A lot has happened since I wrote part 1 of this series last week. Here’s what has changed. Omar Infante is off the market. Howie Kendrick is likely off the market since the Angels got the pitching they wanted without having to give him up.
Brandon Phillips is still potentially available, but it could be that the Reds only thought of trading him if they could replace him with Infante. With Infante gone, Phillips may no longer be available either. With all the names discussed last time, all that’s really left are Nick Franklin and Dustin Ackley of the Mariners.
Even Mark Ellis is now off the market. He was signed by the Cardinals, likely to be a bench/utility player. Ellis would have been mentioned in this installment, but now he doesn’t have to be. Interesting to note though, that Ellis actually has a very similar skill-set as Ryan Goins. Ellis is a great defender and below average hitter. Goins’ defense is probably a bit better than Ellis’s, but Ellis is a much better hitter (even though he’s not a good hitter by any stretch).
Ellis probably could have been a cheap upgrade over Goins at 2B, but I guess given their similarities the Jays felt the small upgrade wasn’t worth even a small amount of money. Hopefully they have bigger and better ideas on the horizon.
So is there anyone else out there?
I’d venture to say yes, although they have to come with some risk.
One name that comes to mind is Danny Espinosa of the Nationals. Once considered to be the Nationals’ 2B of the future, a sub par 2013 has left him in a more utility INF role, if he makes the MLB team at all.
Espinosa was a pretty good asset in 2011-2012, his first full seasons as a big-leaguer. He posted more than 3 fWAR each of those seasons. He had the power-speed combo that is so attractive to so many teams, as he flirted with 20-20 seasons each of those years. He always struck out too much (27% K% over those two years), but he also could draw a walk (8% BB%- about league average). He’d never hit for batting average, but his OBP could be respectable enough that combined with his power (.167 ISO over those years) made him about a league-average hitter (just below 100 wRC+ 2011-2012).
He’s also had consistently good defense, and was a decent baserunner in that era, by the advanced metrics. All of that combined to make him a very good-looking young player at a key position for a young Nationals team.
But then 2013 happened. Espinosa struck out as much as ever, but forgot how to take a walk (2% walk rate) and his power disappeared (.114 ISO). He was sent down to the minors, where he didn’t fare much better, striking out in nearly 1/3 of his at bats in AAA. Yes, his 2013 MLB BABIP was .202, well below his career norm of about .300, but that wasn’t all due to luck. His LD% fell to 10%, well below his career average, signifying that he wasn’t really making good contact all that often. It’s no wonder that only 1/5 of the balls he put in play went for hits.
With a player like this, there are really two ways to look at it. One way is to say this guy is a great reclamation project. His 2011-2012 seasons were great, and they were in line with what he had done in the minors before that. 2013 is really the outlier. Maybe the guy just had a bad year. His team gave up on him, and it seems like a great time to buy low and give this guy a chance to prove himself in Toronto. His salary isn’t much, he’ll come cheap, and at least we do have Goins and Izturis in the fold in case this doesn’t work out. I think this line of thinking is very reasonable.
You could even take this further and say that his power didn’t really disappear in 2013. If you look at average batted ball distances for Espinosa over the past 3 seasons, you’ll find that there isn’t really much of a drop-off from 2012 to 2013. There’s a bit of a drop from 2011 to 2012 (from abotu 275 ft to 270 ft). This is a better indicator of a hitter’s power than HRs or even ISO, especially in a smaller sample size. These distances are just slightly below league average, but certainly not out of the question for a true-talent 15-20 HR hitter.
But there’s also another way to look at it. If we actually look a little deeper into his numbers, maybe we should have seen 2013 coming after his 2012. Looking at his plate discipline numbers, which measure his approach to hitting on a pitch by pitch basis rather than at-bat by at-bat (which is helpful to mitigate the problem of small sample size in him 2013 MLB numbers), you can see that his 2012 and 2013 actually line up pretty closely. 2011 may actually be the outlier.
In 2011 his SwStr% was 11.5%, meaning he swung and missed at 11.5% of pitches thrown to him. He fell behind in the count 0-1 57.5% of the time. He made contact with 75% of the pitches he swung at. He swung at 47% of pitches thrown to him, and swung at 32% of pitches thrown to him that were outside the strike zone. These are not great numbers by any stretch, but they’re perfectly fine. They’re what’s expected from a hitter with power who strikes out a lot but also has a good eye. Just what Espinosa was in 2011.
But look at his numbers in 2012. His SwStr% climbed to 15.2%, his contact rate dropped to 70.6%, he fell behind 0-1 65% of the time, he swung at 53% of pitches thrown to him, and at 40.5% of pitches outside the zone. That’s a pretty significant loss of plate discipline. His 2013 numbers here are worse than his 2012 numbers, no doubt, but not by much. Certainly not as much as his 2012 is worse than his 2011.
In fact, if a person wanted to say that Danny Espinosa in 2012 was lucky to put up numbers close to his 2011 season, they’d probably be right. If they also said that his 2012 season was probably more similar to his 2013 than to his 2011 in terms of skills, they’d probably be right too. Except, of course, for the power numbers which really did only change in 2013. So it’s pretty reasonable to think that 2012 was actually a bit lucky, and 2013 was a bit unlucky, and the “true” Espinosa probably lies somewhere in between those two years.
So is Espinosa worth the risk? Well, that depends, of course, on what you have to give up to get him. I think his 3+ WAR seasons are behind him, and he’ll probably never reach the level of a league average hitter again, at least per wRC+. Still, I think he can climb back to slightly below average hitter, with about a 90 wRC+, which combined with continued good defense and baserunning could still make him an overall 2.0 WAR player, a league average starter. If you can get him and his cheap salary for peanuts, he’s certainly worth the chance.
In a way, Espinosa is almost like a Rasmus-lite. He’s got good power, good speed, good defense, usually knows how to take a walk at about the league average rate, but strikes out way more than you’d like. Colby just does everything a bit better (including striking out a bit more), which is what makes him an all-star (by WAR, at least) and Espinosa merely average. But the point is that this type of skill-set can work.
On the other hand, if you have to give up anything significant for him, it would be hard to say he’s worth the risk. Maybe he continues to fall off a cliff, or maybe his true talent now is closer to his 2013 than to his 2012.
As a lottery ticket, he’s a great move, as long as Izturis and Goins are there to take over in a flash if the Espinosa experiment fails miserably. It’s worth a shot, if the alternative is just going straight to Izturis/Goins anyways. But at the same time you don’t want to pay more than $1 to get your lottery ticket.
Stay tuned for the final installment of this series, which features my personal favorite 2B trade candidate…