Washington Nationals have major personnel decisions to make

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, March 15, 2010; D05

The last weeks of spring training offer classic questions that a century of debate has never resolved. If you're a fan who loves to argue, which means everybody, then you're in heaven. If you're the club that faces those decisions, you lose hair every day. Right now, the Nats have just such quandaries everywhere they look.

Should they go with the red-hot rookie shortstop, Ian Desmond, on opening day or stick with the aging, expensive incumbent for one last year? Should they risk rushing an equally impressive rookie reliever, Drew Storen, into their bullpen, even though he signed his first pro contract just nine months ago?

And do they push hard between now and opening day to sign Adam Dunn, their all-hit-no-field cleanup slugger, to an extension or risk losing him at the end of this year if he sticks to his word, won't negotiate during the season then goes free agent next winter?

Compared with these three problems, everything else is easy. Send Stephen Strasburg to the minors until June, thus delaying his free agent eligibility a year. It's good player development and good business, too. As for that rotation tangle, just let 'em fight it out. It's going to be a fascinating mess all year as injured arms return.

However, the decisions about Desmond, Storen and Dunn -- none of them easy or obvious -- have long-term implications.

GM Mike Rizzo has told Manager Jim Riggleman to pick his starting shortstop, Desmond or Cristian Guzmán. That's a skipper's call. But if Riggleman picks Guzmán, then Rizzo believes Desmond should play every day in the minors, even though he's had 2,749 pro plate appearances. That would have been a lot of seasoning even in Ted Williams's day, much less now. But Rizzo's strong preference is that Desmond play every day -- somewhere.

There's a third option: Make Desmond a super-sub who starts at three different positions (shortstop, second base and outfield) in '10. Then he can take over at short in '11. These days, baseball has several valuable utility men who get more than 400 at-bats, such as Mark DeRosa, Craig Counsell, Juan Uribe or Brendan Harris. One such role player, Ben Zobrist, even evolved into a star.

But none of those players, when they were made utility men, were still projected as young standouts. You don't mess up the mind of a kid you still think may be a star as the Nats do Desmond.

Last year, at 24, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Desmond finally went from a prospect with too many strikeouts and errors into the most exciting all-around player the Nats had, after Ryan Zimmerman and Nyjer Morgan. When the Nats came to D.C. in '05, you heard Desmond's name a lot. Then, his career blurred. Partly because of injuries, he just wasn't quite as good as hoped.

Then, suddenly, last year, he was better than imagined. His OPS was .878 in the minors and .879 in a September call-up. He's not that good; Derek Jeter's career OPS is .847. But, for the last three years, Desmond's OPS has been .820. Guzzy's career number: .693. Now, in Viera, Desmond is on fire again, going 10 for 21 with 11 RBI, 5 extra-base hits, 2 steals and lots of range at short.

If Desmond starts at shortstop, what happens to Guzmán's midseason trade value? The last three years, he's hit over .300 combined. If he is on the bench and grouchy like Ronnie Belliard last summer, you may get little.

The feeling here is that, assuming he finishes spring training strongly, Desmond should play every day. Find out the truth about his defense at short. Is he only a high-ball hitter that big leaguers will figure out? If he flops, it's better to find out now; don't go into '11 with a Desmond fantasy.

Storen is a paradox: He may be too good for his own good.

"I see him the first time. He's unbelievable. Fastball, curveball, you just say, 'Wow!' " said Liván Hernández. "The ball explodes."

Because he's emotionally mature for 22, the temptation to put Storen in the bullpen early in '10, perhaps even on opening day, then push him into the closer's job in '11, may be great. But, for 50 years, precocity has usually been tragic career news for kid closers.

Of all active closers, how many saved 20 before they were 25? Not Jonathan Papelbon, Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman or Billy Wagner. Only Francisco Rodriguez and Huston Street.

Young relievers' arms are at even greater risk than starters'. You can count on your fingers the relievers who've saved 20 games before age 25 who were not incinerated before age 30. A few were great: Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter. But it's more common when you close games at age 21 to 23, to end up with arm problems like Chad Cordero or the Orioles' Chris Ray.

For years, most relievers were converted starters, so they went to the bullpen at older ages. That distorts the history books. But if the Nats put Storen's arm through ninth-inning strains before '12, his career may well mirror those of Gregg Olson, Bobby Thigpen and Mitch Williams. They had several fine years, made enough money for a lifetime but had little left in the tank by 28.

The Nats' final puzzle of the spring is Dunn. He is, by all measures, one of the 15 best offensive players in the 16-team National League. And, at 30, he should be in his prime for several years. So he's a genuinely rare commodity: In his peak seasons, probably willing to sign for three years, a true cleanup man but also a fine fit to bat No. 5 if you develop another heart-of-the-order bat.

However, there is the question of his defense: It is either very poor or else the worst in the history of spherical objects. Scouts generally say the former. Stat buffs swear it's the latter. Now, with every ball in every game charted, down to its parabolic trajectory, Dunn has been either the most prominent victim of these new stats, or the most exposed sinner. The only way he could rank worse would be if, when he actually caught a ball, he deliberately threw it into the stands. That's why the Nats got him late and cheap in '09.

If the Nats can extend Dunn for three years for close to $40 million, they should do it -- and fast. His defense may improve. If it doesn't, he's still a bargain because the stat lovers have probably overshot in their zeal for quantifying. It's the way of things. They themselves may be the new inefficiency in the market. Dunn's defense should slash his price, but not slaughter it.

If the Nats don't extend Dunn, as they signed Ryan Zimmerman to an extension moments before last opening day, they and their fans should understand the implications. When a player says he won't continue negotiations during the season, he usually means it. Then, after playing all season, risking injury, with no long-term security, when that player reaches free agency intact, he almost always leaves his old team. Feelings get hurt.

Decisions, decisions. Losing the first 10 games in Florida, while annoying, will be forgotten quickly. How the Nats handle Desmond, Storen, Strasburg and Dunn will reverberate for years.

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