Espinosa Makes Seamless Transition To Second Base
Most players have vivid recollections of their debut game in the major leagues. For Espinosa, it will be even easier to remember than most.
There were 26 runs scored in the game—the Nationals lost 16-10 to the Marlins—and a bench-clearing brawl that began when Nationals outfielder Nyjer Morgan charged the mound after Marlins starter Chris Volstad threw behind him.
Espinosa also got his first big league hit that game—a double—and sparked a successful September call-up. He hit .214/.277/.447 over 112 plate appearances, but it was his defense that impressed the Nationals the most.
"We've made it very clear to him that we want him to go out there and play good defense for us and do what he can do," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said. "The hitting will take care of itself. . . but we're not putting any pressure on him that he's got to carry us in any way offensively. So, we're really happy with what he's done."
Espinosa learned a lot during his month in the big leagues and he's in position to be Washington's Opening Day second baseman.
"I realized the adjustments you have to make," Espinosa said. "You have to make them a lot faster. You can't look at it and think, 'Well, they're not going to pick up on that, they're just one team.' But that one team has the same video that all the other teams had and the same scouting reports that all the other teams had, so they all know what they have to do to get you out until you make that adjustment. And then when you make that adjustment, well they're going to try something else. So the word gets around a lot quicker."
His offensive numbers should improve as he makes those adjustments. Over 275 games in the minors since being a third-round pick out of Long Beach State in 2008, Espinosa hit .270/.365/.455.
The combination of his offensive potential and strong defensive ability lands Espinosa as Baseball America's No. 7 rookie entering the 2011 season.
Although Espinosa is in line to be the Nationals' Opening Day second baseman, he's relatively new to the position. Espinosa has always been a shortstop. He was a shortstop for USA Baseball's 16U gold medal team in 2003. He was a shortstop at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif., helping the team win a section title in 2005. And he was a shortstop at Long Beach State, following in the footsteps of Bobby Crosby, Troy Tulowitzki and Evan Longoria.
For many teams, Espinosa would still be playing shortstop. But the Nationals have Ian Desmond already entrenched there. Espinosa's athleticism helped him make a smooth transition to second base.
"He's a very athletic player and a super shortstop," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "He's got all the skills to play shortstop everyday in the big leagues, but we're fortunate enough that we have a player there in Ian Desmond, who we like over there also. (Espinosa) has the athleticism to move over to second base pretty much seamlessly, so that's why we made that decision."
Still, the move didn't come without some challenges. Espinosa had to learn how to read the ball off the bat differently and adjust to new positioning on relay throws and bunt plays. But the most difficult aspect of the switch was the new footwork around the bag.
"The biggest challenge was the double play," Espinosa said. "I hadn't been over to second base in forever to turn a double play and now you've got to worry about getting the ball and getting the double play turned and getting taken out and getting out of the way. If you're not used to the rhythm and your footwork over there, everything's tough and you're trying to keep yourself protected. . . but I'm pretty comfortable now."
Espinosa said he got a lot of help on the move from Jerry Browne and Trent Jewett at Triple-A and then from Adam Kennedy and Pat Listach when he got called up to the big leagues. During his month with the Nationals, Espinosa enjoyed playing alongside Desmond. The two feed off of each other's personalities.
"I think you have two above-average arms and we have more range and just the energy and we like to play the game," Espinosa said. "We're both talkative. We're not going to sit in the corner and sit on opposite ends of the dugout or anything like that. I feel like we both like to be in the middle of the team and want the team to have a good vibe and have fun and make the atmosphere a fun atmosphere. That's what it's supposed to be. You can't take it too heavily, I don't think, or you'll kill yourself. I've learned that. I used to be way too hard on myself all the time, which was a good thing, but it killed me a lot of time."
Desmond mentioned their high-energy style of play, as well, and has been impressed with how easy Espinosa has made it look after changing positions.
"Generally it's not easy to make that move, but he's made it look rather easy," Desmond said. "He goes over there and he seems pretty natural at it. He knows his way around the bag, he's got great coverage to the right and left side and he's got the high energy that we're looking for, so that makes it more fun and a little more compatible for me and him to work together because I'm kind of a high-energy guy also."
The Nationals feel that moving Espinosa to second base will basically give them two shortstops up the middle.
"Defensively, it means a lot to us," Rizzo said. "With a sinker-slider staff that we have, there's a lot of balls put in play. Desy's got as much range as anybody in the National League at shortstop and we think Espy is going to be a superb defensive second baseman."