BaseballAmerica.com recently released its top 10 prospect list for the Washington Nationals and coming in at No. 3 is second baseman Danny Espinosa.
Aaron Fitt of Baseball America recently told MASNsports.com’s Byron Kerr that, "Long Beach State is a shortstop factory where Troy Tulowitzki, Bobby Crosby and Evan Longoria played shortstop for a year when he was there. Espinosa is the next guy in that progression."
Fitt added that Espinosa has "surprising pop," he is able to "get on base and make things happen" and is "going to have a lot of doubles. He will give you 10, 15, maybe 20 home runs a year."
Fitt said, defensively, Espinosa is a good player with a strong arm and good range.
Most believe Espinosa will be a long-term member of the Nationals, whether at second or perhaps shortstop if Ian Desmond is traded.
Nowhere on Baseball America’s top 10 list, though, is another second baseman who has been every bit as impressive in his three years with the Nationals’ organization: Stephen Lombardozzi.
The Nationals have made great strides towards respectability over the past couple offseasons. However, if they hope to transform themselves from moribund loser to divisional contender, they need to improve their up-the-middle defense while finding a true leadoff hitter, a quality contact speedster with a high on-base percentage.
Nyjer Morgan, the team’s leadoff hitter, has a career on-base percentage of just .344 and strikes out 17 percent of the time (an average of 101 times per season). He’s acceptable for now, but the Nationals need someone better when they make that final leap towards not sucking.
Espinosa certainly isn’t a leadoff hitter and his defense, while an improvement over Cristian Guzman and Adam Kennedy, isn’t Gold Glove quality.
In three minor league seasons, Espinosa had a .964 fielding percentage with a 4.42 range factor. His scouting report calls his defense “unpolished” and not good enough to play shortstop at the major league level.
Hence the move to second base.
Lombardozzi, along with Espinosa, was picked in the 2008 amateur draft—albeit, in the 19th round—and has a minor league career fielding average of .983 while committing 20 fewer errors than Espinosa in 200 more chances.
His defense is described as "polished" and "steady." His range is much better than Espinosa and he looks like a young man whose father (Steve Lombardozzi) played in the major leagues.
If in fact the Nationals let Adam Dunn leave because the team was trying to upgrade the defense, then it would make more sense if Lombardozzi—and not Espinosa—was the team’s long-term answer at second base.
Ryan Zimmerman at third and Adam LaRoche at first are as good as they come defensively. Ian Desmond—if he can continue to reduce his throwing errors—can become a dominant defensive shortstop. The addition of Stephen Lombardozzi would only make them better.
Espinosa and Lombardozzi are two very different types of offensive players. Here are Espinosa’s career numbers based on a full 162-game season:
Minor Leagues (three seasons):
.270/.345/.455, 28 doubles, 5 triples, 22 homeruns, 80 RBI, 31 steals, 73 walks, 145 strikeouts
2009 Arizona Fall League:
.345/.434/.460, 35 doubles, 5 triples, 5 home runs, 98 RBI, 21 steals, 105 walks, 162 strikeouts
2010 Dominican Winter League:
.281/.343/.483, 36 doubles, 10 triples, 12 home runs, 88 RBI, 54 steals, 30 walks, 140 strikeouts
2010 Major Leagues
How Many Games Will The Nationals Win in 2011?
.214/.277/.447, 23 doubles, 6 triples, 35 home runs, 87 RBI, 52 walks, 174 strikeouts
Espinosa has a history of a relatively low batting average and on-base percentage, a good deal of home runs for a middle infielder, few walks and a whole lot of strikeouts.
This is not the kind of guy you want at the top of the batting order, though. On a good team, he would probably bat sixth or seventh. I think that when his career is over, he’ll have averaged .250/.320/.450 with 20 homers and 75 RBI.
There is certainly nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that the Nationals need a leadoff hitter.
Here are Lombardozzi’s minor league averages over his three seasons (again based on 162 games):
A slash-line of .293/.373/.402 with 33 doubles, 9 triples, 5 home runs, 50 RBI, 22 stolen bases, 77 walks and 89 strikeouts.
In the Arizona Fall League this past season, he averaged .293/.385/.439.
Over his career, Danny Espinosa has struck out 29 percent of the time while walking in just 8 percent of his at-bats. Lombardozzi, on the other hand, walks in 11 percent of his at-bats while striking out just 12 percent of the time.
Two or three years ago, it wouldn’t have mattered which player started for the Nationals. The team was so bad that it wouldn't have made a difference if their second baseman was a contact hitter or a power bat.
Things are finally starting to come together, though. The Nationals are close enough to respectability where a player here or a player there could be the needed difference.
Ian Desmond and Nyjer Morgan set the table for Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham last season, but combined for only a .312 on-base percentage. Sluggers can’t drive in runners who aren’t on base.
Perhaps the lack of base runners at the top of the order cost the Nationals five or six games last year, but the difference between 64 and 69 wins is meaningless.
The difference, however, between 80 and 85 wins is being in contention for the Wild Card spot.
Over the past couple of months, the Nationals have made offers to free agent pitchers Jorge de la Rosa and Carl Pavano and had a trade in place for Zack Greinke before the former Royal invoked his no-trade clause.
If the Nationals are really interested in adding another starter, Matt Garza has been available for quite some time. The Rays need a middle infielder and a relief pitcher. It would make perfect sense for Washington to trade Espinosa and either Drew Storen or Tyler Clippard (and perhaps a minor league prospect) to Tampa for Garza.
The recently-signed Henry Rodriguez could replace Storen or Clippard, and Lombardozzi could take over at second. If he needs a little more seasoning, the Nationals could sign a veteran infielder, such as David Eckstein, to fill in until he is ready.
The time for fill-in players has come and gone for the Washington Nationals. It’s time to put those in place who can help the team win.
Stephen Lombardozzi is one of those players.