By Thomas Boswell
Monday, March 29, 2010; D01
On Sunday, the Nationals made a wise and fairly courageous decision that will probably pay dividends for many years. They gave rookie Ian Desmond the shortstop job for opening day and told Cristian Guzmán, their second-highest paid player in the final year of his contract, that he is now an $8 million utility man.
"This [Desmond] is a guy who we think can play for us in '10 and in '15," Manager Jim Riggleman said to The Post's Adam Kilgore in Viera, Fla., on Sunday. " . . . 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."
No sport offers us as much deep information on career paths and probable outcomes as baseball. Desmond has played 630 games at shortstop in the minors -- a mountain of data. If we knew the relationship between minor league performance and major league productivity of every current shortstop, we should grasp Desmond's future, and judge the Nats' decision, much better.
Let's study the careers of all 21 shortstops who played more than 110 games last year. What could their histories tell us about the odds that Desmond will succeed? And how good (or bad) is he likely to be? The answer is actually crystal clear. It leaps out of the data. The Nats should commit to Desmond even more than they are. Forget "May." Try: Be as patient as humanly possible. Desmond is no lock. But his upside is big. Use '10 to find out.
The pattern of the 21 other shortstops is revealing in two areas that most concern the Nats: Desmond's errors and his ability to hit almost as well in The Show as he did in his last years in the minors.
First, and most important to the Nats, Desmond will probably cut his scary minor league errors in half and become a rangy shortstop with tolerable error totals. Based on the careers of others, in '10, Desmond may make 25 to 30 errors, likely the most in baseball, but by '11 he should be near 20. One Nats exec says "expect 28 errors, but with a lot more range than Guzmán."
Why would Desmond make fewer errors than he has before?
Because 20 of those 21 starting shortstops cut their minor league errors when they got to the big leagues; and, as a group, their error totals plummeted by exactly 50 percent in the big leagues. That's enormous. And a trend I've never seen mentioned.
How can this group go from an average career minor league percentage of .949 to .974 in the majors? Better conditioned fields, certainly. Better first basemen, probably. An X factor, maybe.
If you wait for promising shortstops to post big league fielding numbers before you give them a starting job, you may waste years off their careers or end up needlessly switching them to easier defensive positions. A dozen of the 21 improved by more than 25 points, such as Derek Jeter (42), Troy Tulowitzki (38), Miguel Tejada (36), Rafael Furcal (35), Orlando Cabrera (34), Guzmán (33), Stephen Drew (32), Hanley Ramírez (29) and Edgar Renteria (29).
That kind of improvement, and nothing less, is what Desmond needs. A .936 fielder in the minors (but .948 his last three years), he was as bad as Furcal (.931), Jeter (.934), Tejada (.935), Guzmán (.937) and Ramírez (.939). No current starting shortstop has a career mark worse than .966. Desmond can probably get there. But it's not a certainty. So, you need to start finding out ASAP.
The Nats should stop worrying about Desmond's hitting. His poor stats all came before he had turned 21. The last three years, in more than 1,300 plate appearances, his combined OPS was a hair under .800. And last year his OPS rose to a breath-catching .866 at Class AA, then .889 at Class AAA and finally .879 with the Nats. Jeter's career OPS is .847.
Nobody thinks Desmond is Jeter. However, Desmond's hitting, with an .839 OPS this spring, is far too advanced to send back to the minors when he's already 24 with tons of seasoning.
Anyone who wants to get excited (perhaps too excited) should look at the correlation between last-year-in-the-minors offense by our current 21 starting shortstops and their eventual production. The pattern: They usually fall only 20 to 60 OPS points once in the majors.
If, for example, you use Desmond's last three years in the minors as a baseline, then he might "fall" to the same general level of offense as Jimmy Rollins, Renteria, Furcal, J.J. Hardy, Drew, Alexei Ramírez and Jason Bartlett. The Nats would be very happy.
But if you think '09 and this spring are the proper baseline, then he might be similar to Tulowitzki, Tejada or Yunel Escobar.
The Nats need to find out now how good Desmond can become. With Guzmán (.693 career OPS and .696 in '09) presumably leaving before next season, and no other shortstop in the organization on the brink of the big leagues, you can't anoint Desmond the shortstop-of-the-future for '11 then find out it's a 40-error fantasy.
When the Expos moved here, the first player the Nats paid up to get for instant respectability was Guzmán. In five years, he has been everything from a hitting flop to hurt for a whole season to an all-star after eye surgery. He's always been a pro, not a problem.
But when a 100-loss team has Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen and a second No. 1 overall pick in the wings, the only thing that matters is the future. When a young multi-tool shortstop comes along who might, really might, become a core piece of that future, you must make way for him.
On Sunday, in his first exhibition with the shortstop job in hand, Desmond filled up the box score: two hits, a walk, two runs, two RBI, a stolen base and no errors.
Stop waiting. Cross your fingers. Find out.