Danny Espinosa was back in town over the weekend, sporting two things he didn't have the last time he was around: a healthy right wrist and a smile.
The 2013 season is over, and that's a good thing for Espinosa. Once seen as the long-term answer for the Nationals at second base, he'll report to spring training next month back in a prove-it mode. That's fine with him.
"The biggest thing is I know if I'm given a fair opportunity to win my job, I can win my job," Espinosa said during a visit with the media at Saturday's NatsFest.
"I've never asked for anything to be handed to me. If I get a fair opportunity to win my job, I feel I can do it."
Espinosa, 26, hit 21 home runs in 2011 and 17 more in 2012. He played exceptional defense. Even going into the 2013 season with a rotator cuff issue, there was no reason to project the season would be as miserable as it ended up being for him.
He was hit by a pitch by Atlanta's Paul Maholm on April 14. The original diagnosis was a bone bruise. Nope. It was a broken wrist, which wasn't revealed until weeks later. When Espinosa was finally sent to the minors on June 2, he was carrying a batting average of .158 with only three home runs.
"Mentally, it was really tough," Espinosa said. "Having success in the big leagues, I always felt I contributed a lot to the team, to just being completely off the map. Knowing I couldn't do anything. I couldn't swing the bat. I couldn't do anything."
It would be easy for the Nats to just move on, to pencil in Anthony Rendon at second base and maybe find a trade partner who would take on Espinosa, or try to fit him into a utility role.
Either of those options may still happen, but the Nats aren't all that eager to just give up on a still-young player who showed so much promise when healthy. General manager Mike Rizzo and new manager Matt Williams have reached out to Espinosa several times this offseason, assuring him he'd get that fair chance he wanted.
"His head's in the right place, yes," Rizzo said. "He has a great attitude and he has worked extremely hard this offseason. He has great skills and tools and is a guy who has proven he can play and perform at the big league level and he's going to come to spring training with a great attitude and ready to take a job and make a team."
Williams has had conversations with most of his players since being named to replace Davey Johnson. He wanted to establish a line of communication with Espinosa, to let him know the opportunity would be there.
Two years after driving in a league-high 122 runs in 1990, Williams had a season with a .227 average and only 66 RBI.
"I've been that guy," Williams said. "Sometimes it starts going that way and you can't stop it. So I understand that. What got me out of it, what gets most players out of it, is just the ability to relax and play. That's what I want him to do. We're going to give him a lot of reps at short, a lot of reps at second base, get him a lot of at-bats, get his stroke feeling good. If he can do all those things, then he has a chance to be a real integral part of the team.
"I want him to be him. I want him to play and not have expectations other than competing for a job and letting it fly in spring training. Do what he does. Because if he does that, then he's a valuable part of our team."
Espinosa said a chance to get away from baseball, to relax a while with family and friends, has helped him clear his head and forget a forgettable season. He's hired a personal trainer. His wrist, he said, feels great. His shoulder, he said, never turned into a problem last season and still feel great.
He wishes he'd known the full extent of his injury sooner, but that is no guarantee his season would have turned out differently.
A bruise is not going to keep him from playing. A broken bone?
"I shouldn't have" been playing, Espinosa said. "At the time time, I'm not the doctor reading the film. Yeah, I shouldn't have been playing on a broken wrist the whole year. Like I said, you're told you have a bruise, you're going to play through a bruise. Everyone plays through bumps and bruises. If I would have known it was a broken wrist, I wouldn't have been playing at all."
Espinosa wasn't recalled when the rosters expanded in September. He said he's OK with that, his performance didn't merit a return. Time has healed more than the physical wounds. If there's any lingering bitterness, he's doing what he can to keep it well hidden.
Given his versatility, a utility role would work for Espinosa. He's not thinking along those lines now. His only thought is to become the Nationals' second baseman again.
"If I don't win my job, that [utility role] could be something I could fall back into," Espinosa said.
Williams also isn't ready to pin a utility label on Espinosa. He watched him from across the diamond while serving as a coach in Arizona. He saw the exceptional glove, the range, the power at the plate.
"I just think there's great potential there and I'm not alone," Williams said. "There were multiple calls from teams throughout baseball this offseason, so I know I'm not the only one thinking that and the Nationals aren't the only team thinking that.
"Now, he has to put it together. He has to play and he has to play well and be effective. So that's the objective going in."
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