DALLAS — The Nationals are still working toward possibly filling their vacancy in center field. They’ve got “a number of lines in the water,” Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said and are allowing the lines of communication to be open with several teams.
But as I wrote yesterday, there are a number of reasons the Nationals are not only comfortable but might be better off keeping things as they are. The reasons I touched on yesterday involved Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and a need to have room for everyone out there in the outfield when Harper arrives in the big leagues.
Another reason the Nationals may not feel compelled to give up something substantial to fill that need is Ian Desmond’s production in the leadoff spot from the middle of August through the end of the season in 2011. What the Nationals have been searching for is a leadoff-hitting center fielder. What they have on their roster is a capable center fielder and a shortstop who can leadoff.
“I’m confident Ian is going to be a good, solid major league shortstop for us,” Rizzo said Wednesday. “He’s going to get the opportunity to lead off. I like the way he took the role and ran with it and I’m convinced he’s going to take a real step in his progression as a major league player.
“(Nationals manager Davey Johnson) and I both feel comfortable that Ian can hit at the top of the lineup. We feel good about that. Run creation is done a lot of different ways, and he may not be the optimum leadoff hitter, but we feel he’s got the skill set to do so and I feel we could be an effective lineup with him at the top of it.”
Desmond’s offensive struggles this past season were well documented. As much as his defense improved his offense faltered. He reached a low point on July 5 when an 0-for-3 effort dropped his average to .215, his on-base percentage to .256 and his OPS to .554. But he reached that point hitting the majority of the season in the No. 8 spot in the lineup. He began to work his numbers back up, slowly but surely, and seven weeks later when Johnson moved him into the leadoff spot, Desmond took off.
From August 17 until the end of the season, Desmond hit leadoff in every game he started (39 of the final 41). He also hit .305 got on-base at a .342 clip and slugged .437. He hit four homers, one triple and nine doubles. He looked like the player the Nationals have believed for so long that he can be. And unless they’re blown away by by a team offering a player who fits exactly what they want in center field, that’s what they’re hoping Desmond will continue to be.
“(It) would be our preference (to acquire a leadoff-hitting center fielder),” Rizzo said. “But that would just give us another option the way Davey puts the lineup together.”
“We’re not forcing the issue,” Rizzo added. “A lot of teams we’re talking to have a lot of other irons in the fire that would be a prelude to discussing the center field situation. So I think as free agents sign and the dominoes fall, I think the landscape gets a little clearer about which way teams are going to go and that makes it a little clearer on which way we can attack it.”
One route the Nationals could still choose to go is to engage in the bidding for Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes whom Rizzo watched in a private workout in the Dominican Republic last week. He’s expected to become a free agent sometime this offseason once he establishes residency in the Dominican.
“We scouted him very thoroughly,” Rizzo said. “We like the player. He’s a great talent. He’s an unproven commodity in our minds and he’s one of several options that we’re considering… I’ve only seen him in a workout scenario. It’s a little bit more difficult for me to say (if he’s major league ready or not). Our scouts have scouted him in games. They like his skill set. I think it’s to be determined if he’s immediately major league ready or if he’d have to get a little flavor of the American game down in the minor leagues before he gets brought up. In my experience the Cuban player takes a while to acclimate to the U.S. game and he may be an exception but to me that’s the norm that I’ve found.”
And one other option that had been a possibility for the Nationals in the past — dealing with the Minnesota Twins for center fielder Denard Span (who they almost acquired at the trade deadline last July) — appears to be off the board now, too. Twins GM Terry Ryan is telling teams that Span is off the market, something Rizzo hadn’t heard Ryan say himself but an idea that didn’t surprise him with Span still getting over a concussion.
“He hasn’t said that to me, but if he said that, they’re probably waiting to see if Denard’s healthy, over the concussion and to see what his value is as a healthy player,” Rizzo said.