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Desmond Wins Battle for Shortstop: Guzman to Stay with Team, Maxwell Not So Fortunate

Washington Nationals’ Manager Jim Riggleman today named Ian Desmond the team’s opening day shortstop. In so doing, Riggleman uprooted Nationals’ mainstay Cristian Guzman. Desmond earned the starting nod based on his outstanding performance this spring, in which he hit .278/.339/.463. Guzman, on the other hand, hit .284; however, with an on-base percentage of .284 as well, the veteran came up short. Riggleman maintained that this move was not necessarily permanent:

“I really think there’s an opportunity there for two positions, for three guys [Desmond, Guzman, and free agent addition Adam Kennedy], where none of them get 600 at-bats but none of them  get less than 300…It’s really not utility. It’s more than that. Hopefully Desmond is able to hold the spot down. Based on September and spring training, it looks like that.”

Desmond, 24, is looking to build on a September call-up last season in which he hit .280/.318/.561.

The combination of Desmond’s success and rumors linking Guzman and the New York Mets, among others, has once again sparked speculation that Guzman would soon be moved. General Manager Mike Rizzo was quick to debunk such suggestions as mere

conjecture. When asked about the possibly of trading Guzman, Rizzo said:

“We haven’t had any discussions about that…We have not made any calls and we haven’t taken any calls about a trade [for Guzman]…He’s a major league shortstop who has proven he can hit…We see him as an important part of our ball club going forward.”

In the Nationals’ other noteworthy action of the day, outfielder Justin Maxwell was optioned to Syracuse. Riggleman retains high hopes for the 26 year-old, calling Maxwell a good make-up guy” and “a great athlete”. The Nationals’ manager was effusive in his praise, saying that “[Maxwell is] going to hit 25 home runs some day.” Fortunately, Maxwell appears focused on returning to the big leagues:

I know how to do deal with it now…I’m not going to let it affect me the way it did last year. If I wasn’t confident, I wouldn’t be here in the first place. Hitting and playing baseball is about being confident. When you believe in yourself, good things will happen. If you start to struggle or whatever, you have to remain confident in what you do. You can’t give up on yourself.

Analysis:

This announcement confirms what many anticipated and hoped for as the resolution to the shortstop competition. While Guzman has made two All-Star teams (2001 and 2008), the switch-hitting infielder is coming off a season in which he posted only a .306 on-base percentage and struck out nearly five times for every walk he drew (75-16). His relatively poor season – coupled with his slow recovery from shoulder surgery – forced the Nationals to look closely at Desmond. The former third round draft pick excelled this spring, leading the team in RBIs.

What is surprising in these comments is Riggleman’s implication that Guzman will split time with both Desmond at short and Kennedy at second. This projection flies in the face of statements released only a week ago in which Riggleman asserted that “Kennedy’s our second baseman,” and that “[w]hoever’s not playing shortstop can play some other positions, but right now we’re looking at Guzie at short.” Apparently Desmond’s September call-up and Grapefruit League play have forced the team to reconsider this position. Moreover, if Guzman can prove that he can play second base as well as shortstop, the Nationals – despite reports to the contrary – may find themselves with a more attractive trading chip. An aging shortstop with a capable bat and an $8 million contract is not something you want wasting away on your bench; therefore, if he exhibits sufficient versatility, Guzman can provide value to the Nationals in both the short and long term.

Maxwell, the Nationals’ fourth round pick in the 2005 draft, missed a golden opportunity for major league playing time. Despite proving his defensive prowess with a 4.8 UZR in 2009 and showing flashes of his five-tool potential, Maxwell failed to produce offensively, batting only .102 in 49 spring at-bats. With the youngster returning to Syracuse, the Nationals’ right field will be patrolled by some combination of Willie Harris, Mike Morse, Roger Bernadina, and Willy Taveras. Elijah Dukes’ poor spring has left the Nationals reliant on a group of players with distinct limitations; however, if used appropriately the three that make the team can more than likely mask each others’ deficiencies.

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