ATLANTA — Seven games of minor league experience at second base were all Danny Espinosa had when he walked into the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse last Sept. 1. Jim Riggleman told the rookie that he’d fit him into the lineup when he could.
He played every day, and only once at shortstop.
Taking the reins at second base from the soon-to-be-departed Adam Kennedy, it was a typical September transfer. Veteran to rookie, past to future.
In Espinosa’s case, it was a monthlong preview of 2011, during which he’s played all 132 games at second base. The same happened with Ian Desmond at shortstop in 2009 and with Ryan Zimmerman at third base in 2005. As one Nationals official said this week, in baseball, it’s the natural order of things.
Since Davey Johnson took over as manager in June, Espinosa, 24, and Desmond, 25, have played every game up the middle together. They’re two young players, learning, developing and establishing themselves together. So what happens when the Nationals usher in a new wave of prospects, a rush likely to include highly regarded Triple-A infielder Steve Lombardozzi, and Johnson is tasked with finding somewhere for him to play?
“I think it was different with me and Kennedy,” Espinosa said, recalling how Kennedy - who he had grown up watching play for the Angels - helped serve as a mentor.
“I’m not going to give up my spot just to help someone,” he continued. “I won’t do that. … If that’s what happens, that’s what happens. I hope that doesn’t happen.”
Asked about the possibility of sitting to give experience to others, Espinosa was emphatic about the work he and Desmond had put in.
“I think we need the opportunity to finish our years,” he said. “We’ve worked too hard, and we’ve played every single game. We’re two young ballplayers. It’s not like we’re two older guys that are on the way out or something.
“No one’s talked to us and said that that’s what we’re going to do. I can’t speak for Ian, but the way I feel is that we’ve worked too hard and spent every day working together for someone to come up in September and all of a sudden for us to take the backseat. It’d be different if Desmond and I were 35 and 36 years old, huge difference.”
Espinosa, who’s found himself in the conversation at various points this season for Rookie of the Year and has been lauded as having Gold Glove potential, is not wrong. He and Desmond, who politely declined comment, have worked to improve - separately and together. They take ground balls and work on double plays every day, they’re tireless in the batting cage and while they’ve ebbed and flowed offensively, they’ve grown in the field, combining for 45 double plays of the 6-4-3 or 4-6-3 variety.
They’re the future in the middle infield, as the organization has said on numerous occasions, but Lombardozzi is hitting .314 in the minors (.318 at Triple-A) and well-thought of by the front office and player development personnel. He won’t be brought up to the major leagues to remain untested at this level. If he can help the Nationals, they’ll want to find out in the next month.
“I think most of us understand what the organization is trying to do - and sometimes competition is not bad,” said veteran infielder Alex Cora, who has spent significant time working with Espinosa and Desmond.
“If Lombardozzi comes in they’re not saying ‘This guy is going to be our shortstop or our second baseman.’ It’s just another piece of the puzzle,” Cora added. “[The front office] will make the decisions in the offseason and go into spring training. If they have to battle for a job, so be it. In my eyes, it only makes an organization better.
“The main goal at the end is to win, either with young guys or veteran guys or a mix of it. The whole thing is trying to set the right steps to win. We always talk here about, ‘We’re getting there, we’re getting there.’ If [bringing up prospects] is part of the process of getting there, if that will help, then that will help.”