Next stop on Ian Desmond’s journey is first base for the Rockies
SCOTTSDALE, Az. – It’s 7:45 a.m. on Field R8 at the Rockies’ spring-training complex, nearly two hours before the team’s workout will begin.
Field R8 actually is a half-field, designed for infield practice. Ian Desmond is at first base. DJ LeMahieu is at second, joining his new infield partner for early work for the first time.
LeMahieu, a Gold Glove winner in 2014, does not need extra reps. But he needs to get in sync with Desmond, who in 7,938 defensive innings in the majors has, ahem, never played first base.
A Rockies coach hits one ball after another into the hole between first and second. Desmond fields some and flips to Rockies third base coach Stu Cole at first. LeMahieu fields others, with Desmond scampering back to first to take the throw.
The two practice with LeMahieu playing straight-up, shifted up the middle, shifted for a left-handed hitter. Frequently, they take time to talk. Cole, a former major-league infielder who is helping Desmond learn first along with another coach, Ron Gideon, also stays in his new protégé’s ear.
This is, Desmond says later, the most difficult thing he must learn at a position that is far more complex than most fans think.
“Trying to determine which ball will be his, which ball will be mine,” Desmond says. “I’m going to just to let him get as many as he can get. If it’s something I feel very confident I can get, I’ll go for it. But other than that, I’m going to try and stay within my own jurisdiction.”
Desmond’s jurisdiction for six-plus seasons with the Nationals was shortstop. His jurisdiction with the Rangers last season was left field, then center. And now, thanks to a move that Fangraphs’ respected Dave Cameron recently labeled the worst of the off-season, his jurisdiction is first base.
It’s not a crazy idea, the Rockies promise. Not crazy at all.
Many in the industry, however, privately echo Cameron’s argument against the Rockies’ five-year, $70 million free-agent commitment to Desmond at age 31:
“In a market with flooded with first-base options, where anyone who wanted a quality player at the position could get one for a fraction of the expected price, the Rockies somehow managed to pay significantly more than expected for a non-first baseman to play first base.”
Here’s the thing, though:
The Rockies targeted Desmond as a first baseman from the start of free agency. That is where they had an opening, and general manager Jeff Bridich said he viewed the potential addition of Desmond as enhancing a strength — the athleticism of the Rockies’ defenders, which is especially critical at the offensive incubator known as Coors Field.
Most of the available first basemen were below-average defenders. None was as capable as Desmond of playing other positions, either in an emergency or in the future. And Rockies manager Bud Black says that when critics of the signing focus solely on position, they miss the point.
“We thought about, ‘baseball player,’ ” Black said. “Let’s get as many good baseball players as we can. We didn’t think, ‘We need a right fielder. We need a center fielder. We need a second baseman.’ We said, ‘Let’s go get a baseball player who is good.’ ”
Desmond — who has averaged 22 homers and a .764 OPS over the past five seasons, including his dismal 2015 — is good. He is also one of the game’s most revered clubhouse presences. And the more Black talks, the logic of the Rockies’ decision comes into better focus.
Black recalls his tenure as Angels pitching coach, when the club moved Darin Erstad from center to first at age 30, just two years after winning the World Series.
And then the manager, in his first year with the Rockies, starts rattling off other names.
“If you look at other first basemen, Joey Votto is athletic, Paul Goldschmidt is athletic,” Black says. “Wes Parker back in the ‘60s was a switch-hitting defender who was a good player. Keith Hernandez didn’t hit homers, he hit for average. And he was a great defender.”
Now Black is rolling.
“Craig Biggio — catcher, second base, center field,” he says. “Robin Yount -– shortstop, center field. Good players move around at times.”
Which goes back to Black’s original thought:
“Let’s get another good player.”
Bridich says the Rockies’ initial discussion about Desmond was along the lines of, “This guy can play first base, right?” Club officials then researched players who made the change in the past, with the Red Sox’s Hanley Ramirez -– an original shortstop like Desmond — being a recent example. Finally, they had to make sure Desmond would embrace the concept.
Not a problem.
“I loved it,” Desmond says. “Just like last year (with the Rangers), the creativity to use my athleticism is awesome. That’s what I want in an organization – to be open-minded, to be forward-thinking and want to get better. I think I can reward them for that.”
Desmond, remember, got a later start moving from shortstop to left field last year; he did not sign with the Rangers until March 1. But even with the extra preparation time this season, he says the move to first is more difficult.
The reason: It’s not as easy to practice.
“I hate to say a flyball is a flyball. But I can go out and shag. Everyone hits flyballs in batting practice,” Desmond says. “Nobody really hits groundballs to the first baseman. So to get a game-like rep, you’re basically relying on a live fungo.”
Desmond says the first thing he did to prepare was buy a first baseman’s glove. He then began working out at home and picking the brain of Correlle Prime, a friend who is a minor-league first baseman in the Rockies’ organization.
But Desmond’s search for information didn’t end there.
He also exchanged texts with past and present major-league first basemen — Eric Hosmer and former teammates Mitch Moreland and Adam LaRoche.
“I wasn’t trying to bother anybody. I know how competition goes. I wouldn’t want to help people too much,” Desmond says. “But I said, ‘If you’ve got something to offer, things that you feel are difficult for you, suggestions, tips.’”
Desmond wanted to know what size first baseman’s glove to use. He also wanted to know how to hold the glove — when he moved to the outfield, other outfielders told him to put two fingers in the pinky hole to make the glove easier to close, create a deeper pocket.
His preparation also included video study of the Rockies’ gifted infielders — LeMahieu, shortstop Trevor Story and third baseman Nolan Arenado.
“He looked at how they released the ball, throwing to first base, so he can have a feel for how to receive those balls, have his footwork right when those guys are making plays from different angles,” Cole says.
Cole, like everyone else with the Rockies, raves about Desmond’s diligence and dedication, the same qualities that so impressed the Rangers a year ago.
Desmond, though, reacts dismissively when MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds tells him that he looks good at his new position.
“Anybody can look good in practice,” he says.
It’s 1 p.m. The Rockies’ workout is over. But Desmond stays on Field 3 and returns to first base to take throws, shouting, “What I’ve been waiting for!”
Rockies first base coach Tony Diaz hits fungos to Story and Pat Valaika, with Black and Cole watching. Desmond scoops a few balls out of the dirt, prompting shouts of encouragement.
He’s a first baseman, all right, albeit a work in progress. But he might be a first baseman for only one season, depending upon how the Rockies’ roster evolves.
Next year, who knows? The Rockies might need Desmond in the outfield.
“I like that idea. I like being an asset to the organization,” Desmond says. “I like where if something were to happen this year and someone was out for an extended period of time, they could say, ‘Maybe out best option is to put Ian out in left, or in center, or short, second, whatever.
“If they believe I’m their best option and they think they can prepare me in time, I would be more than happy to take that.”
Bridich, asked about a future position change for Desmond, says, “There is absolutely the potential for that. But that’s not where we’re at in 2017.”
It’s conceivable that Desmond could become the Rockies’ version of Ben Zobrist, shifting between multiple positions in one season. But he is less enthusiastic about that possibility, saying it takes a “special skill-set” to bounce around like the Cubs’ Zobrist, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez, and that he prefers to play one position at a time.
Otherwise, he’s eager to explore.
“At the end of the day, I will never have to say, ‘I wonder if I could have played outfield in the big leagues.’ Now I won’t have to say, ‘I wonder if I could have played first base.’
“Hopefully one day I’m a manager and I can say, ‘Hey, I can relate to what you’re going through.’ I played first. I played outfield. I played center. I played left. And hopefully there’s more to come.’”
He’s not crazy. The Rockies are not crazy.
They wanted a baseball player, and they got one.