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Can Ian Desmond continue power surge?

5/23/2012

When Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond was the team's leadoff hitter, it was easy to point out the obvious flaw of his not getting on base enough for the role. But as Desmond settles into a new role as the upstart team's No. 5 hitter and top power option -- yep, you read that right -- it's time to view Desmond in a different light. Sure, on-base percentage is important no matter what lineup spot you're in, but if you're hitting 25-plus home runs, people tend to overlook it.

Desmond homered off Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Halladay on Tuesday night, his fourth blast in the past week and eighth of the season. Desmond has been productive in May (six home runs, 14 RBIs, four stolen bases), so it's no surprise that he's in the top 10 on ESPN Fantasy's most added list and up to 97.2 percent owned in standard leagues. He should be. Desmond was always miscast as a top-of-the-order hitter, but recently he has been hitting fifth, and as long as his apparent new approach at the plate keeps working, it's a better role for him.

Entering Wednesday, the only middle infielder in baseball with more home runs than Desmond is Baltimore Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy, with nine. Only 20 players regardless of position have more home runs. Desmond has eight already, matching his total from 2011, which he accrued over nearly 400 more at-bats. In 2010, he hit 10 home runs. Now he's on pace for 30? Something doesn't make sense.

Desmond still isn't getting on base much (.305 OBP), but he leads the Nationals in home runs and total bases as well as stolen bases, runs and a lot more, and for the Nats he makes sense as a middle-of-the-order option. Six of his eight home runs came in the leadoff spot, but in his four games batting fifth, he's 6-for-16 with four extra-base hits. Good for manager Davey Johnson for adjusting his lineup.

Desmond says he isn't trying to hit for power, and perhaps that's true, but he has traded in a healthy portion of what used to be ground balls for fly balls. Desmond's walk rate is down, as he has been more aggressive at the plate; in fact, it seems he's swinging at just about everything. He's still striking out too often, but in his new lineup spot, the goals are different, too. This Nationals lineup craves power, and Desmond has stepped up. No, I don't think Ian Desmond will hit 30 home runs, but it seems like a case of someone adjusting his approach. Would 25 home runs be so crazy? I don't think so.

I do think sustaining a .280 batting average while being on pace for 26 walks and 139 strikeouts is next to impossible, so keep those expectations more in check. But I also thought that last season with Desmond's teammate Michael Morse, who managed to hit .303 and smack 31 home runs despite 36 walks and 126 strikeouts. Morse's numbers were not only historically unprecedented, but they also come pretty close to matching Desmond's pace. Maybe it's a Nationals thing. Still, Desmond entered 2012 as a .262 hitter. I'm not expecting him to top that, but he doesn't need to if he keeps hitting for power. Hardy hit .269 with 30 home runs last year and a terrible walk-strikeout rate. Desmond sure looks like the NL version of Hardy but with stolen bases.

Desmond also stole his fifth base Tuesday; he should fall short of last season's 25 if he remains in this role -- although we know lineup position doesn't influence stolen-base attempts much -- but 20 are certainly possible. A 20-homer/20-steal season from Ian Desmond? OK, who predicted that?

Of course, we're assuming Desmond will continue to hit for power, which he has never done before, including in the minor leagues, so let's not go overboard yet. In April, Desmond hit .250 with two home runs, and he seemed a candidate to lose his starting role. Prospect Stephen Lombardozzi is an on-base guy who can play second base, and slumping second baseman Danny Espinosa is a converted shortstop, so the Nationals did have options. But Desmond has picked it up, and I project he'll finish with somewhere in the neighborhood of a .260 average, 22 homers and 18 steals. Those are definitely top-10 shortstop numbers.

As for the aforementioned Lombardozzi, he has been leading off and playing some left field; he can play third base as well. He hasn't attempted a stolen base, but he should reach double digits. If he continues to post a high OBP (it's .389 after Tuesday) and teenage rookie Bryce Harper keeps producing in the No. 2 lineup spot, Desmond will remain in the middle of the order and can focus his efforts on driving baseballs to deep left field rather than trying to be an on-base guy, which he isn't.