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May 4, 2011

On the Beat

State Secret

by John Perrotto

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All 30 of us on the Baseball Prospectus staff made our pre-season predictions in the days leading up to Opening Day. Two categories where I veered far off course from my colleagues were the American League East and National League Rookie of the Year.

I was the lone wolf among the two-and-a-half dozen who did not pick the Red Sox to win the AL East. Instead, I choose them third behind the Yankees and Rays.

As far as the NL rookie award, I was the only BP writer to put Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa in the top three. I choose him to finish second behind Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman.

So far, my Red Sox prediction appears rather prescient: they are currently third in the division with a 14-15 record.

Conversely, my Espinosa prediction doesn't look so hot. His slash line is just .219/.310/.354 through 114 plate appearances. However, MLB.com's Peter Gammons tabbed Espinosa as his pre-season Rookie of the Year choice. I don't think you can ever go wrong being on the same side as one of the game's all-time great baseball writers.

A closer look at Espinosa shows that he hasn't played all that badly. His True Average is .261, which is considered right around the major-league average, and the fact that he just turned 24 last week offers reason to believe he has room to grow as a player.

Nationals center fielder Rick Ankiel is a big fan of Espinosa. Ankiel offers a unique perspective as a talent evaluator, considering he won 11 games as a 20-year-old left-handed pitcher for the Cardinals in 2000 then hit 25 home runs for them eight years later after being converted into a center fielder.

"He's real humble and doesn't like to talk about himself, but he's a really good player," Ankiel said. "He has a lot of talent. He is still getting his feet on the ground, but once he gets settled in, I think he's going to be very good and one of the building blocks for this franchise."

While right-hander Steven Strasburg and catcher Bryce Harper understandably get almost all of the attention when talk turns to the team's future, the Nationals believe they could have a double-play combination for the long haul in Espinosa and 25-year-old shortstop Ian Desmond, who is in his second major-league season.

Espinosa is the more advanced offensive player, as the Nationals have had him supplant Desmond at the leadoff hitter in recent weeks. They like how Espinosa is willing to work the count. They are also intrigued by his power potential, as Espinosa hit five home runs in 112 plate appearances last September in his major-league debut to give him a .259 TAv on a .214/.277/.427 slash line.

Espinosa was a shortstop at Long Beach State, succeeding Troy Tulowitzki and Evan Longoria, and the Nationals selected him in the third round of the 2008 draft. Espinosa moved to second base last year only because of the presence of Desmond. Should Desmond flame out, the Nationals feel Espinosa has the range and arm to move back to shortstop.

"Danny has showed the type of tools that allow you to think he can be a good major-league player," Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said. "He hasn't showed the consistency yet, which is to be expected from a young player without a lot of experience. We see him as one of many reasons why, as an organization, we're very excited about the future."

Espinosa is more concerned about the present and making sure he can stick in the major leagues. He believes he is capable of putting up much better numbers.

"I haven't hit as well as I've wanted to," Espinosa said. "I'm getting my feet wet in the major leagues, getting comfortable with the surroundings, getting comfortable with my teammates and playing in the bigger ballparks. I'm getting used to all that. Now, the key is work hard to stay here. I'm trying to stay with a consistent plan and the repetition of staying in my routine. I think that is eventually going to pay off for me."

Espinosa admits that adjusting to major-league pitching is a difficult task, even after hitting a respectable .275/.365/.455 in 1,205 minor-league plate appearances.

"Everyone always told me the speed of the game would be the biggest adjustment I'd have to make when I got to the big leagues, but for me it's been the pitches I've faced," Espinosa said. "Almost every pitch you see at this level is a great one. When you're in the minor leagues, you're facing good prospects who throw their fastball 94-95 mph, but they might not be able to throw their curveball for a strike consistently. Up here, they throw 94-95 mph and put the curveball wherever they want. It's not easy."

The Nationals, though, seem to have no doubt that Espinosa will adjust. "He's a smart kid, he has a lot of baseball smarts, and he'll figure it out," veteran right-hander Jason Marquis said.

It also doesn't hurt that Espinosa is healthy for the first time since his professional debut season in 2008. He played for two years with a broken hamate bone in his right hand, which he had surgically removed at the end of last season.

"It's a huge difference because I didn't have strength in my right hand for a long time," Espinosa said. "I thought it was just fatigue. I didn't know. To actually have hand strength again is unbelievable. To be able to hold the bat and really grip it is great."

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Rumors and Rumblings: The Rays are looking to trade infielder Felipe Lopez after designating him for assignment on Tuesday when Longoria was activated from the disabled list. Lopez was pulled into manager Joe Maddon's office more than once this season for hot dogging and failing to hustle, leading one front-office type to say, "Lopez has already burned bridges in both leagues. At some point, he's got to run out of chances." … Right-hander Kevin Slowey is being stretched out as a starter on his minor-league rehab assignment when he comes off the DL. … Athletics closer Andrew Bailey (forearm), who has been on the DL all season, could begin a rehab assignment by the end of the week. … Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is likely out until at least mid-June following abdominal surgery, and the team will continue to use a mixture of Brian Bixler, Alex Cora, and Jerry Hairston Jr. in his place. ... Look for Allen Craig to eventually get an extended look at the hot corne, since the Cardinals do not plan to trade for a third baseman in the wake of David Freese's broken hand that could keep him out of action for as long as three months.

Mariners center fielder Franklin Gutierrez (stomach), who began a rehab assignment at Triple-A Tacoma, will likely spend the entire 20-day maximum in the minor leagues before being activated. ... Those around the Brewers believe it will be only a matter of time before Nyjer Morgan unseats Carlos Gomez as the starting center fielder. … The Orioles have some interest in signing right-hander Kevin Millwood, who opted out of his minor-league contract with the Yankees last weekend. Meanwhile, right-hander Alfredo Simon, charged with murder in the Dominican Republic in the offseason, will make his season debut with Double-A Bowie on Thursday and reportedly was throwing in the high 90s in extended spring training after losing 30 pounds following his arrest. … Mets center fielder Angel Pagan (oblique) is likely to be activated from the DL early next week.

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Scouts' views:

Astros outfielder Jason Bourgeois: "He's really become a nice weapon off the bench. He's turned into an outstanding base stealer, and he can get you a bag in a big late-inning situation."

Angels catcher Hank Conger: "I think he's going to be end up being an above-average catcher at the major-league level. He has some pop in his bat and he is making improvement defensively. He won't play for [manager] Mike Scioscia if he isn't a good defensive catcher, and the kid seems to understand that."

Pirates right fielder Garrett Jones: "You've got to give this guy credit, because he's really worked hard to be more than just a one-dimensional power hitter. He has become a pretty decent right fielder and you can't fall asleep when he is on the bases."

Dodgers first baseman James Loney: "At some point, the Dodgers are going to have to admit he is not an everyday first baseman. He can't hit lefties and he long ago let Dodger Stadium get into his head. He needs to be platooned and he needs a change of scenery."

Braves right-hander Derek Lowe: "He's always been a bit of a free spirit, which is fine, but I just don't understand how in the hell he could not only be drag racing but doing it while he was drunk. The Braves have long quietly let it be known they would move the guy in the right trade, and now I see why."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Major Leagues,  The Who,  Danny Espinosa

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