Desmond Making Most of Chance to Impress With Nationals

. . . and at the plate, with three doubles, a tape-measure home run, a .615 average and multi-hit outings in each of his first three games.
. . . and at the plate, with three doubles, a tape-measure home run, a .615 average and multi-hit outings in each of his first three games. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ian Desmond is not much of a sleeper. After games, good or bad, he tosses and turns. Following his Thursday major league debut, one of the good nights, he stayed up late with his fiancee, reliving all the details. Following his second major league start, another good night, he slept so poorly that when he arrived back at Land Shark Stadium on Sunday morning, he found a quiet corner of a clubhouse sofa, ignored the din of an NFL pregame show and his chatty teammates, and briefly shut his eyes. Oh, then he woke back up, started again and got two more hits.

Before he finally arrived in the big leagues this past week, Desmond spent his sleepless hours imagining what it would all feel like. But never did he picture this. Promoted one week ago, Desmond now has 13 at-bats, three doubles, one tape-measure homer and a .615 batting average. He has become the first player in franchise history with multi-hit efforts in each of his first three games. The sleep-deprived spectacle, more important, has awakened the Washington Nationals with a reminder: Perhaps their weak middle infield already has a homegrown solution.

During the season's final weeks, Desmond's opportunity -- be it at shortstop or second base -- will provide the franchise with its greatest potential gain. Drafted out of high school in 2004, Desmond is still just 23. He has progressed with fits and bursts. Weeks into his pro career, shocked by the humid and rainy Gulf Coast League, he thought about quitting. Months later, as a 19-year-old in 2005 spring training, a few highlight games prompted Jim Bowden to compare him to Derek Jeter. A hand injury stunted his 2008 season. Entering this year, Desmond was no longer listed by Baseball America as one of the organization's top 10 prospects. But then he hit .306 with Class AA Harrisburg and .354 with Class AAA Syracuse and earned a call-up.

"From my 12th birthday 'til my last birthday last year, every single time I've wished that I get to the big leagues," Desmond said. "I said, 'I want to be a major league baseball player.' I never made another wish. Not once."

There are plenty of reasons to think he can stick. Among Washington's infield prospects, Desmond has the best arm. He has respectable gap power; his home run Thursday traveled some 434 feet, the third longest this year at Nationals Park. Already, he's made diving plays and shown eye-catching range. Saturday, with two runners on, he stretched to his right, extended for a grounder, and zipped a force-out throw to third.

"A great play," interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "And I think that those types of instincts will allow him to move to another position if needed."

"His arm is one of the strongest I've seen at shortstop," said veteran infielder Pete Orr, who also spent time with Desmond in Syracuse. "When he gets the ball, he doesn't even need max effort to throw, if that makes sense. He does it with ease."

A part of Desmond knows he's lucky to reach the big leagues. His high school, in Sarasota, Fla., produced numerous drafted prospects. Marcus Sanders, older than Desmond by a year, was a high school teammate whom Desmond always considered more gifted. As such, before Sanders became a 2003 draft pick of the San Francisco Giants, Desmond played second base, to make room for Sanders at shortstop.

"He was always better then me coming up when we were kids," Desmond said.

Because of injuries, Sanders never advanced above Class A ball.

For Desmond, the decision to become a pro, rather than attend college, was easy. The top colleges -- Florida, Florida State -- envisioned him as an outfielder. He preferred infield -- and especially shortstop.

Though the Nationals view him, eventually, as a full-time shortstop, he will get plenty of at-bats this September at second base. (Until Sunday, he hadn't started at second base since high school.) The Nationals have shortstop Cristian Guzmán locked up for one more season. They'd also like to acquire a starting middle infielder this offseason. That leaves room for Desmond in 2010 as a potential backup. By 2011, he could be ready for even more.

For now, Washington is simply giving Desmond room to grow, and General Manager Mike Rizzo is waiting to see more before evaluating Desmond's prospects for 2010.

"I don't know [what they are]," Rizzo said. "September baseball, we have to take that with a grain of salt -- evaluating that part of it. He's a live-bodied exciting player, and he's made a progression at each level. He's made adjustments at each level. And depending on what adjustments he makes here when he's here full-time, that will determine what kind of player he is. But he has a chance to be a big part of the long-term future for us here in the middle infield."


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