With Angels, Danny Espinosa found a soft landing for a hard fall

TEMPE, Ariz. – The question was phrased delicately – “Is it refreshing to be in a situation where…” – or at least it was going to be, until Danny Espinosa cut it off with a cold glare and a hard edge in his voice.

“You mean where I don’t have a bunch of [expletive] going on, like normal?” Espinosa said, finishing the question himself, and then answering it succinctly: “Yeah, it’s completely refreshing.”

On the morning of the Los Angeles Angels’ first full-squad workout of the spring – a session that was reduced to indoor batting practice and some light throwing because of rain – Espinosa, even in the unfamiliar red of the Angels, was recognizable immediately by the great flowing beard that became its own cult figure during Espinosa’s days with the Washington Nationals.

Standing near his locker, he twirled the ends of his formidable mustache as he discussed his departure in December from the only organization he had known during his nine professional seasons. But no, he said, leaving wasn’t hard.

“No. I’m going to miss my friends there. I was really close to some guys who I came up with, or who took me under their wing,” Espinosa said, mentioning Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg by name. “There were some coaches I was with in the minor leagues who came up [to Washington]. And so there’s definitely guys I’ll miss. But sometimes there’s a better situation for you somewhere else.”

Espinosa said he knew the instant the Nationals traded for center fielder Adam Eaton from the Chicago White Sox that his time in D.C. had come to an end. That trade, on Dec. 7, would push Trea Turner from center field to shortstop, Turner’s natural position, and make Espinosa expendable. Sure enough, three days later, the Nationals sent Espinosa to the Angels for minor-league right-handers Austin Adams and Kyle McGowin.

“As soon as I heard they were looking to pick up a center fielder, whether it was [Andrew] McCutchen or Adam Eaton or whoever it was going to be, I was like, ‘If that happens, I’m gone,’” Espinosa said.

Clearly not the sentimental type, Espinosa expressed few warm feelings for an organization that toggled him between shortstop and second base for most of his tenure – except for 2015, when he played five different positions in a super-utility role – and where something always seemed to be holding him back.

If it wasn’t the injuries, it was the difficulty in adjusting to a bench role, and if it wasn’t that, it was the lack of pitches to hit in the eighth spot in the order – ahead of the pitcher – and if it wasn’t that, it was the strikeouts: the most in the National League in 2012, the second-most in 2016.

“There were years I got hurt, and my numbers weren’t there,” Espinosa said. “So I understood why I went to the bench. I understood it. But the years of starting – my first three years, it was great. And then, it was tough coming off the bench constantly, after an injury. It was tough to stomach at first.”

If Espinosa was going to be cast out of Washington, he could not have hand-picked a better landing spot. He grew up as an Angels fan in Santa Ana, Calif., practically next door to Anaheim, and still has a house just three miles from Angel Stadium.

He will be the Angels’ everyday second baseman in 2017, turning double plays with defensive wizard Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, on a team featuring the consensus best player in baseball, Mike Trout.

“I think [Simmons and Espinosa] are going to show the range and athleticism we haven’t had [up the middle] in a while,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “So we’re excited about that.”

Espinosa, who hit .209 with 24 homers and 72 RBI last season, will be making $5.43 million in 2017 and can become a free agent after the season.

“It’s a really good feeling in this clubhouse, a real comfortable feeling,” Espinosa said. “I’ve never believed everything happens for a reason. But obviously it does, because somehow, I got to go home, to my backyard, and play.”

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