Sunday, March 6, 2016

How Ian Desmond's Slump Cost Him $100 Million

Desmond didn't get the payday he deserved (
Ian Desmond has to be kicking himself. Two years ago, he passed on a seven-year, $107 million contract extension, thinking he could make more in free agency. Well, after spending the whole winter in free agent purgatory, he was forced to settle for a one-year deal that will pay him a mere $8 million. Ouch.

How did Desmond fall so far, so fast? How did his value, once sky-high, hit rock bottom? How did he go from almost becoming one of baseball's richest players to accepting a contract worth half of the qualifying offer he turned down?

Desmond didn't get hurt, as he played 154 games in 2014 and 156 last year. He didn't stop stealing bases or hitting home runs. He didn't get in trouble off the field.

No, what happened to Desmond is what happened to Evan Longoria, Pablo Sandoval, and countless other players as they approach 30; he declined.

Between 2013 and 2015, Desmond's OPS dropped 110 points, turning him from a solidly above average hitter into an offensive liability. His strikeouts shot up, his power waned, and his defense started slipping. The bottom fell out in 2015, as Desmond batted a dismal .233/.290/.384 (83 wRC+) with a whopping 187 strikeouts and 27 fielding errors. Through the All-Star break, he was arguably the worst everyday player in baseball.

Desmond rebounded with a strong second half, but that robust finish wasn't enough to salvage his walk year, much less his reputation as one of the game's elite. Everyone seemed to forget that over the last four years, Desmond was the best shortstop in baseball.

But when he became available, nobody wanted him, even though he was still better than half the shortstops in baseball last year (and thus would have been an upgrade for all but a handful of teams). Nobody wanted to shell out for a 30 year-old shortstop whose numbers had declined for three straight seasons, the last of which was perhaps the worst of his career. He was just too risky.

So in one of the strongest free agent classes in recent memory, Desmond became an afterthought. He got the Stephen Drew treatment. Days turned to weeks and weeks into months...and no one came calling. Spring Training got underway, and still nothing. The market for Desmond never materialized, and it soon became clear that the big contract he originally sought wasn't coming.

Just before Spring Training games were about to start, the Texas Rangers came forward with a terrible offer; one-year, $8 million, and Desmond would have to change positions to accommodate their incumbent shortstop, Elvis Andrus. Worse, he would have to split time with Josh Hamilton--who got the kind of fat contract Desmond was seeking (which the Angels immediately regretted)--when he returns. Desmond took it.

I don't know what's more humiliating--the terms of his contract or the fact that he's losing his position and at-bats to inferior players.

But does Desmond complain? Of course not. Being the stand-up guy that he is, he's been all smiles since joining the Rangers. After sweating it out for four months, he's just happy to have a contract.

Now he has to go play for his next one.
Desmond didn't do much with the stick in 2015 (
Free agency, like the rest of baseball, is all timing. Hit the market after a huge year, like Hamilton did, and you can strike gold. Become a free agent following a down year, however, and you're more likely to strike out.

Desmond couldn't have picked a worse time to have the worst two months of his career. It wasn't even two whole months--more like seven weeks, actually. A span of 39 games--not even a quarter of a season. He was fine before that and even better afterwards, but from the end of May through the first series after the All-Star break, Desmond didn't hit at all.

When Desmond woke up in Cincinnati on the morning of May 30th, everything was awesome. He was on fire, having smoked two hits the night before and 19 in his past 13 games. His bat was coming around after a slow start, and his fielding had settled down after a case of early-season jitters. Washington was in first place, just like everyone said they'd be.

Then, his bat went into hibernation again. Desmond took an 0-for-4 that day, and the Nationals lost. He went 0-for-4 the next day, and Washington lost again. It was the beginning of a horrific slide for the free agent-to-be. In June, he had more games without hits than games with hits. He struck out in a third of his plate appearances, so it wasn't like he was just getting unlucky. He batted .161 with a .194 OBP.

Things only got worse in July. Through the month's first dozen games, he totaled three hits in 43 plate appearances. His batting line--already an unimpressive .250/.290/.399 at the end of May--plummeted to a ghastly .204/.248/.324 after his 0-for-3 on July 19th. Every time Desmond dug in, the batter's box became a pit of quicksand. The harder he tried to escape the throes of his slump, the more stuck he became. For Nationals fans, it was hard to believe they were watching the same guy who'd won the last three Silver Sluggers at shortstop.

Mercifully, Desmond pulled out of it, batting .272/.343/.464 the rest of the way and falling one long ball shy of his fourth straight 20-homer season. But he still finished with career lows in batting average and on-base percentage, set a career-high in whiffs and stole just 13 bases--his fewest for a full season. His power totals also declined, from 24 homers and 91 RBI in 2014 to 19 and 62 in 2015. After being worth close to four wins the year before, he was worth merely two. Desmond was no longer the best shortstop in baseball; he was damaged goods.


If I were a major league GM, especially one on a limited budget, I wouldn't even consider signing a free agent before February. All the guys that go early get grossly overpaid and rarely provide commensurate value (especially ones on the wrong side of 30). I'd rather wait until February, when things have died down and all the stars are long gone, then swoop in and sign a bunch of leftovers/mid-tier impact players for a fraction of the cost. You could have got two quality starting pitchers (Yovani Gallardo and Mat Latos), an everyday center fielder (Dexter Fowler) and a regular shortstop (Desmond)--for under $50 million total and with no future commitments beyond 2017 season. Zack Greinke alone is costing the Diamondbacks $34 million next year for the next six years.

If you're a bargain hunter, February is the time to strike. Just ask the Rangers

Latos is still the best deal of the offseason by far, but the Desmond deal isn't far behind. Texas got an incredible bargain for a guy who was considered one of the best players in baseball this time last year. He's a lot less risky than Hamilton, and he only has to be worth one win to earn his contract, which should be a breeze as long as he doesn't regress to his first-half numbers from last year.

Because while those numbers are semi-tolerable for a shortstop who can field, they're utterly unacceptable at any other position. In order for Desmond's bat to play in left field, his numbers must return to their 2012-2014 levels. A sub-.300 OBP with fewer than 20 homers just isn't going to cut it, especially for a team with its sights set on October.

Desmond should see his numbers improve in Texas, which is notoriously kind to hitters and a considerably better place to hit than Washington. Unfortunately he's never played there, so there's no sample size on which to make predictions. Most projections systems are expecting him to bat .250 with around 20 homers, which would make him quite the steal should it come to pass.

Usually when you have a two-time All-Star shortstop who's 27 and signed through the next seven years, you're not looking to add another shortstop via free agency. With Desmond, however, the price was too good to pass up.

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