The Rain Delay

Hard-Hitting Baseball Analysis

Finding a Home for Ian Desmond

This is an archived post from my prior blog, The Sprained Ankle. This post is from February 23, 2016.

It’s been a long, lonely winter for Ian Desmond.  Burdened by a subpar 2015 season and the draft pick compensation attached to him, the former Nationals shortstop is without a home at the dawn of Spring Training.  Fortunately for Desmond, he remains a talented, durable player at a premium position so he should find a landing spot shortly.  It just may not be at the price he wants.

I narrowed down potential Desmond suitors using the following rudimentary criteria: the team lacks an established shortstop (duh) and the team either intends to compete this year or holds a top ten draft pick.  If a team holds a top ten pick this year, they are exempt from forfeiting their 1st pick and instead surrender their second round draft pick.  This is a very important distinction.

Based on this criteria, I identified three teams: the Tampa Bay Rays, Colorado Rockies, and Chicago White Sox.  With that said, I’ll make a case for why each of these teams should sign Desmond, why they shouldn’t, and assess the likelihood of each possibility.

Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond

Where will Ian Desmond turn double plays in 2016? Photo: Keith Allison

Tampa Bay Rays

Why They Should Sign Desmond: The bulk of the discussion regarding the AL East has focused on Boston’s major pitching acquisitions, the Yankees’ super-bullpen, Toronto’s strong 2015 season, and Baltimore’s retaining of Chris Davis and Matt Wieters.  However, the Tampa Bay Rays have very quietly positioned themselves to compete in a division that promises to be as competitive as ever.  Armed with a stable of young, talented starting pitchers headlined by ace Chris Archer, the Rays hope to build on last season’s 80-win campaign.  Tampa Bay allowed the 5th fewest runs in the American League last year, and it’s not difficult to foresee additional improvement in the run prevention department in 2016 due to the projected July return of the wildly underrated Alex Cobb and the probable mid-season arrival of star pitching prospect and Baseball America’s reigning Minor League Player of the Year, Blake Snell.

While Tampa Bay’s pitching staff is loaded with top-end talent and quality depth, its offense–which scored the 2nd fewest runs in the American League last season–lags behind that of its AL East counterparts.  The acquisition of power-hitting outfielder Corey Dickerson should bolster the middle of the Rays lineup, provided that he can return to full strength from a nagging plantar fasciitis injury.  Adjusted for league and park effects1, Dickerson was 19% better than the average hitter last year and 40% better in 2014.  While moving from the Coors Field bandbox to the Trop will hurts his overall numbers, Dickerson is one of baseball’s most unheralded power hitters, as indicated by his .255 ISO in 2014 and .232 ISO in 2015.  But Dickerson alone cannot carry the Rays to prominence.  And that’s where Ian Desmond fits into the equation.

While the Rays acquired shortstop Brad Miller from the Mariners this offseason, he is a below-average defender who cannot hit lefties.  And given his ability to play numerous positions, Miller appears better suited for a role as a utility man who plays nearly exclusively against right-handed pitchers.  While Ian Desmond has been error-prone throughout his career, he represents a slight upgrade defensively over Miller and a marked improvement offensively.  A competent hitter against both lefties and righties throughout his career, Desmond had three consecutive 20-20 seasons from 2012-2014 while averaging an excellent 4.5 fWAR.  Desmond’s first half of last season was disastrous, but he rebounded quite nicely, posting a solid .777 OPS in the second half, which falls nicely in line with his impressive offensive production 2012-2014.  Tampa Bay’s status as one of baseball’s most impoverished teams usually precludes them from obtaining premium talent in free agency.  From my vantage point, the Rays should pursue Desmond as he represents a potential star player who could be obtained for mid-range money.  An offer of 3 years and $45-$55 million could make sense for both sides, providing Desmond financial security with the opportunity to hit the free agent market again at age 33 and supplying the Rays with viable lineup protection for Evan Longoria and Corey Dickerson.

Why They Shouldn’t Sign Desmond: The Rays own the 13th selection in the upcoming first-year player draft, a valuable cost-controlled asset, particularly for a team devoid of financial resources.  While the 2012-2014 version of Desmond would generate tremendous surplus value on my proposed contract, the 2015 version would represent poor value.  Considering Desmond’s age (30) and poor 2015 performance, this may not be a risk the cash-strapped Rays are willing to take.

Colorado Rockies

Why They Should Sign Desmond: The Rockies hold the 4th pick in the upcoming draft, meaning the club would surrender its second round pick if they sign Desmond.  While incumbent shortstop Jose Reyes faces an imminent suspension for an offseason domestic violence incident, the Rockies are awaiting word from Commissioner Rob Manfred in order to determine their path forward.  Should Reyes be suspended for a significant portion of 2016, Desmond would be a logical fit in his stead.  While Colorado’s–umm, rocky–pitching staff will almost surely prevent it from seizing a playoff berth particularly in the formidable NL West, the club could view Desmond as a trade asset come July 31st.  On a one-year deal, Colorado is a sensible location for both the club and a player seeking to rebuild his value.  If Desmond performs well, Colorado could recoup prospects at the Trade Deadline that far exceed the current cost for Desmond: a second round pick and money.  In addition, Desmond’s reputation as a grinder and consummate professional (see former teammate and esteemed veteran Chad Tracy’s praise below) could only help the development of the Rockies burgeoning superstar, third baseman Nolan Arenado.  Plan B would be to hold on to Desmond throughout the season and obtain a compensatory draft selection when he changes teams, although that seems unlikely considering the looming presence of the lavishly-paid Reyes.

Why They Shouldn’t Sign Desmond: If the Reyes suspension is shorter than anticipated, the Rockies would be squarely in the crosshairs, forced to bench its highest paid player, which would almost surely create a toxic clubhouse environment.  Moreover, the Rockies will find an arid market for Desmond come July if he struggles.  The unsettling prospect of having Desmond and Reyes on the same roster throughout the year may scare the Rockies away from committing to Desmond.

Chicago White Sox

Why They Should Sign Desmond: The White Sox had a disappointing 76-win campaign last season, but optimism is abound this year at White Sox camp, in large part due to the acquisition of All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier, who will pair with Jose Abreu to form perhaps baseball’s most vaunted slugging duo. The 2015 White Sox boasted a solid pitching staff that accumulated the 3rd highest fWAR amongst American League teams, but were undone by the abominable performance of their position players, who somehow managed to compile only a meager 3.1 fWAR–by far the worst in all of baseball.  If the White Sox can get anything out of 2015 albatrosses Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, and Avisail Garcia, this team could find itself in the midst of the AL Central race deep into the season.  While the South Siders hope these three players can bounce back, they could use further reinforcement at the shortstop position.  Although the White Sox are publicly bullish on Tyler Saladino, he struggled mightily in his first taste of big league action last year, as did veteran Jimmy Rollins, who was signed to a minor league deal yesterday.  The White Sox are poised to move forward with Rollins or Saladino at shortstop, but neither player’s presence should preclude the team from signing a potential impact player like Desmond.  Desmond would slot in nicely in the 6th spot of Chicago’s lineup, between LaRoche and new second baseman Brett Lawrie, while providing much-needed lineup depth.  Due to the impending arrival of top shortstop prospect Tim Anderson in either late 2016 or early 2017, the White Sox will likely only want Desmond on a one-year deal, a proposition that would be appealing to a player who would like to rebuild his market value playing on a potential contender.  In addition, due to its possession of the draft’s 10th pick, Chicago would not have to renounce its first round selection.

Why They Shouldn’t Sign Desmond: If the White Sox are satisfied with the performance of Rollins or Saladino, or if the team believes Anderson will be ready to take the reigns sooner than expected, signing Desmond and losing a second round pick would be unpalatable.

So, Where Will He Sign?

As I’ve demonstrated, the market for Ian Desmond is much less robust than he anticipated a year ago.  Many teams–including the Dodgers, Astros, Indians, Brewers, and Phillies–have had star shortstop prospects either reach the big leagues in 2015 or their arrival is imminent.  Others, such as the Mets and Padres, eschewed pursuing Desmond in favor of less pricey options.  And as a result, Ian Desmond has become the latest victim of the prohibitive qualifying offer.

While no destination listed above is perfect, I would rank Colorado as his most likely destination.  The Rockies can offer the optimal combination for a player hoping to re-establish his value on a one-year deal: home games in a hitter’s haven and a low-pressure environment.  The Rockies, unlike the other two clubs, have a glaring vacancy at shortstop–if Reyes is suspended long-term, of course–and can parlay Desmond into cost-controlled assets come July 31st.

The White Sox can also offer a one-year, “prove it” deal, but play in a pitcher’s park.  From the team’s perspective, Desmond would improve the White Sox but is a luxury due to the team’s alternatives.

The Rays, meanwhile, have an even better shortstop alternative than the White Sox in Brad Miller, and are averse to lucrative contracts.  The club would have to sign Desmond to a multi-year deal since it would surrender its prized first round pick.  This confluence of factors makes the Rays an improbable landing spot.

If Desmond isn’t amenable to the offers from these clubs, he could wait for an injury to open up a spot for him or even probe the Nationals about a possible reunion.  The latter option is doubtful considering Washington’s confidence in blue-chip prospect Trea Turner and the presence of veterans Danny Espinosa and Stephen Drew, but then again, nobody predicted Stephen Drew would re-sign with the Red Sox in late May of 2014, either.  Perhaps Desmond will play the waiting game deep into the season a la Drew in 2014, but the guess here is he signs a one-year deal worth around $18 million with either the Rockies or White Sox before Opening Day.

1: This is based on wRC+.  wRC+ is, in my opinion, the best singular statistic that captures a player’s overall contributions from the batter’s box.  Visit Fangraphs for more information.

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