Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Espinosa in the Room



Going into the 2015 season, all the pundits agreed that the Nationals only glaring weakness in the starting lineup was Danny Espinosa at second base. The Nationals got linked to all sorts of free agents and trade targets during the course of the season. As the dust begins to settle, the Nationals are now looking at… Danny Espinosa as the starting second baseman. I like Danny Espinosa more than most rational Washington fans, but even I recognize that this is an issue, although maybe not for the reasons you might think.

Before we get to the current state of the Nats, I’ll take one minute to discuss what the Nationals could have looked like had the Rays agreed to trade Yunel Escobar and Ben Zobrist to the Nationals in exchange for Ian Desmond. Taking a look at the Steamer 600 projections (a quick reminder for those unfamiliar, Steamer is a projection system used by Fangraphs that spits out a lot of data, including WAR. Steamer 600 takes those rates and averages them out over 600 PA to allow the ability to compare players in situations just like this), Zobrist is projected for 4.1 WAR and Escobar for 2.1 WAR versus the Nationals double play duo of Desmond at 2.8 and Espinosa at 0.7. That quick calculation appears to put the Rays former duo ahead of the Nationals. I think the Steamer systems is selling Desmond short and, in fact, the ZiPS system (another projection system from Dan Szymborski) pegs Desmond for around 4 WAR. At that rate, the duos are about even, given the margin of error for the projections. The biggest difference would be that Zobrist is a free agent after 2015, while Escobar has 2 years left (or even 3 with a club option) on his deal and Desmond is a free agent after 2015. Zobrist likely walks after the season, but you can keep Escobar, hoping one of the minor league infielders can take over at short when his deal expires. 

As much as I love Desmond, it certainly appears that the Nationals will not be resigning him to the big deal he wants. This missed trade, then, looks like one the Nationals might end up regretting. Zobrist can play second, but he can also play nearly every other position on the diamond. So he could be used to give outfielders a day off or sub in for Werth until he returns from his surgery. Escobar might actually end up outperforming his projections as his 2014 season ranked him as one of the worst defenders in the league after several years of impressing with the glove. In short, you wouldn’t have lost any value in the big picture of 2015 and would have gained some depth and flexibility, which, as we will see, is valuable in itself. Plus with Escobar sticking around, the Nationals wouldn’t be left hanging out to dry trying to fill the shortstop position for 2016.

There is no point in living in the could have been, so time to focus on the here and now. While Espinosa certainly can’t be counted on to hit well, especially against right handed pitchers, his defense is a big plus and, stealing a quote from Fangraph’s Jeff Sullivan with a hat tip to Ben Franklin, “a run saved is a run earned.” After all, just up the road, the Orioles won the AL East and very nearly made the World Series giving almost 500 plate appearances to Jonathan Schoop at second base and his 0.6 WAR. One offensive hole in a lineup does not a lineup break, especially with all the offensive potential in the rest of the Nationals lineup. The Athletics have remained one of the best teams in the majors by eliminating bad players from their team, meaning they don’t have any negative value players that could end up in the lineup, even after some injuries. After all the offseason moves, the same can’t be said about the Nationals.

When trying to get Espinosa a day off in 2015, his replacement at the moment is the all star (in case you missed it, that was sarcasm) Kevin Frandsen. If Desmond needs a day off, he is replaced by Espinosa who is replaced by Frandsen. To really appreciate that impact, think about it in terms of WAR. Estimate Desmond at 4 WAR, Espinosa at 1, and Frandsen at 0 WAR. Going from Desmond/Espinosa up the middle to Espinosa/Frandsen means moving from 5 WAR to 1 WAR. Better hope nothing serious happens to Desmond in that case.

I don’t think Mike Rizzo will let that lack of depth stand the whole 2015 season, but the chances to make a move are running out. The free agent ranks are growing thin, and you are going to have a hard time convincing someone of actual value to agree to be a bench player or platoon player when they could likely pick up a starting position in the middle infield of another team (see: Mets SS). The big name guys on the trade market have already been dealt, and it is painful to give up a piece of real value for a part time player in a trade. Unfortunately, at this rate is really might come down to hoping to catch lightning in a bottle by signing a past his prime veteran free agent and praying for a break out year a la Steve Pearce and the Orioles. 

On top of the concern for 2015, the long term future for the Nationals is even cloudier. Sure, the Nationals have some interesting pieces in the minors, but they are at best several years away from being major league ready. When you consider the rate at which prospects go bust, it is very difficult to bet the future of the franchise on single A players. If Desmond does walk, you have big holes at both second and shortstop and those two positions are notoriously short on talent. Let’s hope Rizzo has another trick up his sleeve before opening day.

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