The Nationals did the inevitable this week and awarded the starting shortstop job to 25-year-old prospect Ian Desmond. In doing so the club stripped the starting job from veteran Cristian Guzman, and instead said that he will serve as a utility-player in 2010, the final year of his contract. But with all-stars at the corner infield positions, and a proven weak arm from Guzman, the only other position outside of shortstop he could possibly play is second base.
Guzman made his first-ever appearance at second in Tuesday's game against the Marlins, moving from shortstop after his repaired arm had a poor showing. In Guzman's 10 year career he has only played shortstop and while the Nationals seem to think moving to second base will be a good thing for him and the club, I wonder if we are overestimating how easy it is to switch across to the right side of the infield.
While some consider the change from shortstop to second base seamless, there are some major differences.
Yes, you are responsible for covering less range, and the throw is vastly easier. In fact from a throwing standpoint, it's arguably the easiest position you can play aside from the double play pivot, which is good for Guzman at this point in his career. However, other things come into play. Fielding the shortstop position you have more time to react and read what a ground ball is going to do because you are the furthest infielder from the plate. Against right-handed batters, ground balls are much easier to field because they are hit squarely and are generally easy to read. When right-handers hit the ball to second base, it often comes off the bat completely differently and can take much more peculiar hops. At shortstop you are also fielding through the ball while at second you are reacting and often catching up to it, moving right and left.
The biggest difference between playing second and shortstop though is the double-play pivot. From shortstop you are fed the ball from either the first or second baseman, and as you approach the bag you simply carry your momentum to first base and fire. It's a nice and simple throw. As a second baseman however you are either receiving the ball from the shortstop or third baseman, with your back to first base. You must then, depending on which fielder threw you the ball, and where they threw it, make one of several possible pivots to turn your body and fire off of your back foot a ball to first base. This makes it a much, much harder task than turning a double play from shortstop.
Guzman will be expected to play this position, and master its ins and outs, once the season starts without more than a week of practice with it. He will also only be playing there intermittently, as free-agent signee Adam Kennedy will see some play. This means he will not be able to learn day-in and day-out how to pick up the position.
Another concern is Guzman's range. Yes, he fielded the shortstop position last year, which does require more range than second base. Yet many feel that the team was hurt by his poor range there last season, and that was with Ryan Zimmerman at the hot corner. Zimmerman posted the best Range Rating of any third baseman in the National League last year, more than making up for Guzman's ineptitude. When Guzman digs in as a second baseman in 2010, he will be sharing the right side of the infield not with Zimmerman but with his polar opposite, Adam Dunn. Dunn was the worst defensive first baseman in the majors last season according to UZR, and he's even less experienced in the infield than Guzman.
Finally, some question Guzman's ability to change. In terms of his style of play, Guzman has been a very stubborn player. While his free-swinging, hack-attack style offense was useful when he was a speed-demon and playing on the turf in Minnesota, it has become less and less useful playing in grass and without the same speed he once possessed. Yet in 2009 he sported a career low walk percentage of 2.9% and for the first time in his career he was caught stealing more times than he earned a successful steal.
Will Guzman be flexible enough to learn a new position? Or will he hold the same stubbornness that he has as a ballplayer in the batters box? Time will tell, but if history shows us anything, it's that Guzman has not been one to adapt to change.