- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2014

Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond surveyed the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium last month and instantly the memories came flooding back.

There was his old locker along the near wall, the one where he fought for four years to make an impression and prove he was the organization’s shortstop of the future. This was the same place where he first turned heads as an 18-year-old and heard his general manager rashly compare him to Derek Jeter.

Desmond is no Jeter, one of the greatest offensive shortstops of his era and a future Hall-of-Famer. But he is pretty good and is entering his fifth full season as Washington’s starting shortstop. No player in the organization, save third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, is as familiar a face in that clubhouse. The Montreal Expos chose Desmond in the third round of the 2004 draft. For a Nats player, that’s as old school as it gets.

For now, Desmond hopes to make the most of the next two seasons in Washington. He is not guaranteed any more than that after signing a two-year extension in January worth $17.5 million. Unless he signs a long-term deal with the club, Desmond can hit free agency and the lucrative open market after the 2015 season.

It’s possible an extension still gets done, though less likely with each passing month. But at the very least Desmond knows he has two more seasons on a club with World Series expectations. The rest will take care of itself.

“Last year the pressure was on winning and being the best team. All the outside stuff,” Desmond said. “This year the focus is on doing things the right way and not being the guy to deter our growth. This year we’re more worried about the inside, keeping what we have going [like] a well oiled machine.”

But if the Nats are to skew closer to their 98-win season in 2012 and not last year’s disappointing 86-win campaign, Desmond will play a huge role. At a position where most teams struggle to generate much offense, he is one of the better weapons at the plate. Add in his improvements in the field – 34 errors as a rookie in 2010, 35 combined the past two seasons – and it’s no wonder other big-league teams would be ready to pounce if Desmond hits free agency.

Among shortstops last season, only Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki and Oakland’s Jed Lowrie had a higher OPS than Desmond’s .784. Tulowitzki is on a different level than most. He had a .931 OPS and a .540 slugging percentage in 2013. But his contract could serve as a ceiling for negotiations with Desmond.

Before the 2011 season, Tulowitzki signed a seven-year extension that, combined with the final three years of a previous contract with the Rockies, would pay him $157.75 million. He was also 25 at the time and coming off two monster offensive seasons.

Desmond will be 30 once he hits free agency so he can’t expect the same long-term commitment from the Nats or any other team. But if he continues to be a premium bat with speed and excellent range in the field over the next two seasons, he will get paid handsomely. Desmond had an OPS+ of 125 in 2012, which compares favorably with Tulowitzki’s 2009 (131) and 2011 (131) seasons.

Last year Tulowitzki returned from the abdominal injury that ruined his 2012 season and posted an OPS+ of 140. That was his best offensive season yet and is likely out of reach for Desmond, who dropped back to 114 last year with a .280 batting average, 20 home runs and 38 doubles.

One area where Desmond could see an uptick is in stolen bases given new manager Matt Williams’ emphasis on aggressive base running this season. Desmond has stolen 67 bases over the past three seasons, with a high of 25 in 2011, and been caught 22 times. Four other shortstops have more during that span, but none with Desmond’s combination of power and speed. Since 2011, Desmond is fifth among all shortstops in homers (53) and stolen bases.

It’s been a long journey for Desmond, who needed four full seasons in the minor leagues, plus another wiped out by a serious wrist injury, before finally making his major league debut late in the 2009 season. He’s been a fixture ever since.

And so Desmond, a Sarasota, Fla. native, arrived in Viera early this season ready to build on his numbers from the last three seasons. He showed up to camp even before most pitchers and catchers reporters. He’s ready to go.

“Different players take different paths to April,” Desmond said. “I like to be sharp right out of the gate.” Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond surveyed the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium last month and instantly the memories came flooding back.

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