The last major free agent of the off-season has finally found a home—albeit on terms, with a team and at a new position that no one could have predicted. Ian Desmond, the former All-Star shortstop of the Nationals who made $11 million last year and declined a $15.8 million qualifying offer in November, has signed a one-year, $8 million contract to become the Rangers’ new leftfielder.
The least surprising thing about Desmond’s new contract is that it's only for a year. For players like Desmond who have found the free-agent market underwhelming, it has become an increasingly common practice to seek out so-called pillow contracts. That term, coined by agent Scott Boras, refers to a one-year deal that gives a player a soft landing and a chance to reestablish his value and reenter free agency a year later. Just last week, outfielder Dexter Fowler turned down a reported three-year, $33 million offer from the Orioles to sign a one-year deal with the Cubs, and last month, outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who was expected to land a nine-figure contract, settled for a three-year, $75 million deal (with an opt out after 2016) with the Mets.
In those cases, as well as those of Desmond and the three players who accepted their qualifying offers in November (outfielder Colby Rasmus, catcher Matt Wieters and starter Brett Anderson), next winter’s relatively thin free-agent class was likely a major factor in their decision. This off-season, Cespedes and Fowler were competing against fellow outfielders Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Alex Gordon and fellow slugger Chris Davis for free-agent dollars. Next winter, Cespedes will be the best free-agent hitter under the age of 34 (barring a big comeback season from outfielder Carlos Gomez in Houston).
Desmond, however, was clearly the best shortstop on the market. The problem is that there are very few teams currently in the market for that. Only two teams signed free agents to be their starting shortstops this off-season: the Mets, who signed Asdrubal Cabrera to a two-year contract with $18.5 million guaranteed, and the Padres, who signed Alexei Ramirez to a one-year, $4 million deal.
One reason for the lack of interest in free-agent shortstops is the current surge in talent at the position in the game, particularly at the prospect level. The Nationals, for instance, will replace the 30-year-old Desmond with 22-year-old Trea Turner, the 13th pick in the 2014 amateur draft. Turner is part of a young cluster of shortstop prospects in the National League that also includes the Cubs’ Addison Russell, the Dodgers’ Corey Seager, the Brewers’ Orlando Arcia, the Phillies' J.P. Crawford and the Braves’ Dansby Swanson. The American League, meanwhile, has recently produced Xander Bogaerts in Boston, Carlos Correa in Houston, Francisco Lindor in Cleveland and Ketel Marte in Seattle. That’s 10 teams that boast a young, promising shortstop prospect who has either reached the major leagues or could by the end of the coming season. Not included in that group are Didi Gregorius (Yankees), Marcus Semien (Athletics), Jose Iglesias (Tigers) or Adeiny Hechavarria (Marlins)—all of whom are talented, established in the major leagues and well within their team-controlled years.
Then come the established veterans: Troy Tulowitzki (Blue Jays), Brandon Crawford (Giants), Jhonny Peralta (Cardinals), Andrelton Simmons (Angels), Alcides Escobar (Royals), J.J. Hardy (Orioles), Zack Cozart (Reds), Jose Reyes (Rockies) and the Rangers’ own Elvis Andrus. Add in the relatively inexpensive deals for Cabrera and Ramirez, and you’re left with just a handful of teams that might have been in the market for Desmond’s services as a shortstop. Of that quintet (which includes the Pirates, Rays and Twins), only two (the Diamondbacks and White Sox) could be described as big spenders in any recent off-season.
What’s troubling for Desmond, however, is that things won’t look much different next winter. He’ll be a free agent in November, but if the Padres and Ramirez pick up their $4 million mutual option and if the Royals pick up their $6.5 million option on Escobar, the only other starting shortstop to join Desmond in free agency will be the Braves' Erick Aybar, and Atlanta has Swanson waiting in the wings. That could explain Desmond’s decision to accept a job at another position.
What’s fascinating about the concept of “Ian Desmond, Leftfielder” is the degree to which it could result in a supposed bargain-bin contract actually being a bad one for the Rangers. The assumption is that the athletic Desmond will make a smooth transition to left, but after watching Hanley Ramirez’s brutal attempt at the same thing last year for the Red Sox, the ease of the move is something you are less willing to take for granted. Desmond has played the outfield before, but between the minors, majors and winter leagues, he has accumulated just 15 1/3 innings in the pastures, all of them in right or center, and he hasn’t had to field a ball there since 2009.
Even if Desmond does prove to be a competent fielder, if he repeats his 2015 performance at the plate, he’ll be a below-average leftfielder overall. Desmond’s .233/.290/.384 line last year wasn’t that far removed from the major league average at shortstop (.260/.308/.380), but the average leftfielder hit .256/.321/.416 in 2015. Indeed, the terrible performance the Rangers got from their leftfielders last season (.225/.295/.393) was better, at least in raw numbers, than what Desmond did at the plate last year.
It’s not a given that Desmond’s poor 2015 was a fluke. As I wrote in early January when calculating Desmond’s value as a free agent, Desmond has been in a steady decline at the plate since his breakout 2012 season, with his OPS+ and isolated power numbers steadily falling and his strikeout rate steadily rising:
Desmond still has value despite his decline at the plate, as he remains a competent defensive shortstop (despite an error-filled April, he finished the year above average in the field per Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating) who can steal a few bases (though he lost a step in that area as well). Even if he were to repeat his poor 2015 season in '16, I estimated he would be worth $36.2 million over the next four years as a shortstop. Projecting a modest rebound based on a 5/4/3 weighting of his last three seasons, I got him as high as $78.8 million over the next six years. As an unproven leftfielder, however, his one-year, $8 million deal may indeed represent his actual market value.
Worse yet, the Rangers are likely to have very little incentive to use Desmond in the infield given the talented prospects they have vying for those opportunities. Ostensibly healthy, 23-year-old Jurickson Profar could be the team’s utility man, available to back up 22-year-old Rougned Odor at second base and Andrus at shortstop and also drawing time in the outfield. At third base, Texas has 22-year-old slugging prospect Joey Gallo available to fill in for veteran Adrian Beltre. Profar and Gallo may start the season in Triple A, but the 27-year-old Andrus has averaged 158 games per year over the last four seasons and has never been on the disabled list. Given all of that, it’s difficult to envision Desmond getting many chances to keep his shortstop skills sharp in the coming season. That could make him even less likely to land a shortstop job when he reenters free agency in the fall and would seem to quash any thought of recouping the money he lost when he declined the Nationals’ seven-year, $107 million extension offer before the 2014 season.
All of that places increasing pressure on Desmond's bat and on his work with Texas' rookie hitting coach tandem of Anthony Iapoce and Justin Mashore. The good news is that his hitting-friendly new home ballpark should help and that the Rangers should contend again. But I can’t help thinking that the White Sox—who enter camp with Tyler Saladino and non-roster invitee Jimmy Rollins battling for playing time at shortstop—were a far better match with Desmond, for both the player and the team.