Washington Nationals Skipper Davey Johnson is an Ian Desmond fan. Asked in a recent pregame press conference about the season the 25-year-old shortstop has had thus far in 2011, Johnson said, "[Desmond's] been outstanding and I think he's getting more comfortable. He had a good offensive year last year and this year he's been struggling a little bit, but his defense is outstanding. He's like a leader on the infield and I have all the confidence in the world he's going to have a big second-half."
In the last two weeks, over a nine-game stretch, Desmond's 10 for 31, (.323/.364/.414), with a double, triple, two walks and two runs scored, but the second-year shortstop's .581 OPS on the season (.226/.269/.313) is down from .691 in the first-half of 2010 and .710 in the second-half of his first full season in the majors when he followed up on a .255/.297/.395 pre-All-Star slash with a .283/.320/.390 post-break line...
With Cristian Guzman still battling for the starting job in the Spring of 2010, there was talk that Desmond could be used as a "super-utility man" with former Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman suggesting that the then-24-year-old '04 Expos' 3rd Round pick, "... could play all three outfield positions as well as see action at shortstop and second base," as MLB.com's Bill Ladson wrote in a 2/27/10 article entitled, "Johnson shares his view on Desmond."
The titular "Johnson" is of course, Davey Johnson, who replaced Jim Riggleman on the bench this season, but was then a senior advisor to D.C. GM Mike Rizzo, and he recommended that, "Desmond should play every day as a shortstop or at second base," as MLB.com's Mr. Ladson wrote then. "Johnson feels a veteran player should be in a utility role and that a young player like Desmond should develop at one position." Desmond beat Guzman out for the starting spot that Spring, after having impressed but only played 21 games in which he'd put up a .280/.318/.561 slash with seven doubles, two triples and four home runs in 82 at bats the previous September after he was called up in a season he started at Double-A.
Desmond put up a .306/.372/.494 line in 42 games and 189 plate appearances at Double-A Harrisburg in '09, and a .354/.428/.461 line in 55 games and 208 plate appearances with Triple-A Syracuse before he was called up to Washington to make his debut after six seasons in the Expos/Nats' system. Desmond's combined .878 OPS in '09 was almost a hundred points higher than his previous best full-season OPS (.789 at Class-A in '07). Desmond's .700 OPS in 2010 was more in line with what the infielder had produced as a pro (.714 in 6 seasons in the system).
D.C. GM Mike Rizzo described Desmond to MLB Network Radio show Power Alley hosts Kevin Kennedy and Mike Ferrin in an interview this past February as a player that, "... possesses terrific physical attributes as a shortstop. Range wise, he gets to balls that few shortstops get to. He can throw the ball from anywhere on the field and throw you out. He's got a cannon for an arm. He runs well. He's got some pop." But it wasn't just on the field that Desmond impressed the Nats' GM, "...even as a rookie he took the responsibility of being a leader in the infield and really took some strides later on in the season of being a leader in the clubhouse."
The Nationals were comfortable enough with Desmond at short that they moved Danny Espinosa, (described by the Nationals' general manager as, "A switch-hitter that can run, steal bases and we believe that he has a chance to be a Gold-Glove-caliber middle infielder,) from shortstop to second base at Triple-A before he was called up when the roster expanded last September. "We're excited about the two," Rizzo told the MLB Network Radio hosts, "There's going to be growing pains, we understand that, and we've told Espinosa exactly what I told Desmond at this time last year, 'You worry about your defense. You worry about preparation for the game, what you do on offense, we're going to be very, very patient with you and we know there's going to be growing pains and we're willing to grind through those.'"
Danny Espinosa's defense, (+7.7 UZR/150 so far this season, .990 fld% in the majors), was never a concern, and his offense this year has caught many by surprise, but Desmond's (-9.9 UZR/150 in '10) defense has been an issue from the start as he committed 30+ errors in each of his first four seasons as a pro before a 23 error '08 and 28 error '09 season. So it wasn't a surprise when Desmond made a League-leading 34 errors at short last season. In fact, as the D.C. GM had said during a television appearance on MASN, "These errors [were] not unexpected. We figured that he was going to make somewhere between 35-38 errors this year because it's typical for a young, rangy shortstop to make a lot of errors."
"We feel that those errors will be cut drastically next year by just learning the speed of the game," the Nats' GM said.
In spite of the positive reviews from the GM for what Desmond had accomplished in 2010, there were reports like FOXSports.com's Ken Rosenthal last December, in an article entitled, "Nats' Desmond drawing interest", in which he discussed the possibility of the Nationals' parting ways with their 25-year-old shortstop. Anonymous "major league sources", were telling the FOXSports.com reporter that Desmond, "is drawing strong trade interest...and could be a chip the team uses to land a quality starting pitcher.
When talk of the Nationals' pursuit of then-Kansas City-starter Zack Greinke was discussed publically however, as it was by Washington Post writer Dave Sheinin in a March 2011 article entitled, "Desire to win now kept Greinke from joining Nationals", it was Danny Espinosa's name mentioned with the WaPost writer reporting that, "The Nationals indicated to the Royals that they were willing to part with Jordan Zimmermann, one of their top young pitchers, and discussed other names such as reliever Drew Storen and second baseman Danny Espinosa." Neither Espinosa or Desmond was dealt, however, and with shortstops on either side of second Washington's infield defense has been rather dramatically improved this season.
Ian Desmond's committed 13 errors so far this season, but he's got a .970 fld%, up from .947 last season with +3.3 UZR/150 in 90 games. It's not the defense that's an issue this season, but Desmond's bat instead. His .581 OPS is the lowest amongst qualified shortstops in the National League. Davey Johnson told Washington Times' writer Amanda Comak in an article on the relationship between the two entitled, "Ian Desmond finds tutor in Davey Johnson", that the shortstop told him he believes that the, "overaggressiveness that I had in the field has gone to my at-bats...I just need to have that same approach both in the field and at the plate."
In spite of his struggles at the plate, at least according to sources who talked to FOXSports.com's Ken Rosenthal, teams are calling about the Nats' middle infielder, and though some, "Club officials also are reluctant to give up on Desmond, whom they view as an improving defender, emerging leader and hitter capable of hitting .280 with 12 home runs and 70 RBI," others, as Mr. Rosenthal writes in an article entitled, "The Nats: Ready to deal?", "would like to move [Danny] Espinosa to short and promote Triple-A second baseman Steve Lombardozzi to play second, sources say."
With Lombardozzi, 22, at Syracuse now, with a combined .829 combined OPS between Double and Triple-A this season, knocking at the door like Espinosa and Desmond before him, though with less fanfare, Mr. Rosenthal writes that, "Desmond, who turns 26 on Sept. 20, ultimately could evolve into a super-utility man for the Nats."
If he's not dealt.
Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore, in a Nationals Journal post this week entitled, "Nationals fielding trade calls on bullpen, Ivan Rodriguez and veteran starters", wrote that, "Rizzo said no Nationals player will be 'untouchable,'" at this year's deadline,"but he also said 'we’re not going to touch our core' – players such as Danny Espinosa, Ryan Zimmerman and Ramos." But with the infield depth in the system, the WaPost's Mr. Kilgore reasons, "With middle infielder Stephen Lombardozzi playing well at Class AAA Syracuse, and infielder Anthony Rendon having been drafted with the sixth overall pick this year, the Nationals could be more willing to part with shortstop Ian Desmond."
Disregarding the obvious: that Desmond had a combined .878 to Lombardozzi's .829 when he was in the minors and the fact that Rendon's not signed yet (he's likely to sign and a move to second's been bandied about), the Nationals do have middle infield depth, and the veteran pitchers they have like Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis and Todd Coffey aren't necessarily valuable enough to bring back the center fielder/leadoff man they're rumored to be after, so of course younger Nats like Desmond, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard will draw calls, but with the way the Nats' current skipper and current General Manager have talked about Desmond and groomed him the last few years, it would be an abrupt about-face from a franchise that seems to think it's close to competing.