Key Stats: The 21 home runs and 17 steals from Danny Espinosa made him a mixed league play in 2011. The area to key in on though as to whether he'll make the jump to a stud in fantasy baseball is batting average where Espinosa hurt teams more than he helped. He is only going to be 25 years old next year, so there is time for him to make adjustments. In the minors his average did not creep any lower than the .250s which is a good sign, but he also didn't face the pitching he faced last season in the minors.
Skeptics Say: Drilling down into the splits, Espinosa had an OPS that was 110 points better in the first half than it was in the second half. With veteran players it is often easy to dismiss the splits since we can see a trend of the player's overall production year after year, but Espinosa obviously doesn't fall into this category. Scouts could have adjusted to Espinosa and Espinosa might not have had an answer last season. Looking at the numbers, Espinosa had more difficulty with offspeed pitches, so that's what he'll continue to get until he proves he can hit them.
Peer Comparison: Espinosa's .236 batting average really looks worse when you consider the players ranked ahead of him and right behind him (Neil Walker, Jemile Weeks). That's because among second basemen, only Dan Uggla did not finish with a batting average that was at least 19 points higher than Espinosa. That batting average is of course factored into Espinosa being anywhere from the 12th to 14th best second baseman in fantasy (depending on who you ask), but what will it take for him to be a top ten or even top five player?
For starters, he needs to pop up in the infield less. Only Gordon Beckham had a higher percentage of infield flies in 2011 among second basemen. That's not a realistic request. Among the veteran players who had high infield fly percentages last year (Chris Young, Vernon Wells, and Alex Gonzalez), none of them have been able to curb that problem in the past. Essentially once it's a problem it's always a problem. All that being said, it's going to be hard for Espinosa to push his BABIP up.
Thus he needs to strikeout less. This is a more realistic request and has been accomplished by hitters in the past, but Espinosa has to learn what to do with off-speed pitches. It's clear that he's not afraid to go to the opposite field, so perhaps we'll see him make a minor adjustment in 2012 to bump his average.
Lineup Outlook: First of all, it's great news that we can talk about Wilson Ramos as being an intregal part of this lineup again after being kidnapped last week. Where Espinosa fits into the lineup depends heavily on how Ramos performs. Toward the end of the season Davey Johnson had Espinosa hitting fifth, but that was without Ryan Zimmerman in the lineup. Here's a look at a potential Nationals Opening Day lineup:
Random Veteran outfielder to keep the seat warm for Bryce Harper
Espinosa is actually the best fit as the leadoff hitter even though he spent more time hitting second and sixth last season. Despite his weak average, he had a better OBP than Desmond or Bernadina.
A Blogger’s Take: Danny Espinosa, Troy Tulowitzki, and Evan Longoria all played shortstop within a decade of each other at Long Beach State University. Longoria and Tulowitzki were highly touted prospects coming through the minor leagues, where no one was quite sure what Espinosa could be. Fast forward a few years, and the distinction between the three players still remains. Tulowitzki and Longoria are bonafied franchise players, while we're still left waiting to see if Espinosa can turn his great athleticism and strength into consistent All-Star caliber production. Defensively he very well could be the best second baseman in baseball, but for Espinosa to take the next step into stardom, he will need to develop consistency at the plate. There were stints during 2011 when he was the Nationals best hitter, but there were others where he was easily their worst. Best case scenario he has 30-30 talent with a high strikeout rate and perennial gold gloves. Worst case scenario his strikeouts overcome him and he becomes a low average- high power switch hitter who never becomes anything more than average. Will Yonder - The Nats Blog
Projection: There is certainly room for Espinosa to outperform this ranking, but I'm pessimistic. He played 158 games last season, so it's not as if he's in the category of an Eric Hosmer where more at-bats will lead to higher numbers. He has to make adjustments to improve upon the 181 ranking he finished with last year. Given the position he plays, his age (growth potential), and the power/speed combination look for people to overhype and ultimately reach on Espinosa.
81 R 18 HR 59 RBI 20 SB .246 AVG .750 OPS in 560 at-bats