Ian Desmond provided offense from shortstop and improved his defense during the course of a strong rookie season in 2010, and second baseman Danny Espinosa was a revelation during his September call-up. But don't get attached to either, since Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo could part with one of them if the right deal at the Winter Meetings presents the opportunity to bolster the Washington rotation.
With free agent starting pitching in short supply, the Nationals are making sure there's a backup plan in place in case they don't land left-hander Cliff Lee. Rizzo is talking with a number of teams, and Desmond and Espinosa's names are frequently being mentioned by possible trade partners.
Face it: Teams don't get something worthwhile in a deal without giving up a player another team covets. It doesn't cost Rizzo anything to listen to suitors interested in the 25-year-old Desmond or the 23-year-old Espinosa; he's not obligated to include either in any package unless he feels it makes the Nats better today and in the future. But Rizzo would be silly not to at least gauge what value the two young infielders possess, and the Winter Meetings are a perfect venue to do so.
Desmond hit 10 homers as a rookie, but his 27 doubles and four triples suggest that his power is still developing; many young hitters spray shots to the gaps before starting to regularly send balls over the fences. Desmond also stole 17 bases in 22 attempts, and seemed to get a better handle on the running game in the latter stages of last season. Given that he was only a .259 hitter in six minor league seasons -- with his .330 average between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse in 2009 by far his best showing -- Desmond still has to prove he can build on what started last season.
Espinosa made a bang in September, rewarding manager Jim Riggleman for entrusting a starting job to him in the season's final month by hitting .277 with six homers and 15 RBIs in 28 games. It was a small sampling, but one that offers hope for the future. The power numbers from Espinosa mirror a five-season minor league career in which he went deep 40 times in 275 games, with 18 homers at Single-A Potomac in 2009 and 22 homers between Harrisburg and Syracuse in 2010.
Both are decent with the glove, Desmond improving and Espinosa boasting sure hands and good range. But Espinosa has played both second base and shortstop -- moving to second late last season in preparation for his recall to Washington -- and that versatility both makes him desirable and gives the Nationals some options. If they were to trade Desmond, Espinosa could slide to shortstop to replace Desmond with the Nationals finding someone else to man second base. Or they could keep Espinosa at second and find another shortstop. Backup infielder Alberto Gonzalez, a man of many positions, further adds to the Nationals' depth and manager Jim Riggleman's options.
Why trade either Desmond or Espinosa now? They're hot commodities in a commodity-driven market, and multiple teams have need at shortstop and/or second base. The Nationals have second baseman Steve Lombardozzi burning through the minors, and he was impressive in the Arizona Fall League. If and when Lombardozzi, who finished last season at Harrisburg, arrives in Washington, he'll either have to displace an incumbent or apprentice as a backup. Finally, Rizzo has been collecting middle infielders in the past several amateur drafts, and it's a position of depth within the organization.
If the right deal comes along -- if another team offers a can't-refuse-it swap, but asks for either Desmond or Espinosa -- Rizzo needs to at least consider the possibility of parting with one of the desirable middle infielders.