Should the Nationals consider flopping Desmond and Espinosa?

Ian Desmond earned a reputation for making some amazing plays at shortstop last season. He also gained a reputation for missing a whole heck of a lot of easy ones. 

In fact, the 25-year-old rookie led major league shortstops last season, committing 34 E-6’s, seven more than the runner up. His UZR/150 of -9.2 was third worst in the league, and that number was only spared because of his strong Range Rating, one of the several factors that go into the UZR calculation. This of course sends a mixed message about our young starting shortstop on whether or not he can improve. As it has always been for this late bloomer, he has the tools to succeed at the position. He possesses an adequate arm and strong range, which we saw in flashes in 2010, however he can’t stop making the boneheaded play.

To Desmond’s defense (no pun intended), rookie shortstops do tend to make a lot of errors, especially when they are playing full time. Similar to a rookie starting quarterback, shortstops anchor the infield and as they are in the process of learning the game, mistakes are bound to happen at the position that sees the most fielding opportunities on the field.  However, Desmond’s 34 errors this season was superfluous, and was in fact the highest error total for any shortstop since Jose Valentine had 36 errors in 2000. Rookie season or not, that is a lot of mistakes to be made for a player who is not all that young, which has to make you wonder, how much can he really improve on mechanical mistakes? 

The Nationals are in a unique situation as they had two rookie shortstops reach the majors in the same season. Desmond was first, and labeled the shortstop of the future out of spring training, and Danny Espinosa bull-rushed the majors after an incredible 2010 minor league campaign. Espinosa was logically plugged in to the second base hole the club had at the time when he reached the majors late in the season, and he dazzled Washington fans with his streak hitting and spectacular defense.

However as we enter 2010, I wonder if the club might be wise to consider flipping the two. Espinosa had his first taste of second base of his career in the majors last season and while he certainly seems more fit for the position than Desmond, might he also be a smarter fit at shortstop too?

Espinosa’s smooth hands and rocket arm have long made him as a projectable above average shortstop at the major league level. In his 25 game MLB debut this season he showed the great poise he has in the field, often making the spectacular play, while following it up time after time with the strong routine one.  He posted a stellar 13.3 UZR/150 in a limited sample at second base, but many scouts have speculated that his steady hands and rocket arm might make him more valuable as a career shortstop. 

The big problem with making the switch however is that 1. The Nationals already invested one full year of development in Ian Desmond at the shortstop position and 2. The two players distinct physiques.

Desmond, 6-2 and 215 lbs., fits the bill of the prototypical long athletic shortstop that we have come to expect since Cal Ripken first set the standard and the big three (Jeter, Rodriguez, and Garciaparra) took the league by storm in the 1990’s. His strong range combined with his size makes you believe that if he was able to cut out the mistakes he could be a lockdown defender alongside Zimmerman on the left side of the Nationals infield. Espinosa on the other hand is generously listed at 6-0 and 190 lbs. His build much more fits the prototypical second baseman as a quick, smaller, shifty defender who typically makes up for the poor range of a first baseman. 

While I have no doubts that Espinosa can field the shortstop position with his build, I wonder whether or not Desmond would be able to gracefully make the transition to second base. While the plays at second are easier, which will likely cut down on his errors, the reaction time is less at the position and his range might decrease with a move across the bag. 

Nevertheless, the question for the Nationals should be who would be the best defensive shortstop for the club, not who fits where the best right now. As previously mentioned, shortstops get the most ground balls in the game and anchor the teams defense, and when your shortstop makes physical mistakes it can kill the team. Espinosa may not have the range of Desmond, but with Zimmerman, the third baseman with the best range in baseball, will more than make up for that gap, and Espinosa will significantly cut down on the errors at the position. Desmond on the other hand may see his batting numbers improve with less defensive pressure on the other side of the bag.