The consensus best shortstop on the free-agent market, what's Ian Desmond really worth after a rough 2015 season with the Nationals?
A new year is upon us, and while there are still a handful of key free agents available to teams looking to load up for the coming season, the only one generating any real heat as we enter 2016 is former Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond. FOX Sports’ Jon Paul Morosi reported on Sunday that Desmond’s agent, Doug Rogalski of Sports One Athlete Management, is in “ongoing discussions” with the Padres regarding the top shortstop on the market. No figures have leaked out of those discussions as of yet, which prompts us to ask: What’s Desmond really worth?
As a late bloomer coming off a weak walk year, Desmond is an interesting case. The third-round pick of the Montreal Expos' final draft in 2004, Desmond never cracked a top-100 prospects list, never hit more than 13 home runs in a minor-league season and hit a modest .262/.304/.387 (87 OPS+) in his first 1,302 major league plate appearances, spanning his September call-up in '09 through his first two seasons as the Nationals’ starting shortstop. Then, in his age-26 season in 2012, he hit 25 home runs to go with his 21 stolen bases, posting a .292/.335/.511 (125 OPS+) line, making the All-Star team, winning the Silver Slugger and picking up six down-ballot MVP votes for the first Washington team to reach the postseason since the 1933 Senators.
Superficially, Desmond appeared to maintain that level of play for the next two seasons—hitting 20-odd homers, stealing 20-odd bases, winning the Silver Slugger and playing improved defense in both 2013 and '14—before his disappointing '15 campaign. A closer look, however, shows a steady regression at the plate from that career year in 2012, best illustrated by his simultaneous decline in power and rise in strikeouts (ISO is isolated power, or slugging percentage minus batting average; K% is strikeout percentage, or strikeouts divided by plate appearances):
The implication here is that Desmond has become more aggressive in an effort to maintain his power numbers, but that’s not necessarily true. Desmond swung at more pitches in 2012 than he has in any other season in his career, but his contact rates have gone down since then (particularly on pitches outside of the strike zone) and his ground-ball rates have gone up, suggesting the contact he’s making is weaker. On top of that, he had a poor year in the field in 2015, stole fewer bases than in any of his other five full seasons and turned 30 in September.
Looking at Desmond through rose-tinted glasses, one can see a shortstop who is still in his prime and has averaged 22 home runs and 20 stolen bases over the last four seasons. Furthermore, he averaged 3.6 Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference.com version) from 2012 to '14 and may be primed for a rebound now that he's been removed from the pressure of playing for a contract on a heavily favored team that was collapsing around him. Take off those glasses, however, and Desmond looks like a player who is unlikely to recover his star status—one who should be viewed as an average shortstop, at best, and who could be finished by his mid-30s. So what happens when we run him through our "What’s He Really Worth?" formula?
First, a quick refresher on how the system works. Our calculations begin with the established market value of a marginal win (that is, a Win Above Replacement, or one point of WAR), estimated by ESPN’s Dan Szymborski at $6.5 million for 2015. We then factor in 5.4% annual inflation to give us the projected value of a marginal win for future seasons (starting at $6.851 million for 2016) and multiply the player’s projected WAR in each individual future season by the estimated value of a marginal win in that year to get his total dollar value. Add up those dollar values, and we get an estimate of his total value over a period of time.
As for those WAR values, we derive the 2016 figure from a 5/4/3 weighting of the player’s last three seasons, using bWAR. In Desmond’s case, that means an average of five times his disappointing 2.0 bWAR from this past season, four times his 3.9 bWAR from '14 and three times his 3.6 bWAR from '13. That gives us a projection of 3.0 bWAR for the 2016 season, from which we will then subtract 0.5 bWAR annually to simulate a typical decline for an everyday player in his thirties. That gives us the following projection:
Our projection has Desmond hitting replacement level at the age of 36 and projects him to be worth just shy of $80 million over the next six years, or a bit more than $13.3 million per season over that span. That’s still a fairly optimistic projection, however, as it begins with a rebound from last season and doesn’t have Desmond dipping below last year's bWAR total until 2019. If we were to start him with a mere repeat of his 2.0 bWAR performance from last year, his total value would drop to $36.2 million over the next four years, with Desmond hitting replacement level in 2020.
In between those two figures is one of the two major free-agent shortstop contracts in the game right now: Jhonny Peralta’s four-year, $53 million deal with the Cardinals (Troy Tulowitzki, Elvis Andrus, Brandon Crawford and J.J. Hardy all signed extensions prior to free agency). Peralta signed that contract after his age-31 season, which was shortened by his 50-game Biogenesis suspension. I do expect Desmond’s next contract to surpass that figure, but it should fall short of the regrettable six-year, $106 million deal the Marlins gave Jose Reyes before his age-29 season in 2012. That would point to something in the $80 million range, though the above projection is a strong indication that $80 million should be the absolute maximum offer for Desmond and could very well be a bad investment for his next team. It’s also worth remembering that Desmond’s next team will have to surrender a draft pick to sign him (though that would be a second-round pick for San Diego, as the Padres’ first-round pick in 2016, at No. 8, is protected).
It’s worth noting here that the Nationals offered Desmond a seven-year, $107 million contract prior to the 2014 season; Desmond wound up signing a two-year, $17.5 million deal instead. To make up the difference this off-season, he’d have to sign for a minimum of $89.5 million over five years, which seems extremely unlikely to happen.