The Nationals Shortstop Surplus

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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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47 Responses to “The Nationals Shortstop Surplus”

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  1. Wally says:

    Makes sense. Baltimore seems like the obvious team to trade with, using one of their young starters. If they can get past the territorial issue. Nats probably have to sweeten their end a little bit.

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  2. DavidCEisen says:

    “The best candidates to switch from short to second are those players with solid range but with arms that prevent them from playing short.”

    Desmond has above average range at short, and I’m guessing some of those 34 errors were throwing errors. Why isn’t he a good candidate to be switched over?

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  3. Wally says:

    I have seen him a lot, and it is a cannon.

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  4. pm says:

    There is a lot wrong in this article. If Espinosa has a .336 wOBA he is not average. He is like a 3-4 WAR player with those numbers because of his good defense. I’m not sure how someone at a stats website like Fangraphs can be so wrong on that. By my math, that makes him a +2.5 offensive player. If you add in the 7.5 position adjustment, that makes him a 3 WAR player. But his defense is real good so he will be a 3.5-4 WAR player. Since when is that average?

    Espinosa is not the obvious choice to move to 2B. He is clearly a better defender than Desmond so it makes sense to move the weaker defender to 2B (Desmond).

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  5. Pat says:

    If the Twins don’t end up acquiring Nishioka, anyone think they’ll make a move on these guys in favor of having Casilla as a full timer?

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    • tbr says:

      The Twins may start Nishioka at shortstop, but they will quickly find that to be a mistake…and move him to second post-haste.

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      • Pat says:

        I can’t see them giving up Hardy unless someone wants to give up some stellar relief options and/or a prospect or two

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  6. Jeeves says:

    Pirates, hmmm. How about a trade for McCutchen, with one of our shortstops as the center piece?

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  7. Steve says:

    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.

    Ok, but you still need to play someone at 2B, or else you’re going to give up a ton of singles….

    In other words, what better 2nd baseman are the Nationals going to wind up with by trading a guy you just said projects for a .336 wOBA and 21 HRs? Are you really going to find a 2nd baseman that is so much better it justifies the extra salary he is sure to command? Who are these available 2nd basemen that are sitting around with numbers better than that projection??

    The Nats have their middle infield locked up and playing for the minimum, they should focus their effort and money elsewhere, namely their rotation and now 1B. Is it really such a big deal that Espinosa’s positional adjusted value is not optimized under this arrangement??

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    • If the Nationals were likely to make a playoff push this year, playing Espinosa at second would make sense. But with Strasburg hurt and, as you mention, several other holes to fill, they should be focusing on stockpiling as much talent as possible.

      The positional adjusted value is just a portion of the equation. With such a low supply of shortstops available and many teams searching for one, Espinosa or Desmond would likely fetch a higher return than perhaps a vacuum analysis would dictate. Capitalizing on the current market, and getting the surplus value that will help the team in the future is what I’m advocating for.

      If doing that means running out a below average second baseman in 2011, I think that’s a price that’s worth paying.

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  8. tbr says:

    Certainly Fangraphs adjudges the Royals to have a “gaping hole” at shortstop – and I’m not going to disagree per se – but they are still intending to play Yuniesky Betancourt at short for one more year.

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  9. CJ says:

    The number of errors by Desmond qualifies as ugly. But, when I have watched the Nats on several occasion and seen a few of those errors, I wondered how much Desmond’a fielding would improve if someone other than Dunn was at first base. Despite his height, Dunn doesn’t seem adept at saving off-line throws to 1st base.

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  10. Piccamo says:

    I’d love to see the Orioles fill their hole at shortstop with one of these guys, but like all things, it would come down to price. I am wondering though, Is Reed MacPhail any relation to Andy MacPhail? ;)

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  11. YD says:

    How has no one commented on this guy’s pen name yet

    Read McFail

    More like… just fail

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  12. Big Jgke says:

    Discussions like this make the Jays acquisition of Yunel Escobar for old man Gonzalez look really really really good.

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  13. J says:

    How about putting an apostrophe in the article title to indicate the possessive, and removing it from where only a plural is intended?

    Please?

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    • matt w says:

      Eh, Espinosa is a Nationals shortstop, Desmond is a Nationals shortstop, so there’s a surplus of Nationals shortstops. It’s defensible.

      I actually read it at first as “The national shortstop surplus,” with Bartlett, Hardy, and Brendan Ryan all potential trade bait. May not seem like much of a surplus, but when Ronny Cedeno is your team’s shortstop it seems like a lot of potential upgrades.

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  14. von_bluff says:

    Even with Adam Dunn’s departure, I’m expecting the Nationals to take another step foward this year. Whoever they replace Dunn with, whether it’s Berkman, Pena, or LaRoche; will be a major upgrade defensively. If the pitching staff can keep the ball down, the defensive infield could be like a giant pac-man machine and gobble up everything close. Offensively, they’ll miss the 40 homeruns but the game is smallball now and the Nationals have the tools to matchup. I guess we’ll see the old offense vs. defense argument at its finest this upcoming season.

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    • DCUnited says:

      Carlos Pena’s last two seasons are -4.6 and -2.8 UZR. His career UZR is -16.2 at the easiest defensive position. His bat is a complete joke. He’s 32 compared to 30 for Dunn. Dunn’s UZR in his first season at 1B was -3.1. There’s no defensive difference between Dunn and Pena and Dunn’s bat is twice that of Pena.

      LaRoche is a plus defender and a solid bat. That would be a good enough replacement despite the probable 1.5 dropoff in WAR.

      Berkman’s UZR at 1B the last two years is -3.5 and +3.7. He’s likely a better fielder but not by much at this point and he’ll be 35.

      Dunn was the clear top option and not anywhere near the defensive anathema that common belief claims.

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  15. Paul says:

    My biggest problem with this article is the suggestion that Desmond will always be error-prone. Based on? Twelve of those were throwing errors, and fans have stated in previous articles that he improved as the season went on. With anybody but Dunn over there he should improve on the throwing errors.

    The rationale for trading one of them doesn’t hold. Why would you trade two cost-controlled, plus offense and defense shortstops? Nobody is going to give them what they are worth for the next five seasons as a duo. Rizzo would be a fool not to let them develop and have that as a strength once Strasburg returns and Harper arrives. He’s in a great position, you are over-thinking this one.

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    • DCUnited says:

      When will the garbage about Dunn at 1B stop? He was below average but right in the same range as Pena, Teixeira, and Butler last season while being miles ahead of guys like Howard and Konerko.

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      • Phil says:

        @ DC United

        Comparing Dunn to Pena in terms of fielding first base is simply insane.

        Just check out the fielding statistics on this very site.

        Dunn’s UZR/150: -38.5
        Pena’s UZR/150: -3.8

        Are you trying to say that Dunn, who cost the Nationals almost 40 runs per 150 games is a better defensive player than Carlos Pena.

        Poppycock. Pena, while sporting a horrendous, Rob Deer-ian bat, will do nothing but aid young fielders like Desmond and Espinosa.

        Dunn was WELL below the average of regular first basemen. He is, defensively, garbage.

        As a hitter, well, that’s a different story.

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      • DCUnited says:

        Dunn’s UZR/150 was -38.5?

        Nope. His UZR/150 for his only season at 1B was -3.3. Did you just lie Phil, or can you not read?

        The actual UZR/150 for Dunn and Pena last year (the only year for Dunn as a full time 1B):

        Dunn -3.3
        Pena -3.7

        That’s right, Pena was WORSE defensively than Dunn.

        Keep trying though.

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      • DCN says:

        Dunn was a terrible outfielder, but he’s just nowhere near that bad at first base. Doesn’t have as much ground to cover, doesn’t have to make a lot of throws, and his size is a plus. His terrible fielding numbers from his OF days are more of a result of playing him out of position than anything else.

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      • Phil says:

        Whoops, accidentally quoted 2009′s stats, not making anything up. Didn’t realize Graphs didn’t update the 2010 stats.

        Anyways, we have no way of knowing how good Dunn really is at 1st base without the requisite 3 year sample size.

        Can you argue that Dunn makes a better 1st baseman for a National League team than DH?

        I will keep trying, though.

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      • DCUnited says:

        There’s no spot with a -38.5 UZR/150 for Dunn regardless of position. It’s simply a made up number.

        Dunn played good enough 1B for his bat. He’s not a good fielder, and likely wont be, but those of us that watched him play were pleasantly surprised that he wasn’t bad, just below average. He was better than1B with good reputations built on seasons long past like Konerko and Pena.

        Plenty of work has been done showing that the Nats throwing errors towards 1B, specifically Zimmerman and Desmond, primarily were not plays that other 1B would have made. Many of those errors were tosses air-mailed into the stands or camera well on the fly and the video evidence on MLB.com supports that.

        Nice to see that as soon as UZR/150 didn’t support your argument you dismissed it as valid until there’s 3 years worth. How about admitting you’re completely clueless on the Pena being way better than Dunn defensively nonsense.

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    • pm says:

      Desmond will always be error prone. If you want proof, look at his error totals in the minors. He hasn’t shown any improvement at all.

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      • DCUnited says:

        Exactly. Desmond’s defense is a known quantity. Range is fantastic, arm is a cannon, concentration/consistency is horrible. Use him as a trade piece and move the much more defensively sound Espinosa to SS.

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      • DCN says:

        If there’s someone in the league who still overvalues RBIs, they’re a good candidate to trade for Desmond.

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      • Paul says:

        I’ll just go out on a limb that Rizzo is not going to consider a raw, tooled-up high school shortstop committing a lot of errors in the minors as proof that he’ll always be error-prone. Pretty sure Jeter committed a lot of errors in the minors, Hanley too, on and on. I suppose you guys would deal him for a couple of “proven” performers like Tom Milone? Good luck with that.

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      • DCUnited says:

        Make asinine comments. Have asinine comments proven wrong by all available statistical information. Change subject quickly and try to insult others despite your inability to form a cogent argument.

        Jeter committed a lot of errors in the minors. In MLB he stopped that (kind of–double digit errors 12 of his first 13 years) but he has the range of a tone-deaf mime so it’s fairly irrelevant to his overall defensive value.

        Hanley still commits quite a few errors and has a career -39.3 UZR and -8.9 UZR/150. He’s a bad fielding SS.

        Jeter and Hanley stuck at SS for the sole legitimate reason of having exceptional bats for the position. Desmond doesn’t have anything remotely close to the potential to match their ability at the plate and his .947 FP is .16 lower than either Jeter or Hanley have ever put up in a full season.

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  16. perfectstrat says:

    Are you listing the Orioles because your last name is MacPhail? Any relation?

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  17. astrostl says:

    “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.”

    I wish that were true, but all evidence suggests otherwise.

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  18. How about Desmond for Chris Carter?

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  19. Jacob says:

    Is it just me, or do the great majority of players have positive WARs? Shouldn’t the average WAR be 0, i.e. replacement value?

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