When asked for his firsthand assessment, Jeff Banister didn’t hesitate.
“He’s a better player than I thought he was,” said the Texas Rangers manager.
And chances are, you agree. Ian Desmond, the free-agent shortstop-turned-left fielder-turned-center fielder, is a better player — and a far more impactful addition to the Rangers’ clubhouse — than you or I probably imagined.
As a coach with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Banister had watched Desmond play shortstop for the Washington Nationals for part of his seven seasons.
“I knew he was a physical player,” Banister said before Saturday night’s game against the Toronto Blue Jays. “From the outside when you view a guy and you judge competitiveness, you judge it by how hard they play, the urgency that they play with.
“The thing that has impressed me the most about him, though, is it’s all about winning. Every inning, every pitch, it’s about winning baseball. He doesn’t care about anything but winning.”
Consider it a high compliment. Winning teams need players who have a riveted focus on winning, not on their fantasy numbers. Winning teams need guys who bring a singular purpose to the clubhouse.
Guys like Adrian Beltre and Rougned Odor, to name two of the most conspicuous ones. And guys like Desmond, who in three weeks not only raised his batting average from .109 to .252 but also seized the starting role in center field.
Desmond’s signing on Feb. 29 sent a major ripple through the Rangers’ Arizona spring training camp. It came just two days after the club announced that outfielder Josh Hamilton had received stem cell and plasma injections in his knee and would begin the season on the disabled list.
The Rangers appeared to have two choices — either launch another vigil for Hamilton’s eventual return or push a young prospect into a premature starting role.
Out of the blue, they signed Desmond to a bargain one-year, $8 million contract and announced that he would be playing left field.
The outfielder apprenticeship went so well that Desmond soon ousted Delino DeShields from the starting spot in center.
But that’s Desmond. Visitors to the clubhouse report seeing Desmond in full uniform, three hours before game time, even on days when the club skips batting practice.
“I think he goes to sleep in his uniform,” Banister said. “This cat shows up with such an intensity level, when he walks through that clubhouse door it’s all about beating that team in the other dugout every single night.
“You don’t get a sense of that really until you spend time in the same uniform, same clubhouse, same dugout with him.”
Since his early-season drought, Desmond has batted .329 with 14 extra-base hits and 18 runs batted in. He also has proven to be an anchor, not a liability, in the outfield.
Interesting decisions could loom for both Desmond and the Rangers. Desmond again will be a free agent after this season. Does he want to return to shortstop? How many years will he be asking for?
While not yet a free agent, Desmond turned down a seven-year, $107 million offer from Washington after the 2014 season. It’s unlikely he would accept merely a one-year qualifying offer this time from his current team.
The Rangers still have DeShields, who was demoted to Triple A this week, and they are waiting for center field prospect Lewis Brinson, currently in Double A, to arrive.
DeShields and Brinson are young and own uncertain ceilings. Desmond, on the other hand, is a solid veteran commodity who has enriched the clubhouse.
Do the Rangers try to sign him to a three-year deal? Would he even accept a three-year deal?
Back in February, the Rangers likely never expected that Ian Desmond could be the cause of so many questions.
He’s better than they thought he was, as it has turned out. Better than we all thought.