There was enough chatter about what the future held for 26-year-old Nats' shortstop Ian Desmond after a sub-par 2011 campaign, that Washington Nationals' manager Davey Johnson felt the need to explain his motivation in giving Danny Espinosa time at short this past Spring. The 69-year-old manager told reporters at the time, including the Washington Times' Amanda Comak, that he wanted Espinosa, who was drafted as a shortstop but moved to second when he arrived in D.C., to see time at his old position, "... in case they lose shortstop Ian Desmond to a long-term injury." Though Espinosa had a history at short and Minor League Gold Glove winner Steve Lombardozzi appeared ready to take the next step after a strong season in 2011, Desmond and Espinosa were his starting infielders and as the Times' Ms. Comak wrote, "Johnson made it clear they have no plans for that to change any time soon."
The questions about Desmond's future were understandable at the time. The '04 Expos' 3rd Round pick was coming off a .253/.298/.358, 27 double, five triple, eight home run, +1.4 fWAR season in which he improved defensively but struggled at the plate. After the first half of the 2012 season, no one was asking any questions about what the future held for the Nationals' shortstop. After a .250/.286/.370, five double, two home run start to the season in March/April, Desmond picked it up with a .274/.297/.508 May in which he hit nine doubles and six home runs (matching his 2011 season total in two months+) and then followed that up with a nine double, five home run June in which he posted a .301/.333/.553 line to leave him at +3.6 fWAR with 24 doubles, 17 home runs and a .285/.316/.515 line at the mid-way point.
Desmond's strong start to the 2012 season also earned the infielder his first All-Star selection when NL Manager Tony La Russa added the Sarasota, Florida-born, fourth-year pro's name to the roster for the first time in his career. As important as it was to Desmond, the Nats' shortstop eventually decided against traveling to Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium to participate in the mid-summer classic, opting instead to rest a sore oblique that had bothered Desmond for over a month at that point. Davey Johnson had first talked about the issue his shortstop was dealing with a month earlier when he momentarily considered sitting Desmond.
The Nats' manager said he'd talked to Desmond the morning after he had felt discomfort during a game with the New York Yankees, and the infielder felt better than he had the night before, but, Johnson explained, "My tendency is always to nip it in the bud."
"If it's going to be maybe a couple days," the manager explained, he'd probably use Espinosa at short, because of his history there and because Steve Lombardozzi came up as a second baseman and was more comfortable there. "I have confidence in Lombo [at short] too," Johnson said, "... and his arm strength is stretched out from throwing in left [field]." Johnson, however, preferred to keep Desmond in the lineup if possible. "He's been an iron man, I think he's missed one game [this season]," Johnson said, but his decision would be based on what his player and medical staff told him.
"I like him in the lineup obviously," Johnson continued at the time, noting that he'd played Desmond in "61 games out of 62," but since it was a long season, he was considering sitting the shortstop down. Desmond played that day, and played every game after that too, putting up a .348/.383/.719 line (1.102 OPS?) with seven doubles and eight home runs over the next 23 games and 94 plate appearances. After he went 1 for 4 in a 2-1 loss to the Marlins on Saturday night, however, the oblique issue became too much for Desmond, who found himself bunting late in the game because he couldn't swing.
When Johnson announced his lineup on Sunday, Desmond was down. Danny Espinosa was at short and Steve Lombardozzi was at second. Was it a sign that Desmond would miss a prolonged stretch? "'I don’t know how long it might be,'" Johnson told reporters including the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore, "'Normally, if I was just resting [Desmond], I’d probably play Lombo at short.'" Before Johnson spoke to the press about his decision, Espinosa had been spotted on the field taking grounders at short. Desmond, via Twitter (@IanDesmond20), expressed his thoughts on the situation by citing a Bible verse:
Romans 5: 3-4— Ian Desmond (@IanDesmond20) July 15, 2012
The passage reads, "Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope." Desmond had persevered through a rough 2011 season that had many wondering what the future held for him. He'd persevered through the oblique injury to put together one the more impressive stretches of his career at the major league level and even passed up the opportunity to appear on the national stage in the All-Star Game in order to rest up for the second half. As Davey Johnson told the WaPost's Mr. Kilgore, however, that might have exacerbated the oblique issue:
"'Sometimes, when you have an injury and you totally rest it, sometimes it tried to over-heal," Johnson said. "Those muscles get a little tighter. He’s going to have to kind of stretch it out and loosen it up. How long that’s going to take, I don’t know.'"
Is a DL stint a possibility? Johnson told reporters he hoped it wouldn't be necessary. It probably wouldn't surprise anyone if Desmond was back in the lineup tonight though for the fourth game with the Marlins in Miami. Espinosa's shift to short might be a sign that Desmond's going to miss an extended period of time, but that would be a big blow to a team that has dealt with and overcome injuries all season long while remaining at or near the top of the NL East throughout the first half. Desmond leads the Nats and all shortstops league-wide in HR's with 17, doubles with 24, RBI's with 52, SLG% (at .511), wRC+ (at +125) and fWAR (+3.6).
The Nationals have overcome a great deal in the first half of the 2012 season. Can they overcome the loss of their starting shortstop and team leader? They'd probably rather not find out, but the fact that they can fill in for him for the time being with a highly-regarded infielder (and former SS) like Danny Espinosa while slotting Steve Lombardozzi in at second for as long as it takes, speaks to the depth present on the major league roster this season. The sooner Desmond gets back on the field, the better, but for the time being, they have the luxury of letting him rest. With all the injuries they've dealt with this season, Desmond's Bible verse might become a team motto.