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Espinosa forcing way into lineup, maybe in LF

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Espinosa forcing way into lineup, maybe in LF

NEW YORK — Has it gotten to a point, Matt Williams was asked after Wednesday's game, where the Nationals simply need to find a way to get Danny Espinosa's bat into the lineup on a regular basis, even if it means putting him in the outfield?

"Yeah, have to try to find a space for him to play," the manager responded. "It's important to do that. We'll spend the next hours discussing and try to work that out."

Consider the complete improbability of Williams' answer had the same question been asked two months ago. The Nats have to find a way to get Danny Espinosa's bat in the lineup? Possibly in the outfield? Well, yes. Yes, they do.

There has been no more surprising development this season than the emergence of Espinosa as an offensive force following two abysmal seasons at the plate that included a long-term demotion to the minors. And it doesn't appear he's about to fall off a cliff again, either.

With a 3-hit performance during Wednesday's 5-4 win over the Yankees, including his eighth homer of the season, Espinosa raised his batting average to .263, his on-base percentage to .361, his OPS to .842. Remarkably, all three of his hits came from the left side of the plate, while the only two outs he made came while batting right-handed.

Such is the way of things right now. Thanks to a completely revamped swing, Espinosa has completely reversed his fortunes from the previous two seasons. After posting a left-handed slash line of .177/.222/.281 from 2013-14, with a 2 percent home run rate and a 37 percent strikeout rate, he's now hitting .238/.340/.451 this year, with a 5 percent home run rate and 24 percent strikeout rate.

"It feels good," he said. "I'm just staying with my routine, trying to take my approach into the game and just trying not to do too much. Trying not to create. Just see the ball and hit the ball."

It's working, so much so that the Nationals are now seriously thinking about starting Espinosa in left field for the first time in his career. He has been working in the outfield over the last week or so, and he did get into Sunday's game in left field late after Denard Span departed with back spasms, forcing Michael Taylor to center field.

The Nationals weren't thinking Espinosa would become a viable starting option in the outfield so soon. But circumstances tend to change in a hurry. The Nats have gotten worse production from their left fielders than any other NL club so far this season, and with Jayson Werth likely out until August with a fractured wrist, the team is open to new, unconventional ideas.

"We never could have foreseen starting [Ryan Zimmerman] there last year, or Kevin Frandsen," Williams said Tuesday. "If the need arises, sure. [Espinosa] is swinging the bat well. If we have opportunity to get him out there and get him in a game, to help us win a game, we're not afraid to do that."

Espinosa, who has been using an extra outfielder's glove he and Dan Uggla share as a "Just In Case" mitt, has impressed the coaching staff during drills.

"He's an athlete," Williams said. "Did you see his throws? Pretty good. Pretty strong arm. It's just a question of getting him familiar. So he was out there early doing that. We've thrown a lot at him, and he's willing to just take the bull by the horns and go, regardless of what's presented."

With the Nationals headed to Milwaukee for a 4-game weekend series, the opportunity for Espinosa to make his first career start in the outfield may be about to arrive. Anthony Rendon and Yunel Escobar are both healthy and need to play on an everyday basis at second and third bases. Ian Desmond, despite his struggles, isn't in danger of losing his starting job at shortstop.

That leaves left field for Espinosa, who thinks he's up for the task.

"I'm sure I could figure it out for nine innings," he said. "There definitely could be work to do out there. I've never done it. So definitely work on flyballs, balls over my head and stuff like that. But I'd try not to over-think it and just catch the ball and make the plays I'm supposed to."

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5 things you should know about new Nationals pitcher Kelvin Herrera

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5 things you should know about new Nationals pitcher Kelvin Herrera

The Nationals traded for Royals' pitcher Kelvin Herrera this evening. 

Not only did the Nationals trade for Kelvin Herrera, but they did so without losing Juan Soto, Victor Robles, or Andrew Stevenson. The first two were never in any real danger of being traded for a relief pitcher who will be a free agent at year's end, but the Nats escaped only giving up their 10th and 11th ranked prospects:

On the surface, this deal looks exceptional for the Nationals. Herrera is another back-of-the-bullpen type that only further deepens the Nats' options in that department. Here are a handful of things you should know about the Nationals' newest pitcher:

1. Herrera's strikeout "issue" is complicated 

Herrera, like many other closers over the last half-decade, has made his name in strikeouts. He topped out at a 30.4 percent strikeout rate in 2016, and has a 23.4 percent clip for his career. His K% this season sits at 23.2 percent, which is both higher than last season and lower than his career average. 

People will look at his dramatic K/9 drop as a red flag, but "per/9" stats are flawed and not generally a worthwhile stat to build an argument around. A pitcher who gets knocked around for five runs in an inning -- but gets three strikeouts -- can have the same K/9 of a different (much more efficient) pitcher who strikes out the side in order. 

2. Herrera has basically stopped walking batters 

His career BB% sits at 7.1 percent. His highest clip is nine percent (2014, 2015) and his lowest was a shade over four percent (2016). 

This season, he's walking batters at a two percent  rate. In 27 games this season, he's walked two batters. Two! 

3. The jury seems to still be out on how good of a year he's had so far

Analytics are frustrating. On one hand, they can serve wonderfully as tools to help peel back the curtains and tell a deeper story - or dispel lazy narratives. On the other hand, they can be contradictory, confusing, and at times downright misleading. 

Take, for instance, Herrera's baseline pitching stats. His ERA sits at 1.05, while his FIP sits at 2.62. On their own, both numbers are impressive. On their own, both numbers are All-Star level stats. 

When you stack them against each other, however, the picture turns negative. While ERA is the more common stat, it's widely accepted that FIP more accurately represents a pitcher's true value (ERA's calculation makes the same per/9 mistakes that were mentioned above). 

More often than not, when a pitcher's ERA is lower than his FIP, that indicates said pitcher has benefited from luck. 

Throw in a 3.51 xFIP (which is the same as FIP, but park-adjusted) and we suddenly have a real mess on our hands. Is he the pitcher with the great ERA, the pitcher with the Very Good FIP, or the pitcher with the medicore xFIP? 

4. He was a fastball pitcher, and then he wasn't, and now he is again

Take a look at Herrera's pitch usage over his career in Kansas City:

In only three years, he's gone from throwing a sinker 31 percent of the time to completely giving up on the pitch. That's pretty wild. 

Since 2014, he's gone to the slider more and more in every year. 

His current fastball usage would be the highest of his career. He only appeared in two games during the 2011 season, so those numbers aren't reliable. Going away from the sinker probably helps explain why his Ground Ball rate has dropped 10 percentage points, too. 

5. The Nats finally have the bullpen they've been dreaming about for years

Doolittle, Herrera, Kintzler, and Madson is about as deep and talented as any bullpen in baseball.

Justin Miller, Sammy Solis, and Wander Suero all have flashed serious potential at points throughout the year. Austin Voth is waiting for roster expansion in September. 

The Nats have been trying to build this type of bullpen for the better part of the last decade. Health obviously remains an important factor, but Rizzo's got the deepest pen of his time in D.C. 

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Nationals trade for Royals' closer Kelvin Herrera

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Nationals trade for Royals' closer Kelvin Herrera

The Nationals made the first major trade of the season this evening. 

Midway through their Monday night game against the Yankees, the team announced that they had completed a trade for Royals' relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera:

Herrera's a major acquisition for the Nationals, as the pitcher is in the middle of a career year. He's currently pitched 25 innings so far, posting a 1.05 FIP, 2.62 ERA and 0.82 WHIP. His 2.1 percent walk rate this season is a career low. 

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