In their search for a leadoff hitter, the Nationals have used seven different hitters at the top of their lineup this season. Having found none of them effective enough to hold the job, they’ve circled back to their first choice. Ian Desmond, who last hit first for 11 games in April, is back at the top of the order.
Manager Davey Johnson made the move for a few reasons, none of them all that definitive. Desmond has a .279 on-base percentage this season, which ranks 72nd out of 73 qualifying National League hitters. Desmond, Johnson acknowledged, is not a perfect fit. “We don’t really have the prototype leadoff guy in the system,” Johnson said.
But he still hopes Desmond, 25, can become someone who could hit first. Having Desmond bat first tonight will start a process that will last for the rest of the season. Johnson is basically giving Desmond a chance to prove he could hit leadoff, and he will do the same for Class AAA Syracuse infielder Stephen Lombardozzi once September call-ups arrive.
The Nationals tried at the trade deadline to add a prototypical leadoff hitter with a high on-base percentage, with Denard Span at the top of their wish list. The Nationals will try again this offseason, but there is no guarantee they will sign or trade for the right player. But it’s a clear problem they need to solve – Nationals leadoff hitters hit .269, worst in the majors. And so, they hope to discover someone in the next six weeks who may fit the mold should they not acquired outside help.
“I think you have to plan on who you know you have,” Johnson said. “I mean, you can’t plan on something that’s not reality. I’m a realist. I’m an optimist-realist. And I’m also confident in human nature, that you can grow into something, but you have to be given the opportunity. Not that I like to audition, but sometimes when you’re developing, you also audition.”
Johnson said he thinks Desmond has “the personality and mindset” to bat leadoff. He talked with his coaching staff, and they agreed that Desmond sees himself as a hitter who should be hitting first or second.
When Johnson told Desmond he would be leading off tonight, he said, “I’m moving you down to the one spot.” Desmond chuckled as he told that story. In the past, he has talked about how he feels a little more into the game batting first or second, because of the extra at-bat. “It’s not that big a deal, really,” Desmond said. “Hopefully, now I get five at-bats a game as opposed to four.”
Danny Espinosa, who has batted leadoff 20 times this year, does not seem to share Desmond’s enthusiasm for hitting at the top of the lineup. Batting first or second this season, Espinosa has hit .183/.254/.313. Everywhere else, Espinosa has hit .265/.342/.440.
“My druthers would be to lead off Espi, having Desi hitting two,” Johnson said. “But knowing that Espi is really comfortable hitting down there, he liked it. I said to Espi, ‘I’m probably going to hit you down in the lineup.’ He said, ‘Thanks.’ ”
So the Nationals will look elsewhere for their leadoff. They have used seven so far this season, and the number will likely grow before it ends.