It's been a weird offseason for Ian Desmond, who has spent his days alternately hearing how he's one of the cornerstones of the Nationals' future and then listening to his name bandied about in trade rumors. This much is clear: Desmond's strong rookie season in 2010 made baseball stand up and take notice.
Sometimes, this wasn't for all the right reasons. Desmond can be a flashy fielder at shortstop, but his 34 errors were the most in the National League (the second-most were 27 by another rookie shortstop, Chicago's Starlin Castro). And those defensive challenges made Desmond a polarizing figure among Nationals fans , half of whom think he's never going to get better in the field and half of whom are willing to chalk up his struggles with the glove to growing pains.
Count me among the latter. Defensively, Desmond improved over the course of the season, learning when to eat a ball and when he could rush a throw to try and get a runner at first. Much of Desmond's problems came from being over-aggressive, getting to balls no other shortstop would have reached and then throwing them away. Still, a .947 fielding percentage, Desmond's number in 2010, represents significant room for improvement.
But there's hope, as a check of Desmond's minor league statistics will bear out. In 631 minor league games, all but one of them at shortstop, Desmond had a .936 fielding percentage. His career high for errors came in his second professional season in 2005, when the 19-year-old Desmond made 39 errors between Single-A stops at Savannah and Potomac. And his fielding percentage that year was .937, a marked improvement from his first professional season, when Desmond made 30 errors between Rookie League and Vermont and had an .872 fielding mark.
Reigning American League Gold Glove winner Derek Jeter of the Yankees presents an interesting comparison. As a minor leaguer, Jeter had a career fielding mark of .934 in seven seasons to Desmond's .936 in six campaigns. Yes, Desmond, for all his faults, was a better minor league fielder than a guy considered one of the best shortstops of all time. Oh, and Jeter had a clunker of a season with the glove as a 19-year-old, too - 56 errors for Single-A Greensboro in 1993, when he had an .889 fielding percentage. Heck, Jeter's rookie season with the Yankees in 1996 saw him make 22 errors as a 22-year-old, the second-most of his career to 24 in 2000.
Granted, you can say that minor league fields are spotty, at best, when it comes to infield construction and maintenance. There are bad hops and worse lighting. But in the case of both Desmond and Jeter, one poor-fielding minor league season, or one full major league campaign, can't accurately be viewed as a precursor for what's to come. Jeter improved, though I've never been enamored of his range, and Desmond will, too. Former Nationals GM Jim Bowden used to get raised eyebrows when he'd say Desmond reminded him of a young Jeter. Maybe Bowden wasn't so far off.
Some observers weren't impressed with Desmond's offense in 2010, either. The .269 season with 10 homers, 65 RBIs and 17 stolen bases in 22 tries didn't garner a single vote in the Rookie of the Year balloting. Again, Desmond's sampling is small 175 games, barely a whole season but scouts believer the 25-year-old is still maturing as a hitter. He hit 27 doubles last year, and baseball insiders think this is a sign his power is starting to develop.
One of the most interesting facets at baseball-reference.com is the feature that ranks a player to others major leaguers at the same age during their careers. Russ Adams, a forgettable backup infielder in Toronto from 2004-09, is at the top of the list, based on his eight-homer, 63-RBI, 11-steal season in 2005 as a 24-year-old - numbers Adams never came close to after that. But the next five names on the list provide more hope: Orlando Cabrera, Khalil Greene, Julio Franco, Stephen Drew and Yuniesky Betancourt.
Cabrera, originally Montreal property, has played 14 years in the majors and reached the postseason six times. Greene hit 15 or more homers four straight seasons from 2004-07, clubbing 27 homers and driving in 97 runs for the Padres in 2007. Franco's career lasted 23 seasons and he was a career .298 hitter. Drew, a .238 hitter with 12 homers and 60 RBIs as a 24-year-old in 2007, is now a fixture in the Arizona infield and was ruled untouchable in trade talks at the Winter Meetings. Betancourt, recently traded from Kansas City to Milwaukee, had career bests of 16 homers and 78 home runs in 2010.
It's only natural to point to Desmond's shortcomings last season. But two or three more years could see an entirely different played in his uniform. The Nationals hope it's a smoother fielder who also contributes considerably with the bat.
What do you think 2011 and beyond hold for Desmond?