, Fla. | Danny Espinosa was a shortstop.
He was a shortstop when the Nationals drafted him out of Long Beach State University in 2008 and he was a shortstop in 317 of the 324 games he played in the minor leagues.
But one day last year at Triple-A Syracuse, Espinosa showed up to see his name in the lineup at second base.
“I played about five or six games in a row at short and then I looked at the lineup one day and I was playing second,” Espinosa said. “They were just like ‘You’re going to start playing there every other day, just to keep things open. That’s what they want, that’s what they’ve asked you to do now.’ “
While Espinosa’s talent at shortstop was unquestioned - his meteoric ascent through the Nationals’ minor league system in less than two years was a testament to that - another youthful talent, Ian Desmond, was blocking his path to the major leagues.
The only way for the Nationals to max out the young infield potential they had in Espinosa and Desmond was to find a way to play them together. Seven minor league games at second base and an encouraging September’s worth of major league experience there, and Espinosa had the Nationals convinced they’d found a way.
As they prepare to break camp next week with one of the youngest double play tandems in the league, the Nationals have found a middle infield that has people talking.
“The key words are ‘could be,’ ” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “They potentially could be as good as any double play combination in the league.”
Desmond and Espinosa had never played together until Espinosa was called up to the big leagues on Sept. 1. At that point, the 23-year-old Espinosa had played just those seven professional games at second. Still, it didn’t take long for the 25-year-old Desmond, himself a highly touted prospect turned everyday major leaguer, to buy into the hype.
“Personally, they tried to move me to second base and it was really hard for me,” Desmond said. “I didn’t catch on quite like he did. The way he’s moved over there and the way he’s been playing over there is pretty incredible. (Cristian Guzman) played 14 years in the big leagues and it was hard for him to make that transition. Danny’s done it like that. He looks like a natural second baseman. I’m pretty impressed by that.”
The chemistry between the two developed easily. As Desmond put it, both players’ athleticism leads to “no fear” when they’re on the field. Rarely is there a ball one or the other can’t get to - or, at the very least, knock down. And while Desmond is considered the veteran between the two, it’s obvious that Espinosa’s emergence at second will have a significant impact on Desmond’s own confidence as a leader at short.
“It’s really nice to have somebody that has the same energy level,” Desmond said. “In the past, I would call off a fly ball and, you know, when you’re calling off a guy that’s got 15 years in the big leagues, it’s kind of hard.
“Now that it’s me and Danny, we kind of are on equal playing ground. … That’s something that I haven’t really had. It will be nice for us to both be out there, two young guys tackling the year together, as a team.”
In 2010 the Nationals turned 146 double plays, two above the average for the National League and 36 less than the Rockies’ league-leading 182. Sandwiched between a Gold Glove winner in Ryan Zimmerman at third and a first baseman known for his defense in Adam LaRoche, Desmond and Espinosa are taking aim at those numbers.
“I think as an infield for the Washington Nationals with Zim, me, Espy and LaRoche, there’s going to be a lot of double plays turned this year,” Desmond said.
“(Zimmerman and LaRoche) at the corners, Desi and I up the middle?” Espinosa said, pondering the possibility of it all. “That’s a pretty rangy infield with good hands. We should be able to turn a lot of double plays and stop a lot of balls.”