Despite rumors, Desmond is ready to “enjoy this ride” (plus pics)

VIERA, Fla. - No player has been in the Nationals organization longer than Ian Desmond, who was selected by the Expos in the third round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft. But Desmond’s tenure as Nats shortstop is threatened by his looming free agency at the end of this season.

Desmond spent this offseason in the vulnerable position of hearing his name floated in trade rumors. That speculation intensified after Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo acquired infielder Yunel Escobar from Oakland last month. The plan is for Escobar to play second base in 2015, but shortstop is the position he’s fielded for most of his eight seasons in the majors. Escobar’s two-year, $18 million contract runs through the 2016 season with an option in 2017.

desmond-looking-out-from-dugout-sidebar.jpgSpeaking today after reporting to Nationals camp, Desmond didn’t appear bothered by the trade rumors, including a reported potential deal that would have sent him to the Mets.

“I mean, you can’t really put too much stock in it, because I never heard from Mike,” said Desmond. “I never heard from anybody. The only thing I did hear was, Matt (Williams) called me and said: ‘You’re not getting traded.’ So, at that point, I was like, ‘All right, I’m not getting traded.’ But this is a business, and you’ve got to test that market. I don’t blame them for doing that, and I’m not going to hold anything against them. This is a really good baseball team, and I’m glad to be here.”

Williams, the Nationals’ second-year manager, recognizes the rare luxury of having a shortstop with such a powerful bat. He explained why he decided to make that offseason call to Desmond.

“I just wanted to free his mind, and let him know that there’s a lot of things that are said and a lot of things that are speculated on,” said Williams. “But from me to you, I want to give you the real story and let you know what we’re thinking, what I’m thinking. And again, at that time, I just told him listen, just concentrate on getting ready. We don’t have anything, we’re not in trade talks with you at this point. So just relax, get ready. You never know what will happen, especially with people blowing up Mike’s phone. You never know. So you can’t worry about it. All you can worry about is getting ready to play. So he’s great. He’s got a fantastic attitude and he’s ready to go.”

Desmond confirmed that his relationship with Rizzo is strong. And Rizzo doesn’t expect the business part of the game to lead to any distractions from Desmond or any others in his group of impending pending free agents, which also includes pitchers Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann and center fielder Denard Span.

“No, none whatsoever,” said Rizzo. “These guys are professional players. They’re All-Star-caliber players. They’re professionals. And they’re going to attack their jobs like they always do. The guys will have a smile on their face and a hop in their step. I think they’re ready to take on what’s in front of us for ‘15.”

Last offseason, Desmond reportedly turned down a seven-year, $107 million offer from the Nationals, opting for a two-year, $17.5 million extension before spring training.

Rizzo doesn’t have any opposition to working on a deal during spring training or in-season, a philosophy that Desmond is indifferent toward.

“I don’t really care,” said Desmond. “It’s not like I’m going to be negotiating or not negotiating. If I say, ‘Hey, I’m not going to talk to you at all,’ you think that’s going to stop Mike from calling my agent and saying, ‘Hey, you want to work out a deal?’ “

Desmond’s batting average slipped to .255 in 2014, 25 points lower than the previous season and his 183 strikeouts were not only the highest mark for his career but also fourth-most in the majors. However, he still led all major league shortstops with 24 home runs and his 91 RBIs were a career high helping to earn him a third consecutive Silver Slugger, most ever for a Nationals player.

But Desmond felt his swing was inconsistent all season.

“I never really went up to the plate and had a clear mind all year for 162 (games).” he said.

So this offseason he stripped it down and took a more rooted approach to refine his swing by hitting at a buddy’s batting cage called the Sandlot at Five Tools Baseball in Bradenton, Fla.

“We chopped it up,” described Desmond. “No air conditioning. Warehouse. Old school. Dirty. You just go in there and work and iron things out.”

Desmond, whose wife gave birth to their third son during the offseason, appears relaxed and focused as he approaches his seventh season in the majors. He’s also preparing to work with a new double play partner at second base .

“I’m excited about Yunel right next to me,” he said. “I think we can complement each other really well. I feel he does some things and we can learn from each other. He does a lot of things I think I can learn from him.”

Desmond is well aware of the talent he’ll be taking the field with every night as well as the expectations that follow them. It seems as though he can honestly put the business aside and focus on helping the Nationals down the path to a championship.

“I’m going to enjoy this ride,” said Desmond. “And you know what? If it’s my last year here, it’s my last year here. But I’m going to enjoy every single day. I’ve got a lot of friends and family in this organization. I’m going to make sure I don’t slight them in any way by throwing in any other distractions. I owe it to everybody here to give my 100 percent concentration, and that’s what I’m going to do. Everything else is not really going to be talked about. It’s time to go.”

Update: Here’s an assortment of pics from today.

Max Scherzer signs an autograph for a young fan.
The Nats practice fielding.
Nats pitchers participate in medicine ball toss.
Nats pitchers practice holding runners.
Gio Gonzalez speaks with owner Mark Lerner behind Doug Fister and manager Matt Williams.

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