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Spotlight shifts to Espinosa

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Spotlight shifts to Espinosa

When Ian Desmond's lingering oblique strain first forced him out of the Nationals lineup eight days ago, teammate Danny Espinosa expressed optimism the club's All-Star shortstop's ability to produce at such a high level while injured would allow him to return in short order.

"I'm hoping that's what it is, because he's been too crucial defensively and offensively to our team," Espinosa said that morning in Miami. "To lose him for an extended amount of time, we can't have that."

Except they now have exactly that. With Desmond on the disabled list for at least a month, possibly more after an MRI revealed a slight tear of the oblique muscle, the Nationals find themselves needing to find a way to overcome the extended loss of perhaps their most indispensable player at the moment.

And Espinosa will be right in the thick of it trying to fill that hole as the Nationals' everyday shortstop for the foreseeable future.

Defensively, the club isn't too worried about Espinosa's ability to shift from the right side to the left side of the infield. He played shortstop at Long Beach State and through most of his minor-league career, only moving to second base a month before his Sept. 2010 big-league debut because Desmond was already at shortstop in Washington.

Espinosa has the arm to make throws from the left-side hole, as he exhibited over the last week. And he's beginning to feel more comfortable maneuvering around at his once-and-now-current position.

"Just reading the ball off the bat is totally different, the way the ball spins and everything," he said. "The first few games I was there, I had Ian in the dugout helping me as far as what he thought position-wise, so I could just kind of get a feel for it. It comes back."

With little reason to worry about Espinosa's defensive play, the Nationals are more concerned with keeping him red-hot at the plate.

After a prolonged slump that had manager Davey Johnson preparing to begin platooning him at second base with rookie Steve Lombardozzi, Espinosa is enjoying his best sustained offensive stretch in more than a year. After a 3-for-4 showing yesterday, he's hitting .338 with an .893 OPS over his last 20 games. For the season, he's now hitting .250, the highest his batting average has stood since April 26, 2011.

"I'm feeling good," he said. "Just confident, comfortable up there. I feel good."

Much of Espinosa's recent surge has come from the left side of the plate, where he had put up abysmal numbers through the season's first half. Slowly but surely, he's managed to cut down on his uppercut swing from that side and start driving the ball to the opposite field.

"I saw it probably three weeks ago when he started having better at-bats," Johnson said. "He was just more consistent. He was getting to more balls. He was using the whole field. ... I don't know what he's been since then, but I haven't seen him have a bad at-bat hardly from the left side.

"When you put that with what he's swinging from the right side, he's picking up much-needed slack. Especially now, it's great that he's going like that because we're going to really miss Desi's bat."

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Without Tanner Roark, where do the Nationals go from here?

Without Tanner Roark, where do the Nationals go from here?

Strange thing about the Winter Meetings. They were held in Las Vegas, that vibrant, salacious desert city, and delivered the fervor of a yawn.

The Red Sox held a press conference for a pitcher they already signed. The Hall of Fame announcement led to more grumbling than celebration, with poor Harold Baines caught in the middle just trying to enjoy his moment. Scott Boras’ day in front of the Christmas tree stirred everyone until they read through what he said. Lots of words, little substance, next to no news.

One Nationals executive lamented spending 14 hours in a suite without accomplishing anything. That about sums it up.

So, where to now? The Nationals created a gap by sending out Tanner Roark on the final day of the meetings. The move was, and remains, strange. A key decision-maker for the Nationals noted acquired Triple-A reliever Tanner Rainey throws 100 mph. What he doesn’t do is make up 180 major-league innings next season. That person, or persons, remains out there somewhere.

And the replacement is going to cost more than the Nationals should pay based on what the market has already delivered. In particular, the three-year, $30 million deal Texas gave Lance Lynn is problematic for the Nationals. Lynn was bad last season. Very bad. A 4.77 ERA and 1.53 WHIP in 156 ⅔ innings. That earned him $30 million. He was better in 2017 following a return from Tommy John surgery. Combine the seasons for a 4.04 ERA. That’s superior to Roark during the span (4.50) but also requires a three-year commitment to an aging and declining pitcher.

Other aging and declining pitchers are going to want similar contracts. No quality organization wants to give them.

Which, again, makes jettisoning Roark odd. Maybe the Nationals find another starter on a two-year, $15 million deal. That would be optimum. A slight savings, modest commitment, a chance for improvement over Roark’s 97 ERA-plus the last two seasons. This has to be the premise inside their room: We can do slightly better for slightly less while also acquiring a future reliever. It’s a swing to have it all in this spot.

Meanwhile, the Nationals are sifting through the second base market. Several everyday players remain. That’s the good news. The challenge here is Washington will not want to sign one for longer than two years. Carter Kieboom is creeping toward the major leagues. No reason to pay an exorbitant price for the position he’s likely to grab when starting out at the highest level.

Two interesting points on the market have already hit: Ian Kinsler’s two-year, $8 million deal with the adrift San Diego Padres, and Jonathan Schoop’s one-year, $7.5 million contract with the Minnesota Twins. Schoop has power and is an above average defender. He’s also the kind of emphatic swinger the Nationals are trying to move away from. Kinsler is going into his age-37 season. His 2.4 WAR from last year — largely based on his quality defense — is solid. His 87 OPS-plus, not so much. And two years is one too many.

But, they give a sense of where price points for second baseman exist. If Kinsler is going to receive two years, DJ LeMahieu probably wants four. If Schoop receives $7.5 million, LeMahieu can expect $10 million per season. Those numbers push him out of the Nationals’ preferred range.

Jed Lowrie turns 35 next April. He’s a top-5 defender, according to Fangraphs, and walks often.  Would his back-to-back seasons of above-.800 OPS be enough for the Nationals to give him two years and $20 million? Do they need to wait for the rotation piece in order to see what spending wiggle room remains? Roark was expected to make around $10 million following arbitration. If that cost is pushed down to $7 million, is the difference available for a second baseman?

Otherwise, the Nationals may as well stick with the proposed Wilmer Difo-Howie Kendrick platoon at second. The external options are too thin. Kieboom, a deadline trade or a waiver claim could help fix things midseason, if necessary.

So, think of the Nationals’ remaining list as filled with a must, a maybe and a look. The must is finding another starter. The maybe is a second baseman. The look is into the left-handed reliever market. Not much was done in Vegas. Certain things have to be done before West Palm Beach.

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Nationals set to bring back Matt Adams

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Nationals set to bring back Matt Adams

The Nationals just checked another box.

They have reached an agreement to bring back first baseman Matt Adams, pending a physical, NBC Sports Washington has confirmed.

The deal is for one year with a mutual option in 2020.

Adams flourished last season with the Nationals when he delivered an .842 OPS with an 118 OPS-plus in 306 at-bats as a part-time player. He was crucial since Ryan Zimmerman spent the middle of the season on the disabled list.

The Nationals later flipped Adams to the St. Louis Cardinals for “cash considerations”, which made him little more than a waiver claim for St. Louis. The Nationals just saved the remainder he was owed on his contract following the Aug. 21 transaction.

Adams, a quiet professional, fit well in the clubhouse. One on-field tear earned him a T-shirt homage to his nickname: “Big City doing Big City things” that several of his teammates wore pregame.

His role will be the same as last season: insurance for Zimmerman, as well as a power left-handed bat off the bench who will receive the occasional start if Zimmerman is healthy.

Adams’ return also enables the Nationals to shop for a true second baseman as opposed to a hybrid player like Marwin Gonzalez. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has continually moved the needle from standing pat to hunting for a starting second baseman. For now, a platoon of Wilmer Difo and Howie Kendrick is in place.

The Nationals' largest gap remains in the rotation following the trade of Tanner Roark. They need to find 180 innings in a thin free agent pitching market to replace Roark’s production from the last three seasons.

Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic first reported the agreement with Adams.

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