Desmond's deal with Rockies a puzzling one, suggests Colorado is not done dealing

1:40 | MLB
MLB Free Agency: How Ian Desmond deal affects Edwin Encarnacion
Wednesday December 7th, 2016

It's not the money that makes the five-year, $70 million deal Ian Desmond agreed to with the Rockies on Wednesday such a surprise—it's everything else. Colorado, which is coming off a 75-87 season, its sixth straight below .500, will have to surrender the 11th pick of the 2017 draft because Desmond received a qualifying offer from the Rangers. What's more, the Rockies will apparently play Desmond at first base, a position he's never played at the major league level and one that his offensive profile may not support.

These pieces don’t fit together.

Desmond spent 2010 to '15 as the Nationals' regular shortstop, maturing into a very solid two-way player. From 2012 to '14, he helped Washington win two division titles by hitting .275/.326/.462 with an average of 23 home runs and 22 stolen bases, good for a 113 OPS+ with slightly below-average defense (-7 DRS) en route to an average of 3.6 WAR. In 2014, he offset the worst of those three years with the bat (103 OPS+) with his best year with the glove (+2 DRS) en route to a career-high 3.9 WAR. After that season, the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore reported that in the spring, Desmond had turned down a seven-year, $107 million offer (through 2019, his age-33 season) from the Nats in favor of a two-year, $17.5 million deal that would carry him to free agency, where the implication was that he'd do better than the five years and $89.5 million he left on the table.

Unfortunately for Desmond, he had a nightmare 2015 season. A dropped pop-up against the Mets on Opening Day signified the disappointment ahead, as he hit just .233/.290/.384 for an 82 OPS+ en route to a mere 2.0 WAR. The Nationals gave him a qualifying offer nonetheless, which he rejected, but the attachment of the lost draft pick crushed his market to the point that he settled for a one-year, $8 million deal from Texas and agreed to learn to play the outfield, something he'd done only a few times professionally. At first the move looked like a stroke of genius, as he hit .303/.355/.519 with 20 homers through the end of July, earning All-Star honors and drawing raves from the Rangers for his work ethic. He slumped dreadfully over the final two months (.249/.297/.305 with two homers), finishing with a 104 OPS+ and 2.7 WAR—still a solid season, all told, but not one that was going to get him a deal on par with what he had passed up, even given his new-found versatility.

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As a free agent, Desmond had reportedly drawn interest from Baltimore, St. Louis, Texas and Washington—the Orioles, Rangers and Nats all reached the playoffs in 2016 and the latter two of those clubs were already intimately familiar with him; the fourth team, the Cardinals, is a perennial contender coming off an atypical season. It seems obvious that the Rockies offered more money and/or security than any other club. But the move doesn't make sense. Colorado has a shortstop who was a rookie sensation in Trevor Story, a perennial All-Star third baseman in Nolan Arenado, a batting champion at second base in D.J. LeMahieu and a nice outfield in David Dahl, Charlie Blackmon and Carlos Gonzalez. Their fourth outfielder is Gerardo Parra, whose three-year, $27.5 million free agent deal last off-season yielded a 65 OPS+, -11 DRS in the outfield corners and first base and a major league-worst -2.8 WAR. They also have a hole at first base, where Parra, the departed Mark Reynolds and five other players combined to hit just .264/.332/.412 (83 wRC+*) with 18 homers and -5 DRS.

*FanGraphs' wRC and Baseball-Reference's OPS+ are calculated by very different methodologies but rarely wind up more than a couple of points apart in expressing park-adjusted production relative to the league; while I generally prefer the latter, I've used the former here because the site publishes splits that B-Ref does not.

So playing Desmond at first base would be an upgrade relative to the team's 2016 production there as long as he simply hits to his career level (100 OPS+, 101 wRC) and provides average defense. However, that's not gaining the Rockies much when the average NL first baseman was good for a 111 wRC in 2016. In other words, his bat could be light for the position.

John Minchillo/AP

There were other free agent options—Adam Lind and Steve Pearce both have a career 111 wRC+, and Matt Holliday was reportedly interested in a reunion with Colorado, the team for whom he debuted, before signing with the Yankees last weekend for one year and $13 million. None of those three players would have required a $70 million commitment for their age 31-35 seasons and cost a number 11 pick, the slot from which Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen, Max Scherzer, George Springer and Addison Russell have sprung in the past 13 years (though so have the likes of Justin Smaok, Phillipe Aumont and several other never-weres).

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All of which is to say even given the glowing reports of Desmond’s character, this doesn't make a whole lot of sense unless the Rockies have plans to trade Blackmon, Gonzalez, Story or even LeMahieu for a significant return and then move Desmond to a more difficult defensive position where his bat will be more of an asset. Even if that happens, and even with an impressive stockpile of young pitchers, a rebuilding club has little business squandering first-round picks—though maybe for the still-available Edwin Encarnacion, who could hit 50 bombs a year with Coors as his home ballpark, the move would have been justifiable.

One can’t fault Desmond for taking the money, of course. All told, he’ll have guaranteed himself $95.5 million for the 2014 to '21 period—not as good as if had he taken the Nationals’ offer, but a considerable haul nonetheless. Breaking down his deal in a What’s He Really Worth calculation carries too many questions regarding the position-based value of his defense, but given a cost of $7 million per win, an average of 2.0 WAR per year will cover it.

Maybe the Rockies plan to reap a reward from the superficial benefit that Coors will have on Desmond’s offense and trade him after 2017, a year when he’ll earn only $8 million (in this oddly distributed payout, he’ll make $22 million in 2018, $15 million in both ’19 and ’20 and then $8 million in ’21, with a $15 million option and $2 milion buyout for ’22). Or maybe they’ll play CarGo at first base (where former Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd believes he would be “superb”) in his final year before free agency and Desmond can play the outfield. Right now, they’ve left us guessing, because it’s hard to see how this fits together without them making other moves. 

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