Looking at the Nats' leadoff options

Looking at the Nats' leadoff options
November 21, 2011, 12:50 pm
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With news over the weekend that the Indians are close to re-signing Grady Sizemore, the field of available center fielders is about to shrink by one. Not that the Nationals were going hard after Sizemore, but the 29-year-old did look like a possible fit for a club that is seeking a center fielder who ideally can lead off.

But the key word there is "ideally." General manager Mike Rizzo has stated his preference is kill two birds with one stone, but his 2012 center fielder doesn't have to also hit leadoff. Certainly, B.J. Upton -- whose name has been mentioned plenty as a possible Rizzo target -- doesn't fit the profile of a classic leadoff hitter.

So the question then becomes: If the center fielder doesn't bat atop the Nationals' lineup, who else might?

Scanning their projected starting lineup, there aren't a whole lot of attractive options. Danny Espinosa did lead off some last season, but the rookie second baseman was dreadful up there, and his power and run-producing ability was wasted in that spot. Jayson Werth, the Nationals' best regular at getting on base, also led off a bit but never looked comfortable in that role. And again, he's not being paid 126 million to lead off. He's being 126 million to hopefully drive in some runs.

Ryan Zimmerman? Michael Morse? Adam LaRoche? Wilson Ramos? No. No. No. And no way.

Which leaves only one other possible choice: Ian Desmond.

At first glance, it looks like a terrible idea. Desmond has some positive qualities as a major-league hitter. Getting on base at a productive rate is not one of them. This is a guy who posted a .308 on-base percentage as a rookie, then saw that number drop to .298 this year (sixth-worst among all qualifying National League batters).

But dig a little deeper, and perhaps it's not so outrageous. Desmond actually became a much more productive offensive player this season when he hit at the top of the Nationals' lineup. In 50 total games leading off, he hit .281 with a .318 OBP and a .412 slugging percentage.

Now, those are hardly spectacular numbers for a No. 1 hitter, but remember, those numbers include the season's first two weeks when Desmond was leading off and was flat-out awful (he reached base in only 11 of his first 52 plate appearances).

If you look only at Desmond's numbers when leading off during the season's final six weeks, they actually look pretty solid. Davey Johnson put his shortstop back in the top spot on Aug. 17 and left him there for his final 39 starts of the year. He wound up hitting .305 with a .342 OBP and .437 slugging percentage.

Again, not blow-you-out-of-the-water numbers, but pretty solid. And certainly much better than the Nationals got out of their leadoff hitters the rest of the season (the club's collective .285 OBP from its leadoff batters was far and away the worst mark in the majors).

If the Nationals want to go with Desmond in the top spot, he's still going to have to work on his plate discipline, cut down on his strikeout rate (way too high at 21.8 percent) and improve his walk rate (way too low at 5.5 percent).

But if Rizzo can't land a classic, leadoff-hitting center fielder and needs someone else to hold down the No. 1 spot in his 2012 lineup, Desmond probably is the best choice on the current roster.