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Teenager Desmond Stars In Spring Talent Show

Nats' 19-Year-Old Shortstop Dazzles Club With Defense

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2005; Page D05

JUPITER, Fla., March 8 -- Jim Bowden, the general manager of the Washington Nationals, picked up his cell phone earlier this week and punched in the speed dial for Dana Brown, his scouting director. Bowden wanted to discuss Ian Desmond, a shortstop the Nationals brought into big league camp after taking him in the third round of last year's draft.

"Dana," Bowden said. "You made a mistake when you drafted Desmond."

Ian Desmond, the 19-year-old who a year ago was playing for the Sarasota (Fla.) High Sailors, has created a buzz in the Nationals' clubhouse. (Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)

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Brown was shocked. "Why?" he asked.

"Because you took him in the third round instead of the first round," Bowden replied.

Spring trainings past are filled with stories like Desmond's, guys who came up for a week as teenagers, caught the eyes of coaches and executives, became labeled the next this or next that, and then flamed out. That said, no one in the Nationals' clubhouse has created more of a buzz than Desmond, the polished, precocious 19-year-old who a year ago was playing for the Sarasota (Fla.) High Sailors.

"We've been talking about him, sure," catcher Gary Bennett said the other day. "You don't want to say too much. It's early. But man, that kid has some tools."

They have talked, specifically, because of three plays. Two came Saturday: a high chopper on which Desmond spectacularly threw out a runner at the plate, and a bad-hop grounder that deflected off the third baseman that Desmond calmly grabbed before flicking to first for the out. The other came Monday against Detroit, when, with a runner on first, he ranged behind third to snare a pop fly, then smartly threw to second baseman Brendan Harris, who doubled the runner off.

"He has tremendous poise," Bowden said. "He reminds me of Derek Jeter -- except those were Ian Desmond plays, not Derek Jeter plays."

Hyperbole? Maybe. But Nationals officials can't stop smiling. When Desmond returned to the dugout after the play against the Tigers, Manager Frank Robinson asked him why he threw to second. "Because I knew I couldn't reach first," came the answer.

"I'm telling you: His instincts are better than some guys I've seen play the game for 20 years," Robinson said. "He doesn't seem overwhelmed by the situation. He doesn't panic out there. . . . And when you ask him a question, he gives you a very quick, sound answer. He doesn't stare at you like, 'Let me think about that. I don't have an answer for you.' "

It has been that way for some time. Sarasota High Coach Clyde Metcalf has mentored his share of good players. But Desmond stood out, even early on. He would drive to Metcalf's house on Sundays and ask for the keys to the batting cages so he could go hit.

"He's really just a sponge for information, for coaching," Metcalf said by phone Tuesday. "He's mature, and he's a very, very hard worker. Those kinds of traits make him someone that's probably very inviting for an organization like theirs."

Yet after he was drafted last June, Desmond was sent to rookie ball in Viera, where he struggled. In 55 games, he hit just .227 with a homer and 27 RBI. So it was a bit surprising when he was called up to play a few innings with the major league club this spring. The organization is bereft of shortstops, and Robinson needed an extra body.

But after the Nationals made their first cuts Monday, Desmond survived, in large part because of his defense, but also because, as Robinson said, "He hasn't been coming back with his bat on his shoulder." After doubling and scoring a run Tuesday in the Nationals' 9-7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, he is 5 for 12 (.417), including a tiebreaking, bases-loaded triple Saturday.

So, even though Desmond will almost certainly start the year at Class A Savannah, the obvious question arises: If Cristian Guzman, the starting shortstop, was injured, would the Nationals look to Desmond?

"I wouldn't be afraid to put him out there," Robinson said.

"I wouldn't be afraid to bring him to the big leagues to play defense," Bowden said.

Ultimately, Bowden said, Desmond's bat will determine how quickly he rises. For now, he is sitting on the bench, soaking it in, playing the sponge. He is being managed by Robinson, one of the game's all-time greats. Barry Larkin, an all-star shortstop now assisting Bowden, has tutored him. His expression doesn't change.

"They're all great guys, but they're just people like me, too," Desmond said. "Don't get me wrong: I respect everything they've done. But I can't be like, 'Wow.' I want to be them. I want to be as good as them -- or better."

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