- The Washington Times
Thursday, August 4, 2016

BALTIMORE — Randy Knorr told Ian Desmond to move on. He would have to sever his attachment to his old team, then focus on what he needed to do to succeed. They would be fine when he leaves.

Desmond was 19 years old at the time, leaving the Savannah Sand Gnats of the South Atlantic League for the Potomac Nationals in 2005. It was the second year of an 12-year journey from dusty minor league roads to Silver Slugger awards in the major leagues as Desmond grew entrenched in the Nationals’ organization.

Sitting at his locker in the visitor’s clubhouse in Camden Yards this week, Desmond explained that he took Knorr’s decade-old advice and applied it to last offseason. The math of his contracts — the extension he turned down, the qualifying offer he declined, the paltry offer he signed — was one thing. But, the emotions around leaving Washington and joining the Texas Rangers needed perspective. So, he applied Knorr’s directive.

“Yes, I do have a very large spot in my heart for all the guys on that team,” Desmond said. “But, I think Randy’s advice made it a little bit easier for me, to where I said, ‘Hey, they’re going to be fine.’ Not wash your hands of them, but cut the cord and give yourself to the new team. That’s what I did from Day One. It helped me tremendously.”

Desmond left behind the vagaries of his final season in Washington, when the hits decreased and errors were more frequent. He languished in the churn of offseason signings before Texas gave him $8 million, a job in the outfield and a chance that others had chosen not to. He’s provided the first-place Rangers with an all-star season in center field, hitting .298 along with 20 home runs coming into Thursday. Desmond has also stolen 17 bases and is slugging .511. Only Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mike Trout have a higher WAR among American League center fielders.

How Desmond came to this point is a strange story in the the strange land of baseball tales. Turning down a $100 million-plus offer from the Nationals in 2014, Desmond bet on himself last season. He turned in a clunker, producing his worst season since 2011. After he declined to accept the qualifying offer extended by the Nationals, Desmond’s offseason market became constricted. Any team that signed him would lose a first-round draft pick. His arrival in Texas cost the Rangers the 29th overall pick in this summer’s draft.

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Other players noticed how Desmond waited and waited during the offseason. His three consecutive Silver Slugger awards at shortstop seemed to be trumped by one bad season until he finally signed his one-year, $8 million with Texas.

“I think for a player of that caliber, for what he’s done as long as he has to only get that kind of deal, shows there’s something wrong with the system,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I’m not saying it’s completely wrong or we need to do away with things. That’s for a completely different conversation that we don’t have enough time for right now. But, when a guy like that only gets one year, $8 million, there’s something wrong with that.”

“He’s having a great year,” Bryce Harper said. “It’s always been in there. He went 20-20 two times here. Things happened last year, now he’s back to old Desmond. I think a lot of teams this offseason were crazy not to pay the man and not to get that. But I think that goes back to draft-pick compensation and how bad that is for the players.”

Both points of view are leveraged by the perspective of fellow players, plus long-term friendships with Desmond. Though, they also represent the attention-grabbing nature of Desmond’s deal, providing a perspective beyond the gasp-inducing gap between what he declined and what he eventually signed.

While he waited to find a new team, Desmond worked on baseball and his wife, Chelsey, worked on renovating their new house in Florida. Both endeavors helped keep them occupied. Desmond said they had saved well, so the lost money didn’t make them feel pressured.

“We knew we’d have a job and at that point leave everything else up to the big man,” Desmond said.

He was intrigued by the Rangers after coming from the Nationals’ staid environment. Third baseman Adrian Beltre often clowns with shortstop Elvis Andrus on pop-ups. Complicated and expansive handshakes populate the Texas dugout. There was a vibe in there Desmond had noticed before, even a league away.

“From the outside looking in, [you notice] how much fun they have,” Desmond said. “… Certainly a style of baseball that we didn’t play in Washington. We were much… We were very focused and not necessarily like you know, the secret handshake type stuff. That was like, ‘Hey, I want to go experience a little bit of that.’ When I got there, I realized it wasn’t just fun. These guys bust their butts. Spring training was a whole other animal than I had ever seen before.”

He has played an adequate center field during his first professional season moving from shortstop to the open green grass. Desmond is tied for 18th among AL center fielders in defensive WAR at 0.2. For comparison, elite defenders like Bradley and Lorenzo Cain are at 0.8 and 1.2, respectively. His work at the plate is sufficient to counter his shortcomings as an outfielder. Desmond is hitting the ball through the middle more often than ever. He’s also driving it hard with the highest frequency in his career, according to Fangraphs.

Though Desmond, 30, was with his new club, being an hour north of the District was enough to bring back memories. He thought about the usher who waved to him every day when he would sit in the dugout before the game started. Or the security guard up the right field line who would tip his cap. Desmond still texts with Harper twice a week, mentioning the star’s blossoming as one of the great things to watch when they were both with the Nationals.

His teammates are watching, too. Back in late April, MLB Network was on in the Nationals’ clubhouse, airing the Rangers’ game against the Chicago White Sox. Desmond was just starting to pull out of his early-season funk when he hit a solo home run. Just after the sound of his home run contact made it through the television speakers, a group cheer from the trainer’s room could be heard in the clubhouse.

“Look, you spend as much time as we spent together, you’re going to have a spot in each other’s heart,” Desmond said. “I’m appreciative of that, that they care about me and cheer me on. They know I’m right there with them as well.”

So, he’s moved on, like Knorr suggested, freeing himself enough to push all-in with his new team, but also checking on his old friends out of the corner of his eye. Desmond mentioned how fast he was accepted by the Rangers, how smooth the transition has been to the second organization of his professional life. After 12 years with the Expos/Nationals, he’s surrounded by blue uniforms and new people. However, the past lingers. When he spoke, Desmond was wearing a gray T-shirt that said, “It don’t matter.” It’s a slogan he came up with in Washington.

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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