Second base “open competition,” says Nats manager Matt Williams

That gives hope to Danny Espinosa as he tries to shake off a down season

VIERA, FLA. — Danny Espinosa is the most intriguing player at spring training for the Nationals.

The 26-year-old, once expected to be a stalwart at second base in Washington until a disastrous 2013 derailed his career, hopes to win his old job back. And while Anthony Rendon looks to be the favorite after getting his feet wet in the big leagues last season, new manager Matt Williams is open to giving Espinosa that chance.

“I believe it’s open competition. And that’s all you can say about it at this point,” Williams said on Sunday. “They haven’t even taken their first grounder officially yet. But I think that it’s good to have competition in spring. It makes guys come into camp ready and they’re both going to be competing. And I think that’s a good thing. So there’s no favorite at this point. We’re going to give them both ample opportunity to become the starter and we’ll see where we go.”

That’s encouraging to Espinosa. Williams has emphasized the positive with him so far this winter. Almost every time he’s asked about Espinosa, Williams will bring up his gold-glove caliber defense at second base, his ability to handle shortstop defensively and his power at the plate. Espinosa hit 37 home runs combined in 2011 and 2012.

Unmentioned are Espinosa’s struggles hitting from the left side of the plate as a switch hitter or his strikeout totals, which became untenable last spring and led to a demotion to the minors. And even at Triple-A Syracuse last summer strikeouts were an issue. Espinosa never returned to the big leagues after being sent down in early June.

Williams also mentions often his own downfall after being one of the best players in baseball in 1990 and 1991. He hit 67 home runs combined those two seasons, drove in 220 runs, won a gold glove at third base, played in an All-Star game and finished sixth in the MVP voting in the National League. Yet in 1992, at age 26, Williams dropped to 20 homers and had a .670 OPS. He knows what Espinosa is going through.

The Nats plan to get Espinosa plenty of at bats all spring and time in the field at second base, shortstop and even third base. If his bat comes around and he wins the utility position – or even his old job, if Williams is serious – then he becomes a versatile, valuable presence. But Espinosa has to get back to being that player first. And that, early in camp, is where Williams‘ conversations with Espinosa have started. 

“I asked him to relax and play and let him know how valuable he is to our club and what he can do on an every day basis to help this team win,” Williams said. “Often times we need to be reminded of how good we are. I think he’s a really good player. So that’s all I’ve told him. I asked him to just simply play.”

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