The Nationals still believe in Desmond, who is projected to become the leadoff hitter...Hmm maybe that didn't need a block quote... anyway, I hadn't really thought about it much but that seems about right. Desmond was the leadoff hitter for the last month and a half of the year. He seemed to be doing pretty well in that spot, and it sort of feels like he fits that spot. Here's the thing, though - Ian Desmond doesn't get on base very well.
Ian's career OBP is .304. His OBP last year was .298. This isn't a fluke. His career minor league OBP is .326 and that includes the 2009 year that seems more and more out of place the longer we see Desmond play.
Now it is true that Desmond did better in the leadoff spot, but he still wasn't good at getting on base. He had an OBP of .318 while batting first. You could parse it further and say he did even better than that the second time around as a leadoff hitter - He did have an OBP of .342 after being set in that role in mid-August - but it was a batting average driven .342 (not to mention only 40 games). He only had 8 walks during those 41 games. If he hits say... .280, a completely respectable batting average that's about 20 points over his career average, that OBP is more like .317. That's terrible, somewhere around 75th if we look at the 100 NL batters with the most at bats. Unless you believe he will be a .300 hitter, Ian isn't the type of guy you want leading off.
Wait a second, you might say, I remember you saying that batting order doesn't really matter. Well, you're right. I did say that, and I believe it. Putting the wrong guy in the wrong spot isn't going to dramatically change the prospects of a team. But it might change it by one win and the Nats are in a position where that one win could really matter. If they were worse or better, maybe you can start Desmond as the leadoff hitter and hope he grows into that role. But lose one more game than they need to in 2012 and that may be the difference between being the 2nd WC and packing it up at season's end. This is a year where the Nats have to look toward optimizing everything to squeeze out as many wins as they can from day one.
Here's the dilemma though. Who does leadoff then? The Nats don't get on base. You aren't going to put Zimmerman or Morse as leadoff hitters. Putting Werth at leadoff was possibly Riggleman's most inspired move, but Jayson's terrible season derailed that move before it could get started, and I don't see Davey making the same sort of move, unfortunately. Ramos will get enough hits to get on base more, but he's a catcher and convention demands a base stealer at the top of the lineup. Espinosa will walk enough to get on base more and can steal a base, but has a natural power that people don't want "wasted" at the top of the lineup. LaRoche and Ankiel would be terrible choices for a couple reasons. That's it - that's everyone. Desmond gets to leadoff and not get on base... by default? Because everyone is too good to get more at bats? Because the improvement is minimal, even over the course of an entire season, so it's easier to go with the standard line-up than deal with the distraction of one that's probably better?
I'm not sure what the Nats are gonna do. They need every win they can get, but since they don't have a prototypical lead-off hitter any alternate player put in that spot will have to succeed immediately or else the 150 years of convention weighing down on the team will force a change. I'd honestly love to see Werth in that position again because he only needs to hit like .250 to lead this bunch in getting on base, but I don't see that happening, so I'm hoping for a Ramos/Espinosa at the top of the lineup in either order. It's not typical, but it's not crazy either, and it has the built-in "trying to get my best young hitters as many at bats as possible" argument that can stand against most fans of convention. I think that's the best I can hope for.
Update - Nats Blog had a take on this too. Just yesterday. Quick summary : "Yep, there are no good choices". But worth a read just to see how badly in numbers the Nats failed at finding a leadoff hitter last year (and in general)