Relaxed, healthy Espinosa to vie for starting job
Infielder aims to regain form after last season's hitting woes landed him in Minors
VIERA, Fla. -- Not only has Danny Espinosa arrived in Nationals camp early, but he looks relaxed and ready to reclaim his starting job at second base. On Sunday afternoon, for example, he was hitting line drives from both sides of the plate at Space Coast Field.
Espinosa is able to do his thing at the plate because new manager Matt Williams told him to relax and be himself. Espinosa is competing against Anthony Rendon for the job at second. Williams said the job is up for grabs.
"[Williams] just told me to just go out and play," Espinosa said. "He said, 'Let the style of game that suits me show.' Having him behind me … feels good. I feel free where I can just play and enjoy it."
Williams raves about Espinosa. The way he talks about him, one would never think that Espinosa is coming off the worst season of his young career. Williams said Espinosa is going to get a lot of playing time during the spring. Not only will he play second base, Espinosa will see time at shortstop and maybe third base.
"First, we know Danny has the capability of playing Gold Glove-caliber defense," Williams said. "He can hit 20 balls out of the ballpark a year. He can be competitive in every at-bat. I've been that guy, so I understand him.
"Way back earlier in my career, I had some pretty good years and then had a really bad one. So I understand what that feels like. I asked him to relax and play, let him know how valuable he is to our club and what he can do on an everyday basis to help this team win. Often times, we need to be reminded how good we are. I think he is a really good player."
Last year, Espinosa was far from being a good player. Espinosa spent most of the season at Triple-A Syracuse. He struck out a combined 148 times in 471 at-bats for the Nationals and Chiefs. He recently attributed his hitting woes to a right wrist injury he sustained last April against the Braves. On Sunday, Espinosa said he didn't want to talk about last season. He is healthy now, only wanting to talk about the present.
"I worked all offseason to get past that. I'm healthy and I'm ready to go," Espinosa said.
So how is Espinosa going to get his swing back? He is a much better hitter from the right side of the plate (.262 career hitter) than he is on the left (.220). Espinosa knows what he has to do to be more consistent on the left side -- stop thinking too much.
"From the left side, I know how many more at-bats I get left-handed," he said. "I think, sometimes, I dissect my swing so much that I'm up there thinking about my swing. I'm not thinking about seeing the ball or hitting the ball. I'm thinking about what I worked on and what I'm trying to do.
"Right-handed, having less amount of at-bats, I'm just staying on my swing and having a swing to where I feel good and not working on mechanics. I just go in the cages and say, 'I'm just going to loosen up. I'm going to hit the ball hard and feel good.' I don't dissect my swing right-handed like I do left-handed. I'm trying to carry that to the left-handed handed side. I'm trying to feel good. Feel consistent."
If things don't work out for Espinosa, he could be sent down to Triple-A Syracuse or he could be traded. There are at least a dozen teams who have inquired about Espinosa.
"I feel that some teams look at last year as a fluke. For me, that's a good feeling that they see that," Espinosa said. "My first priority is here. I love being a part of the Nationals. If we go our separate ways, we go our separate ways. If my services are needed somewhere else, then I'll do that. Right now, my sole focus is on the Nationals. This team is most important to me right now."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.