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In Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa the Nationals have something that perhaps no other team in baseball has, two promising young shortstops who are both ready to play in the Majors. Rumors have recently circulated that Desmond has drawn strong trade interest. With the Winter Meetings right around the corner, let’s take a look at both players and see what Nationals’ best course of action is.
Desmond had a solid, if unspectacular rookie campaign. In addition to hitting 10 homers, Desmond swiped 17 bags in 22 attempts. Those numbers, combined with his 269/308/392 triple slash line were good enough for a .308 wOBA, nothing to sneeze at for a rookie shortstop. While Desmond only amassed 1.1 WAR in 2010, his glove was the primary culprit. UZR totaled his defensive contribution at -8.8 runs, but there is reason to think Desmond will improve in the field in 2011. He has the tools to be a solid defender at short, and according to UZR his range is actually above average (2.7 runs saved in 2010). The problem was the 34 errors Desmond committed, leading the league by seven errors. Assuming Desmond cuts down on the defensive miscues and makes a bit of progress with the bat (Bill James projects a .331 wOBA), he’ll likely be worth north of two wins in his sophomore campaign.
Drafted out of Long Beach State in the 3rd round of the 2008 draft, Espinosa looks poised to continue the tradition of Dirtbag shortstops forging productive careers in the big leagues. While he’s not flashy in the field, Espinosa is fundamentally sound and has the arm to play short. At the plate, patience and power are Espinosa’s calling cards. In 1,205 minor league plate appearances, Espinosa has put up a 270/365/455 triple slash line. While he struggled in his first taste of the big leagues last season, Bill James projects a .336 wOBA to go with 21 homeruns in 2011. If Espinosa comes close to this projection, he’ll be close to a league average shortstop in his rookie season.
While both players are very valuable, there is little potential that either player becomes an impact talent. Chances are Desmond will always be error-prone. Espinosa has patience and power, but he has also shown the propensity to swing-and-miss. With a 25.7% career minor league k rate, Espinosa will struggle to hit for much average in the big leagues.
With two solid shortstops and no second baseman, the Nationals looked poised to do the obvious thing and slide Espinosa to second. But playing Espinosa at second fails to take advantage of the full value he offers. The offensive demands placed on a second baseman are higher than those placed on a shortstop. Espinosa is likely to become an above average offensive shortstop, but at second his production is much more pedestrian. He would likely recoup some of this value by becoming an above average defender at second. After all, second baseman are generally weaker defenders than shortstops, but Espinosa’s defensive skill-set is not as well-suited to a move across the bag as some other recent position changers.
One of the main differences between the positions is the arm strength needed to play shortstop. The best candidates to switch from short to second are those players with solid range but with arms that prevent them from playing short. Neither Desmond nor Espinosa fit that description. Most reports site Espinosa’s arm as his strongest defensive tool.
A look at recent players who have moved from short to second supports this notion. Guys with fringy arm strength for short like Ryan Theriot and David Eckstein are better defensive second basemen. Theriot has a career UZR/150 of +1.4 at short and +4.4 at second. Eckstein shows a similar boost, going from -2.4 at short to +1.7 at second. However, players with plenty of arm for short, like Clint Barmes, aren’t significantly better at second. UZR rates Barmes as a +6 defender at short, essentially equal to his +5.6 rating at second.
You obviously can’t play two players at one position, so to take full advantage of the value that Desmond and Espinosa offer, the Nationals should look to trade one of the two.
Lucky for the Nationals, there is a dramatic scarcity of quality shortstops in the majors today. Ten teams received a win or less of replacement value from their starting shortstop last year. That’s a full third of the league getting close to replacement level production from a single position! And that doesn’t count Orlando Cabrera and Miguel Tejada who eeked out 1.3 WAR each.
The Astros, Royals, Orioles, Pirates, and Padres all have gaping holes at shortstop, and even after acquiring Miguel Tejada, reports indicate that the Giants may still be looking for help at short. The Cardinals just traded for Ryan Theriot, but if Skip Schumaker doesn’t show signs of improving upon his disastrous 2010, Theriot will spend the majority of his time on the right side. That’s six teams who are looking to acquire a shortstop this winter.
Making matters worse for these teams, replacement options are scant. Orlando Cabrera and Cesar Izturis headline the available free agents, and the trade market is similarly weak. The only players seemingly available are Jason Bartlett and, depending upon whether the Twins view Tsuyoshi Nishioka as a shortstop or second baseman, JJ Hardy. But neither player will be cheap, as both are entering their final year of arbitration. It doesn’t make sense for many of the teams listed previously to give up a prospect and then have to pay Hardy or Bartlett more than $5 million in a year many of the teams with a hole at short are unlikely to make a run at the playoffs. That’s the beauty of Desmond and Espinosa. Because they are cost-controlled, the two should appeal to every team without a reliable option at short.
It’s always tough to part with young players, but in a market bereft of quality shortstops GM Mike Rizzo will likely find a team willing to give up significant talent to secure either shortstop.
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