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Prospect Retrospective: Ian Desmond, SS, Washington Nationals

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Ian Desmond
Ian Desmond
Scott Cunningham

Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond is having his second consecutive excellent season, hitting .284/.326/.506 (through Saturday) and currently standing third among major league shortstops with a 3.0 fWAR. This follows on the heels of his impressive 2012 breakout season. At age 27, Desmond it at his peak.

It was not always this way for the Nationals shortstop, but he is a good example of a tools player who figured out his baseball skills, making him our topic for today's Prospect Retrospective.

Ian Desmond was drafted by the Montreal Expos in the third round in 2004, out of high school in Sarasota, Florida. He was considered very toolsy but very raw when drafted, showing excellent arm strength and good speed, but lacking power and offensive polish. He hit .227/.272/.292 in 55 games of rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League after signing, hardly impressive numbers although organization officials praised his work ethic and physicality. He did steal 13 bases in 16 attempts. I didn't put him in the 2005 book but would have rated him as a Grade C, with a high ceiling but needing to refine his tools.

The Expos became the Nationals in the 2005, and the organization braintrust decided to push Desmond very quickly, skipping him past the New York-Penn League and assigning him directly to full-season ball. He hit .247/.291/.334 in 73 games for Savannah in the Sally League, then .256/.325/.385 in 55 games for Potomac in the Carolina League, after a very aggressive promotion.

He made 35 errors, but scouts liked his range and arm strength. He also stole 33 bases in 45 attempts, and impressed the front office with his emotional maturity. I gave him a Grade C in the 2006 book, noting his age-relative-to-league, but also noting the necessity to sharpen his plate discipline, given his 34/113 BB/K ratio in 515 at-bats.

Desmond began 2006 at Double-A Harrisburg, but he was overmatched and posted a 184/.221/.232 mark in 38 games, also struggling with the glove. Sent back to Potomac, he hit .244/.313/.384 in 92 games, similar to what he'd done in '05, though he looked more comfortable defensively. I gave him another Grade C, continuing to note his youth but also his lack of offensive progress.

The Nationals gave Desmond some stability in 2007, letting him play 129 games at Potomac. This resulted in an improved .264/.357/.432 mark, with 13 homers, 27 steals in 38 attempts, and a career high 57 walks. The Nationals made adjustments to his swing, enabling him to quicken up on fastballs, and he also did an improved job recognizing breaking balls. His defense remained solid. Although this was his third season at Potomac, he was still just 21 years old. I increased him to a Grade C+ in the 2008 book, noting the improvements and projecting that if he maintained this progress, he could see the majors in 2009.

Returning to Harrisburg in 2008, Desmond hit .251/.318/.406 in 93 games, with 12 homers, 31 walks, and 12 steals in 20 attempts. His discipline slipped, but it was certainly much better than his '08 Double-A trial. I did lower his grade to a straight C in the 2009 book, expressing concern about if he'd hit enough to start in the majors, but noting that he was still young and still had development potential. i should have stuck with the Grade C+.

Desmond began '09 at Harrisburg again, hitting .302/.372/.494 in 42 games. Promoted to Triple-A Syracuse, he remained hot with a .354/.428/.461 mark in 55 games, giving him a combined total of .330/.401/.477 on the season, with 21 steals in 26 attempts. Promoted to the majors, he hit .280/.318./.561 in 21 games, 82 at-bats. This was the first time his performance truly matched his potential.

I gave Desmond a Grade C+ in the 2010 book, writing that "I think he made real progress" but that he could use more consolidation time in Triple-A to cut down on routine errors and put the finishing touches on his plate discipline. My thinking was that he could be a ".260 hitter with pop." In retrospect, I should have gone with a B-.

As you know, he didn't get more time in Triple-A and it doesn't look like he really needed it. Desmond hit .269/.308/.392 with 10 homers and 17 steals in 2010, with some poor plate discipline but showing those amazing tools frequently enough. He slipped with the bat in '11 (.253/.298/.358), but broke out last season (wRC+128) and has maintained the pace this year (wRC+126). His power has really blossomed, he's a 20-steal guy, and he's improved his defensive reliability without sacrificing range.

The Sim Score comp list through age 26 has some good names but some problematic ones as well: Orlando Cabrera, Stephen Drew, Khalil Greene, Miguel Tejada, Neifi Perez, Jeff Blauser, Yuniesky Betancourt, Brandon Phillips, Robby Thompson. Neifi doesn't really fit as a comp and his spot on that list is due to Colorado distortion. I don't see a Khalil Greeneish collapse on the horizon, and Ian is way better than Yuniesky. I particularly like the Jeff Blauser and Brandon Phillips comps and I think those fit well.

Desmond may never hit .300 and his lack of patience still hinders him at times, but you can't really complain about a 20/20 shortstop who can field his position. I wish I'd given Desmond higher grades. The tools were always here and he figured out how to use them. The guy can play.