Nats positional preview: Shortstop

There’s been plenty of activity involving the shortstop position this offseason. In December, the Nationals traded for San Diego’s Trea Turner, who will be the player to be named in a three-team deal that also involved the Rays. Turner, a highly ranked prospect, was selected by the Padres with the 13th overall pick in June’s First-Year Player Draft. Last month, general manager Mike Rizzo acquired infielder Yunel Escobar from Oakland. The plan is for Escobar to play second base in 2015, but shortstop is the position he’s played for most of his eight seasons in the majors.

Both of these moves fueled speculation that Ian Desmond’s days in a curly W cap may be numbered. Desmond is set to become a free agent when his contract expires at the end of this season. 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. He’s been the subject of trade rumors this winter, something Rizzo addressed last month on a conference call.

desmond-looking-out-from-dugout-sidebar.jpg“Our approach with Ian Desmond has not changed one bit since the end of last season,” Rizzo said. “Ian Desmond is our shortstop. He is the leader of our team. He is one of the best shortstops in all of baseball, and he is going to be the shortstop of the Washington Nationals. With that said, if a deal comes up that we can’t refuse, we will always look to improve ourselves for 2015 and beyond. But it’s hard to replace one of the best shortstops in all of baseball. The deal would have to be pretty elaborate not to have Ian Desmond on this team.”

So as long as an eraser isn’t used, Desmond will be in a Nats uniform for his seventh major league season in 2015. No player has been with the Nationals organization longer than Desmond, who was selected by the Expos in the third round of the 2004 draft.

Desmond batted .255 last season, down 25 points from 2013, and had a career-high 183 strikeouts, 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. Desmond also swiped 24 bases in 2014, making him just the fourth shortstop in the game’s history with 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in three seasons. His offensive production earned him his third consecutive Silver Slugger, most ever for a Nationals player. He’s clubbed 69 home runs over that period and is a good bet to add a fourth straight trophy this season.

The 29-year-old Desmond has also proven to be very durable over his career. He’s missed only 12 games over the past two years and has played in over 150 games in four of the past five seasons. This consistency in the lineup does not go unnoticed, especially on a Nats team where key players have spent too much time on the disabled list.

Desmond did have 24 errors last season, the second-most in his career.

The newly acquired Escobar is more than capable of filling in at shortstop should Rizzo decide to move Desmond. It’s been his primary position and he’s logged 1,016 games there in his eight-year career. But there would be a significant dropoff at the plate, especially in the power department. Escobar hit .258 with seven home runs and 39 RBIs in 476 at-bats last year. However, for his career, Escobar owns a very respectable .276 batting average and hasn’t struck out more than 73 times in a single season. Rizzo explained more on Escobar after last month’s trade.

“We got ourselves a really good everyday baseball player that can play shortstop on a regular basis, has done it on a championship-caliber club, and this year fulfills as an upgrade at second base,” said Rizzo. “We have protection and depth in the infield beyond 2015.”

The last part of Rizzo’s statement takes us back to Turner, who won’t actually join the Nationals organization until June, when the trade is made official (he can’t be traded until the one-year anniversary of his signing, per baseball’s rules). In 69 games for two Single-A teams on the Padres farm, Turner hit .323 with five home runs and 25 RBIs after being drafted. He also added 23 stolen bases in 27 attempts. Baseball America ranked Turner as the second-best prospect in the Nats organization after the trade. However, your best bet to see the 21-year-old Turner will be at Single-A Potomac, not on South Capitol Street in 2015.

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