Danny Espinosa Really Hated Not Being an Everyday Starter

WASHINGTON — Few players have experienced an MLB career quite like the one Danny Espinosa has.

The Nationals shortstop made his major-league debut on Sept. 1, 2010. He went 22 for 103 with 6 home runs, 4 doubles, 1 triple, 9 walks and 30 strikeouts for the Nationals that season, then he took over the starting second baseman job full-time in 2011. Espinosa put up a .236/.323/.414 line with 21 home runs, 29 doubles, 66 RBIs, 72 runs and 17 stolen bases that year, finishing sixth in National League Rookie of the Year voting.

In 2012, Espinosa appeared to put it all together. He managed a .247/.315/.402 line and added 17 home runs, 37 doubles, 56 RBIs, 82 runs and 20 stolen bases while playing in 160 games, and he became one of the most reliable middle infielders in the league, committing just 13 errors all season — down from 14 in 2011 — but only six in 527 chances at second base.

Then 2013 came around, and everything fell apart. He played in just 44 games, thanks to injuries and a midseason demotion to the minors, and he hit just .158 with 25 hits and 47 strikeouts. He bounced back somewhat in 2014, playing in 114 games and putting up a .219/.283/.351 line, but he still struck out 122 times in 364 plate appearances.

He did enough to retain a spot on the big-league team for the 2015 season, when he hit .240/.311/.409 with 13 home runs and 106 strikeouts in 412 plate appearances, but he started in just 95 games — 74 at second base, 9 at third base, 5 at shortstop, 5 at first base and 2 in left field — and mostly served as a super utility player.

Then two things happened in the winter of 2015-16: Dusty Baker came along, and the roster turned over.

Ian Desmond, Asdrubal Cabrera, Yunel Escobar and others who had taken his innings in years past were gone. Ryan Zimmerman became cemented as the everyday first baseman, Anthony Rendon became the everyday third baseman and Daniel Murphy became the everyday second baseman. None of those three is a good enough fielder to play shortstop, and only Stephen Drew, Trea Turner and Brendan Ryan were around to compete with Espinosa for the starting job.

Drew has never been as strong in the field as Espinosa is, and he has endured similar struggles at the plate over the years. Ryan enjoyed a cup of coffee with the Nationals organization before being shipped out. Many fans around D.C. pleaded for Turner to be called up to take Espinosa’s place, but Baker stuck with Espinosa, who the Nationals drafted in the third round in 2008.

At first it seemed like a questionable move; by the end of April, Espinosa was hitting just .185/.316/.246 with 12 hits, 1 home run and 16 strikeouts. He started to find a rhythm in May, going .208/.283/.376 with five home runs, but he struck out 30 times in 114 plate appearances and was still a relative liability at the plate.

Then came June. Espinosa exploded, smacking nine home runs in 99 plate appearances, and he added 5 doubles, 21 RBIs, 21 runs, 11 walks, 2 stolen bases and just 21 strikeouts. His line for the month was a stellar .309/.418/.704. July rolled around and Espinosa kept it going. In six games, he already has 8 hits, 3 home runs, 8 RBIs, 5 runs and 6 strikeouts over 23 plate appearances, good for a .364/.391/.773 line.

Danny Espinosa is Making His Case

The scorching hot shortstop joined Grant and Danny on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoon to discuss not only his current roll, but also the journey he’s been on over the past few years with the Nationals.

“I think what’s coolest about this stretch here is that you’re right, that you’ve been proven — like you never really got this opportunity,” host Grant Paulsen said. “You go back to 2012, and I think this is when me and Danny became such big fans of yours, you hit for power, you hit .250 and you were a Gold Glove sterling defender. That plays on a good baseball team. That’s a starter on a [first-place] team. And that was the last time without anybody really messing with you, tinkering with you, that’s what you were. And then after that, this guy comes in or this guy’s traded for. How did you stay positive? Why weren’t you demanding trades? Why were you kind of content being here as this extra guy?”

“By no means was I at ease or content with what was going on,” Espinosa responded. “I wasn’t happy with the situation I was in, I didn’t want to be in that situation, I continued to try to push to get my starting job back. Last year was part of that, as far as when I had my opportunity to start when guys were injured, I was trying to prove to everyone — or to people I needed to — that I’m a starter, that I was a starter in my career, and I went through a couple injuries that took me out and I got replaced. At no point was I ever content with the job I was given of not playing every day.”

“Did you have conversations behind the scenes?” host Danny Rouhier asked. “It’s gotta be frustrating, and I know that, as a guy that’s a highly competitive athlete, someone that’s reached the level you have, and then have to deal with some of the setbacks, with the injury and other stuff. Did you have kinda behind-the-scenes convos where someone told you, ‘Listen, you could still be the guy here one day,’ or did you think it was ultimately gonna be somewhere else?”

“I wasn’t sure if it was gonna be here or somewhere else. I didn’t know if I was gonna be kept around here or not,” Espinosa answered. “I felt like other teams maybe could have used my service if I wasn’t going to be playing here at all. It was just one of those things where I have to keep coming to the field every day and still prepare every day to play, just in case I was, and I went about my business that way every day. I just kept grinding through everything, but I was never happy with not playing every day. I wanted to play every day. Any ballplayer wants to play every day. But I was still young, I was 26 years old, 27 years old and felt that I could play every day. I believed in myself, and I knew if I got the opportunity and if I had someone that wanted me on the field and believed in me that I could show ’em what I could do.”

Espinosa mentioned a few people who had his back while he struggled, including GM Mike Rizzo, hitting coach Rick Schu, former bench coach and current senior adviser to the general manager Randy Knorr. But he also specifically mentioned Baker, who was heavily criticized for not promoting Turner to the big-league squad to take over for Espinosa.

Whether Espinosa keeps this torrid pace up or not — for the record, even he thinks he’ll cool down somewhat — is largely irrelevant. He played a major role in the Nationals’ recent six-game win streak, which came on the heels of their seven-game losing streak, scoring five runs and knocking in nine in that time. He was enormous during their 10 wins in 12 games in early to mid-June, scoring 12 runs in that stretch.

The full call is available below.

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