Leading off, it's Desmond by default

Barring something unexpected, the Nationals will go into spring training with shortstop Ian Desmond as their leadoff hitter.

And manager Davey Johnson is perfectly fine with that, even if Desmond is viewed as an imperfect solution atop the order by some observers.

"I like him there," Johnson said at the Winter Meetings. "I think he'll do fine."

Desmond struggled as a leadoff man at the start of 2011 under manager Jim Riggleman, batting .180 with only one walk and a .212 on-base percentage through the first 12 games. Johnson took the 26-year-old out of the bottom third of the lineup on Aug. 17 and through the end of the season, Desmond hit leadoff in 39 of 41 games and raised his batting average from .229 to .253. During that span, he also improved his selectivity, drawing seven of the 35 walks he worked last season.

While Desmond may never be a prototypical leadoff man - with a high OBP and lots of walks - he does possess enough speed and savvy to do well as the No. 1 hitter. In fact, in 51 career games as a leadoff hitter, he's got a .278 batting average and 10 of his 43 career stolen bases. The .314 OBP could stand some improvement, and Desmond is prone to slow starts. But he finishes with a flourish and is a .280 second-half hitter over his career.

Still, some in NatsTown cringe at the notion of Desmond in the top spot. But who else do the Nationals really have? Jayson Werth would be wasted there, though he bit the bullet and tried to shake his slump last season by volunteering to hit leadoff. Danny Espinosa? A different position in the batting order might make Espinosa stop swinging for the fences, but he'll do OK in the two-hole. Scratch the possible Rick Ankiel/Mike Cameron platoon, too - the former's a little too free a swinger and the latter's speed is gone at 39. Roger Bernadina? He has to crack the outfield rotation before he could be penciled in at No. 1 in the order.

So that leaves Desmond, by default. He will work with hitting coach Rick Eckstein this spring on honing his eye, laying off pitches out of the zone and increasing his ability to get in base. And if he improves in those areas, Desmond will make some inroads to quieting his critics.

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