- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 11, 2016

Adam Eaton’s arrival was the alarm for Danny Espinosa. Sending a trio of prospects to the Chicago White Sox for the center fielder last week began Espinosa’s ouster, one that became official on Saturday night when he was traded to the Los Angeles Angels for two minor league pitchers.

The trade for Eaton pushed Trea Turner back to shortstop from center field. That meant Espinosa was looking at a utility role, one that he had fought against for years and would not graciously accept a season after playing full-time at his beloved shortstop spot.

“I’ve been with Espi a long time,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said Sunday. “I knew he’d be frustrated with the bench role.”

So, Rizzo accommodated Espinosa in one way by trading the Santa Ana, California, native to Los Angeles. He will have to play second base there, but appears in line to play on a daily basis. In the District, Turner takes over at shortstop, a 23 year old who finished second in Rookie of the Year voting last season despite only playing half the games and doing so while out of position in center field. Espinosa leaving gives Turner a chance on the marquee not just in Washington, but across the league.

For two years, Turner has searched for regularity. He was hung up after the December 2014 trade between the Nationals and San Diego Padres. Turner became the “player to be named later” in the deal, then had to remain playing in the minor leagues for an organization he knew he would not be part of in the future. He moved into Washington’s hands in June of 2015, then blazed through the league last season from the Nationals’ outfield. Turner’s .342 batting average would have been third in the National League if he had enough at-bats to qualify. His .937 OPS would have been fifth, just behind MVP Kris Bryant (.939). He was dynamic.

Each day after taking fly balls during batting practice, Turner would return to the infield like a little brother trying to sneak in time at a spot the older guys wouldn’t let him play. Washington wasn’t ready to remove Espinosa’s high-end defense from shortstop in the middle of last season despite the woes his bat delivered when not hitting for power. Turner was still honing his shortstop work — he had issues at Triple-A Syracuse before “settling down” — when his education was interrupted by the Nationals’ desperation. Center field and the leadoff were holes. Washington had to create a way to get Turner on the field. So, out he went into the vastness.

“A little bit harder than I thought it would be,” Turner said Sunday.

Next season, he will be at shortstop next to Daniel Murphy. The thought of pairing him with Murphy could well have contributed to the Nationals’ hesitation last season. Murphy has long been viewed as a below average defender at second base. Last season, he worked with bench coach Chris Speier, Espinosa and backup infielder Stephen Drew to improve his defense. Speier wanted Murphy to be alive on his feet; think of a basketball player in proper defensive position, slightly leaning forward toward his toes and not flat-footed before it is time to react. Murphy made nine errors last season, which was a reduction from his 2012 (15), 2013 (16) and 2014 (15) totals when he was a full-time second baseman. Speier said he was pleased with Murphy’s defense. However, most metrics still rate him as a below-average defender.

Espinosa out and Eaton in also means a new top of the order is likely. Turner hit second most of his time in the minor leagues with the Padres. His move to the top of the order came last season. In the last three seasons, when Eaton’s on-base percentage was a brisk .362, he almost exclusively hit first. Moving Turner to hit second may reduce his stolen base attempts, since opportunities dwindle when the No. 3 and 4 hitters are at the plate — though it can lengthen the Nationals’ lineup and put exceptional speed in front of the players responsible for driving in runs. A lineup with Eaton and Turner in the first two spots could move Ryan Zimmerman or Anthony Rendon all the way to seventh.

“Doesn’t matter to me,” Turner said. “Whatever works.”

Espinosa’s departure ended an eight-year run for him with the organization, bringing reliever Austin Adams and starter Kyle McGowin to the Nationals. It also lays out a path for Turner to move into a new crop of young star shortstops. Turner lost the National League Rookie of the Year award to Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager, who was also one of three finalists for MVP. He’s just 22. Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor, 23, has a Gold Glove and an All-Star Game appearance already. Carlos Correa, 22, in Houston and Xander Bogaerts, 24, in Boston are young stars at the position. Eaton’s arrival knocked dominoes down, opening a chance for Turner to join that crowd. What’s next is up to him.

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