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Ian Desmond will start at shortstop for Washington Nationals

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 2010; D03

VIERA, FLA. -- Manager Jim Riggleman walked across the infield late Sunday morning and approached Ian Desmond. For six straight springs, Desmond had fielded ground balls in the spot where he stood, shortstop at Space Coast Stadium. As long as the Washington Nationals have existed, Desmond had been a minor league prospect trying to become a major league player. This spring more than any before it, Desmond believed he had a real chance.

"Opening day is coming up," Riggleman told Desmond. "You're going to be our guy."

In that instant, Desmond stepped into his new life as the Nationals' starting shortstop. The Nationals made one of their boldest decisions of this or any other spring training by choosing Desmond, a 24-year-old rookie, over incumbent Cristian Guzmán, the lone position player remaining from the franchise's first lineup upon arriving in Washington in 2005.

In the Nationals' clubhouse Sunday morning, Desmond sat quietly at his locker and accepted handshakes and half-hugs from teammates. His reaction? "Nothing, really," he said. "I wanted to work hard and see where I could make it. It's exciting. I'm excited. Doesn't really seem like it, but I am excited."

Desmond's nonchalance belied his enthusiasm. Between batting practice and Sunday's game, after he learned he had the position, Desmond dialed his parents and shared the news. "He's extremely happy," said Chris Charron, Desmond's stepfather. "He didn't know if he was going to be living in Syracuse or living in Washington. It kind of eats at you."

By naming Desmond the starter, the Nationals dismissed the financial implications of Guzmán's cumbersome contract while affecting the complexion of this season and their future. Guzmán will replace Desmond should he falter, but the Nationals hope that in choosing Desmond, they ushered in not only a new starter, but also a new era.

"We continue to focus on the '10 season," Riggleman said. "But this is a guy who we think can play for us in '10 and in '15. But for the year '10, he's playing really good in spring training. He may not be playing good in May, so Guzmán may be our shortstop. To open the season, we're going to give Dessie a shot there to hold that position down. We hope that works."

Guzmán, set to make $8 million this season, will serve as a utility player at least to begin the season. Sunday morning, with groups of fielders at each position but shortstop, Guzmán took groundballs at second base. Desmond stood at short, no one else around him.

Desmond earned the position with his strong offensive spring, in which he has hit .298 with a .365 on-base percentage and .474 slugging percentage. The performance carried over from his major league debut last September as a call-up, when he hit .280 with a .318 on-base percentage and a .561 slugging percentage.

Guzmán, the Nationals' opening day shortstop every year of their existence save 2006, hit .284 last season with a .306 on-base percentage and a .390 slugging percentage. This spring, while building strength in his surgically repaired shoulder, Guzmán has hit .284 with a .284 on-base percentage and a .471 slugging percentage.

The performance of Desmond, Guzmán and second baseman Adam Kennedy will determine playing time, Riggleman said. The plan and hope is that Desmond will play well and remain the regular shortstop all season. But Riggleman can envision a scenario in which the three create a semi-platoon between the middle infield positions in which all three players receive between 300 and 600 at-bats.

The dynamic will test the ability of the players involved to accept diminished responsibility. Early Sunday morning, Riggleman delivered the news.

"When you're telling a 10-year veteran that we're looking at other options, there's no easy way to say that," Riggleman said. "He was fine. I'm sure it's a blow to him. It'll probably take a few days to sink in.

"If it's handled by the players the way we want it to be handled by them, it's a great problem to have. If it's not handled well by them, then it's an issue."

In the clubhouse, Guzmán immersed himself in the same card game he plays every day. He declined to speak with reporters.

With the Nationals naming Desmond the starting shortstop, Guzmán becomes expendable. At this point, though, the Nationals are not actively involved in trade talks regarding Guzmán, General Manager Mike Rizzo said.

"We haven't had any discussions about that," he said. "We have not made any calls and we haven't taken any calls about a trade" for Guzmán.

Rizzo acknowledged that Guzmán would be a difficult player to trade. He is in the final year of the two-year, $16 million contract he signed during the 2008 season, when Jim Bowden was the general manager.

But Rizzo believes Guzmán, an accomplished hitter whose value is lowered because of his .307 career on-base percentage, will contribute.

"He's a major league shortstop who has proven he can hit," Rizzo said. "We see him as an important part of our ballclub going forward."

Although Guzmán's right shoulder is still balky from last fall's surgery, the injury did not factor into Desmond's winning the spot, Riggleman said. He believes Guzmán has played well this spring. It's just that Desmond has played better.

"This is one of those moves we can make to help the club this year and in the future," Riggleman said. "It's hard to pass that up."

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