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Desmond reflects on 10 years in organization

Feb 23, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT

AP AP

VIERA, Fla. — Ian Desmond was among the first members of the Nationals to report for spring training earlier this month, early enough that the big-league clubhouse inside Space Coast Stadium wasn’t yet fully up and running.

So on his first day in town, Desmond instead drove to the year-round, minor-league complex just down the street. That’s when he realized it, that he had first walked through those same doors 10 years earlier, a 17-year-old Expos draft pick who had no idea what the next decade had in store.

“I walked up to the clubhouse, and it all just hit me real quick,” he said. “Like, boom! I could remember my Gulf Coast League days when I reported in 2004. Everything just kind of flashed before my eyes. It was pretty cool.”

Desmond hasn’t had much reason to venture back to the minor-league clubhouse since making his big-league debut in Sept. 2009. He has developed into one of baseball’s best shortstops. An All-Star. A Silver Slugger. A Gold Glove finalist. A multimillionaire who almost certainly will command a nine-figure contract (either from the Nationals or another franchise) sometime in the next two years.

It’s easy to forget now just how far Desmond has come. He first entered the public’s consciousness in March 2005, when as an 18-year-old he was given an opportunity to play in a couple of Grapefruit League games with the major-league club. After watching his young shortstop make a couple of spectacular plays at shortstop, then-GM Jim Bowden began comparing him to Derek Jeter.

Desmond’s path to stardom, though, wasn’t nearly as smooth (or as quick) as Bowden might have believed at the time. He languished in the minors for six years, appearing in a staggering 448 games with Class A Potomac and Class AA Harrisburg, never hitting better than .264 until 2009 and committing an average of 32 errors per season.

There were plenty of shaky moments during his early days in Washington, as well. Desmond was charged with 34 errors as a rookie in 2010, then posted a disappointing .298 on-base percentage and .656 OPS the following season.

Through it all, the Nationals stood behind Desmond. Mike Rizzo, who replaced Bowden as GM in 2009, turned down trade offers for his struggling shortstop. Former managers Jim Riggleman and Davey Johnson touted him as star-in-waiting and leader on the diamond.

“I do owe them a lot, because of the knowledge I got from them and the people they surround me with here is priceless,” Desmond said. “They could have easily given up on me. They kept on running me out there. But I think the biggest thing is, I didn’t give up on myself.”

You know the rest of the story. Desmond, like the Nats, had a breakthrough performance in 2012, earning an All-Star nod, the first of his two Silver Slugger awards and MVP votes. And he nearly duplicated his numbers last season, despite the team’s overall underachievement.

Along the way, Desmond became the heart-and-soul of the Nationals roster. He speaks for teammates after tough losses. He calls the occasional team meeting. He settles pitchers down when they lose focus. He leads, on and off the field, something Matt Williams previously saw from afar and now is seeing up-close.

“Talking to the guys this winter, to a man, the guys that were here from last year said: ‘This is your guy. This is the guy that is your leader on the field from a baseball-playing perspective every day,” the rookie manager said, adding: “He’s one of those rare guys that sees everything that goes on. It’s good, because he’s aware and he’s out there to be the leader and he relishes the role.”

Desmond insists he never set out to be a leader. The role just comes naturally to him.

And given the long road he took to reach this point, he feels an obligation to help those now trying to realize the same success.

“I look and see guys like (minor-league shortstop) Josh Johnson, all the way at the end of the lockers in the clubhouse,” Desmond said. “That used to be my seat. It kind of symbolizes it. I’ve come up all the way. I was the very last guy, and then I kind of creeped my way up to the front of the lockers. And now I’m up here.

“I see guys like (outfielder) Steven Souza, who have battled through the minor leagues, have had their ups and downs. I think I kind of paved the way for them in this organization. There’s not a level they’ve been to that I haven’t been to. There’s not an experience they’ve had that I haven’t. I feel like I can really relate.

“You know, I didn’t do everything right. I didn’t do everything perfect. But I feel like I have a lot of experience to share with them. And it’s cool to give that back to them, and that I’m here to be able to do so.”

As he walked through the doors to the minor-league complex earlier this month, and as all those memories of his first days with the organization 10 years ago flooded his mind, Desmond couldn’t help but pause to appreciate the path that brought him back.

“It’s been a pleasure, to be honest,” he said. “It went by really fast. I’m just proud to be a National.”

  1. Doc - Feb 23, 2014 at 10:12 AM

    Right on Desi!

    And we’re proud that you are a National

  2. sjm308 - Feb 23, 2014 at 10:27 AM

    I still remember the huge number of posts, early in his career, where it was an actual verbal battle over Desmond’s worth. Several of those posters have vanished and others have graciously changed their minds. It is hard to envision Rizzo not doing everything possible to extend Mr. Desmond and I hope he does that sooner than later.

    To me, the other telling part of Mark’s post is how the Nats stood behind Desmond as he struggled. While they did send Espinosa down last year, it appears they are still keeping their options open for this young man as well.

    Finally, I appreciate Nats128 posting a link showing all these defensive numbers comparing Rendon, Espinosa and Lombo. I have no idea what any of them mean. I am old and just came around to understanding that OBP and On Base + slugging are really important. My eyes tell me that Rendon is a special hitter and did a wonderful job of adjusting to a position he had barely played – he is my starting 2nd baseman. But my eyes also tell me that Espinosa is our best defensive infielder no matter what all those numbers say.

    Go Nats!!

    • Hiram Hover - Feb 23, 2014 at 10:47 AM

      No need to worry about your eyes – Espi is the best defensive infielder, and if you read the numbers fully and as they’re meant to be read, that’s what they say too.

      As for Desi – I was definitely a critic in the early years, and even a doubter (or at least a worrier) after 2012. I am now a believer, which only means I have a new worry now – whether the Nats can afford to keep him.

      • sjm308 - Feb 23, 2014 at 11:32 AM

        Thanks Hiram – I tried to read all the numbers but they meant little to me and I didn’t go deep to try and find out what each set meant. I get WAR a little but the UZR and others just don’t help me. I will stick with my eyes for as long as they work. I do understand that LaRoche and Zimm both had down years and those numbers back that up but I am still not sure how they can use numbers to figure out range.

      • Hiram Hover - Feb 23, 2014 at 12:14 PM

        I’m not 100% sure how fangraphs range factor works either.

        My understanding is that they rely on data that divides the field up into a grid and then they calculate how many times a fielder made a play on a ball hit into the standard zone for his position, and how many times he got to balls outside his zone. The more plays on balls hit outside your zone, the better your range.

        They make some adjustment for positioning and handed-ness of batter, but it’s still pretty inexact stuff.

        That’s why, for example, the people who designed these metrics say you want several years worth of data to get a reliable measure.

        So anyone who’s trying to draw a firm conclusion based on 1/2 a season worth of data for Rendon is already barking up the wrong tree.

    • naterialguy - Feb 23, 2014 at 10:03 PM

      +1

  3. Jb - Feb 23, 2014 at 10:58 AM

    Jim Bowden was right. Who’d a thunk?

    • therealjohnc - Feb 23, 2014 at 11:29 AM

      Well, Bowden was right that Desmond can be compared to Derek Jeter, but he is a long way from being Derek Jeter. That’s no knock on Desmond, it’s a realization of how good Jeter has been. Oddly, as Jeter begins his last season, he’s gone from being overrated (because of his defense) to being underrated (also because of his defense). Desmond’s career OBP (.318) is about the same as Jeter’s batting average (.312). Because Jeter takes walks, his career OBP is a very impressive .381. And Jeter has played an extra season of postseaston games (158) and against the best teams under the spotlight actually put up a better OPS in the postseason (.838) than in the regular season (.828).

      Not to take anything at all away from Desmond – I hope he emulates Jeter by playing with one team his entire career. Pay the man, Rizzo!

  4. Theophilus T.S. - Feb 23, 2014 at 11:20 AM

    I wonder if this offseason has been unkind to Desmond’s hopes for a nine-figure contract. I’m still in favor of it but I can see a couple of years of folks complaining that seven more years of Desmond isn’t worth 2X seven years of Andrelton Simmons. When it comes to evaluating Desmond’s long-term value people are just going to have to disregard some of their precious metrics. This is the glue guy of your team, the leader on the field and in the club house, the guy you can’t replace no matter what FA you sign or which hitherto unknown phenom is surging thru the farm system.

    • therealjohnc - Feb 23, 2014 at 11:34 AM

      Except that’s a ridiculous comparison. It’s seven years of Andrelton Simmons, one of which was going to be dirt cheap and either three or four (depending on whether Simmons qualified for “Super 2″ status) arbitration years. With Desmond’s arbitration years locked down by the two year extension, the other five years would be full-on free agent years.

      It’s like getting mad about the fact that Pujols is making $23 million this year while Mike Trout is going to make about $510,000.

    • sjm308 - Feb 23, 2014 at 11:36 AM

      Agree with this totally. Its not just about numbers with Desmond, its what some people call an “X factor” (I consider that a cliche but it fits here) and I think he has that. Add to that, there are honestly very very few shortstops out there that you would consider a replacement for our guy. I can’t name more than two or three and they are not going on the market soon.

      Go Nats!!

  5. Another_Sam - Feb 23, 2014 at 11:45 AM

    Nice piece, Mark. Makes me think of how far the club and the fans have come.

  6. JayB - Feb 23, 2014 at 12:00 PM

    I for one was one of the people who did not believe Ian could do what he has done……cut his 40 errors to 20 errors….once he started doing that…I became his biggest fan because of his leadership, work ethic and his honestly about what he must do to become the player he could be.

    Compare Ian with his 37 errors in his first one or two seasons to Danny and his 196 K’s…..Danny feels he is owed things and that that doctors, trainer….hell anyone is to blame to his play anyone except himself.

    • nats128 - Feb 23, 2014 at 8:01 PM

      Nice to hear you are stand-up on Desi.

      I remember Desi once talking about how much hatred he received the first 2 years playing for the Nats.

      I also commend those in the small minority who saw Desis talent and had his back those first 2 years.

  7. veejh - Feb 23, 2014 at 12:14 PM

    Kudos to the organization for sticking w him. Had things developed quicker w the Nats becoming a solid team, Dez may have never been given all the chances he had. Strange how things work out.

    • nats128 - Feb 23, 2014 at 8:04 PM

      Thats a very true point and you have to believe there are many other players that never made the Majors becuz they were blocked and were given up on or gave up and retired in the Minors.

      • senators5 - Feb 24, 2014 at 1:18 PM

        When someone much brighter than me comes up with a stat that measures a player’s heart and grit, I will continue to find most of the other stats just trivia feed for the baseball junkies of the world. The only stats that I pay attention to are: GP (games played) BA, RBIs, Ks (backward Ks too) and errors. For pitchers, W & L, Ks, BBs and Saves. But then again, I am ancient having seen my first MLB game as a 12 yr. old in August 1952 at long gone Griffith Stadium where the Senators hosted the Yankees with Joe D. and Mickey what’s his name wearing #6. I played in one league or another for almost 20 years and coached and managed and scouted ever since. Our major concern back then was: 1. Can he see the ball and can he hit the ball? 2. Can he catch the ball and can he throw the ball? 3. Does he have heart? and always, #4. Is he a left handed pitcher? The first three certainly describe Ian Desmond.

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