Going into the season, Ian Desmond was a source of hope for the Nationals. A team that has developed exactly one starting-caliber position player in the last five years had a true talent on their hands, perhaps ready to break through. He earned the starting shortstop job, and if the team was to exceed expectations, Desmond was one of the guys who could make it happen.
Things haven't gone as planned. His batting line is down to a woeful .249 / .289 / .376, putting him solidly in Yuniesky Betancourt territory. The problem is that his strike zone discipline has badly regressed. He's walking in just 4.6% of plate appearances, and he's swinging at 34.9% of pitches out of the strike zone. That's Wily Mo Pena territory. And since he's seeing so many fewer hitters counts, the burst in power that we saw from him over the last two years has disappeared.
And then there are the errors. After last night's disastrous play in the seventh, in which he booted an easy, custom-made double play with two runners on, costing Stephen Strasburg a seventh shutout inning and leading to a nightmarish 5-run inning, Desmond now has a ridiculous 19 on the year. No one else has more than 13. Last year's league leader in errors among shortstops was Orlando Cabrera, with 25 for the whole season.
The advanced metrics say that he's still making up for most of that with his arm and range, and a better first-baseman would have bailed him out on at least a couple of his throwing errors. But MLB players just can't botch the routine play as often as Desmond does. He has to do better.
Rizzo has given Desmond an awful lot of rope this season, but he's regressing badly in every phase of the game. The reason the minor leagues are there is to give guys a place to fix problems like that outside the glare of MLB. So it would make a lot of sense to let him go down to Syracuse and work things out there. If he can regain his command of the strikezone and reduce the number of errors, then the team could bring him back again for August and September.
But if they send Desmond down, then it's not really clear who becomes the everyday shortstop. Guzman's only played 14 games there this year, and I'm not totally convinced his shoulder is healthy enough to allow him to play there every day. After that, you're looking at a lot of Alberto Gonzalez, and we know how that goes. And of course Adam Kennedy gets pressed back into every day service, and he's quietly been having a miserable season also, hitting .238 / .317 / .319 with declining range and too many errors himself.
I worried going into the season that if Desmond didn't pan out that they were dangerously exposed in the middle-infield, and now we're seeing that.
So Rizzo might have to make a deal. Aki Iwamura totally cratered in Pittsburgh, but it couldn't hurt to throw a bag of balls to the Pirates to see what he can do. Mike Fontenot is a forgotten man in Chicago. Then there's a perennial trade target Dan Uggla, who I'm sure could be had for a discount, as long as you take all the salary (and maybe more), but he probably doesn't make sense for the Nationals. And then with the injuries in Anaheim and Boston, there's suddenly a lot of competition for middle-infielders.
Regardless, the top priority should be Desmond's development, and he's not getting any better in DC. He needs to be in the minors to fix his basic problems.