Shortstops that are both defensively capable and offensively dynamic are few and far between, and 29-year-old Ian Desmond has clearly been one of them. But in coming off among the worst years of his professional career, Desmond also represents an expensive enigma.
A dive into his numbers reveals a player with both significant strengths and profound weaknesses. Desmond is a player who will pose an analytical challenge as teams try to understand the risks and rewards of making deal.
Desmond became Washington’s full-time shortstop in 2010, and his first two years in the league were quiet ones. In 2012, however, his game exploded.
Between the 2012 and 2014 seasons, he slashed .275/.326/.462; he averaged “20/20” seasons (20 home run/20 stolen bases) over those three seasons as well. He averaged 3.6 WAR each of those three years. He’s been extremely durable as well, having played in fewer than 150 games just once in the past six years. These are the kind of offensive skills that get players paid $100 million and more.
His defense has always been a mixed bag. He has a cannon-like arm, he’s capable of making spectacular diving and rangy plays, but he’s always made his share of errors, too. Advanced defensive metrics show him over the course of his career as being a roughly league average to slightly below average defender.
Of course, average defense with a plus bat is a winning combination.
Looking at him this way, Desmond’s agents have a straightforward pitch: when he’s right, their client is a game-changing, lineup-deepening, explosive player at a position where the combination of such tools are extremely rare.
Conversely, the teams exploring Desmond’s services will be well aware of just how poor his 2015 campaign was.
Desmond’s always been a slow starter, but even for him, it was a miserable first half of the season. He posted a meager .589 OPS in that time, and endured a stretch of spectacularly poor defensive play. His second half, however, was markedly better. He was more consistent in the field and he slugged his way to a .777 OPS – a number much more in line with his 2012-’14 figures.
Defensive metrics were also unkind to Desmond in 2015: the Total Zone Total Fielding figure shows Desmond being worth nine runs below league average; by comparison, San Francisco’s Brandon Crawford (who earned the top mark) was worth 19 runs above average.
Further muddying the picture is the problem that while this one bad season was bad, and could almost be written off as an exception, over the past three years, Desmond’s key offensive numbers have all been trending downward.
From 2012-15, his on-base percentage has tapered from .335 to .290; his slugging has fallen from .511 to .384; his isolated power figures have shrunk from a high of .218 in 2012, to .151 last season.
These downward trends have one notable and unfortunate exception: his strike-outs have blossomed. He struck out 113 times in 2012. That number expanded to 183 in ’14 and 187 in ’15, when he was rung up a staggering 29% of the time.
Speaking of strikeout rates:
- Mike Trout in 2014: struck out 184 times (26%)
- Trout in 2015: 158 K’s (23%)
- Giancarlo Stanton in 2014: 170 times (26.6%)
- Stanton in an injury-abbreviated 2015: 95 times (29%)
So yes, clearly, Desmond strikes out a lot. His swing-hard-in-case-you-hit-it approach shows no signs of changing. He’ll keep chasing sliders out of the strike zone; teams will simply have to accept that. Fortunately for him, we’re in an era where huge strikeout numbers are accepted as part of the game, especially for sluggers.
Desmond’s 2012-14 form was stellar. Expecting him to exactly match those numbers again seems unlikely, especially as he ages into his 30’s. However his second half slash line of .262/.331/.446 are numbers far closer to his 2012-14 average.
Does he present considerable downside risk? Absolutely. But the general dearth of options at such a critical position guarantees that there will be an active market for his services. Let’s look at some possible suitors for Desmond’s services.
Let’s knock this one off quickly: no chance. He turned down a seven-year, $107 million offer from the Nationals in 2014. The Nationals have extended him a qualifying offer, but the likelihood of him accepting it is close to nil – no players have ever accepted a qualifying offer (Editor’s Note: until Colby Rasmus, at the time of publication).
To hedge against his leaving, the Nats acquired Yunel Escobar. Now, barring trades or other pick-ups, Escobar, Danny Espinosa, Trea Turner and Wilmer Difo are lined up for Washington’s middle infield. That ship has sailed.
Desmond’s stated preference is to play for a World Series contender. What team out there is better suited for that task than the division rival Mets? New York is utterly loaded with pitching – but desperately needs more bats. Desmond would be another bat capable of driving in runs and manufacturing runs on the base paths.
Wilmer Flores and Ruben Tejada do have advantages over Desmond: they’re both younger and cheaper. While neither had truly bad 2015 seasons, Desmond in his exceptional-case down year was roughly their equivalent OPS-wise. If he rebounds, he would vastly outclass either of them at the plate. The Mets would have to accept his inferior defense, but for his bat, that is a tradeoff the club would and should make.
The wild card here is how much money the Mets are willing to spend to shore up their offense. If they can pony up the cash, Desmond would be an obvious, fantastic addition to the club.
Given that the Yanks acquired Didi Gregorius to be the future at shortstop, this move might seem unlikely. The again, Desmond’s worst-case year was still roughly equivalent to Gregorius’s career numbers (.674 OPS for Desmond, .683 for Didi.)
If the Yankees feel that the AL East will be as wide open in 2016 as it was in 2015 – and why wouldn’t it be – then Desmond would represent an immediate, substantial upgrade to a good offense that faded down the stretch. Unlike the Mets, money would be no obstacle here.
The D’backs have an opportunity here to make a strength that much stronger: imagine plugging Desmond into a lineup that already includes Paul Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock and David Peralta. Arizona could seize this moment to turn a good offense into a true NL West juggernaut.
For Desmond, playing 81 games in hitter-friendly Arizona would be a great way to see his offensive numbers turn favorable once again. Either in terms of a longer contract, or for a shorter deal focused more on him rebuilding some of the value he lost in 2015.
The Friars, frankly, got disastrous production from their shortstop position in 2015. Alexi Amarista posted an awful .544 OPS; Clint Barmes was better, managing a still-slight .633 OPS. A miserably struggling Desmond would’ve been hands down the Padres best shortstop option.
The Padres could definitely use Desmond in the middle of that order, but whether he’d want to be part of whatever is going on in San Diego – given his stated win-now preference – seems unlikely.
(A painful sidebar here for San Diego is that the club had a top shortstop prospect – Trea Turner! – who was dealt – to the Nationals! – in a three-way trade last spring as part of the Wil Myers deal.)
The Mets need to add an explosive bat to their lineup, and Desmond can certainly bring serious punch to the plate. Likewise, Desmond wants to win now and the Mets are obviously well positioned in that regard.
Unfortunately for Nationals fans, Desmond and the Mets are a great fit for each other. I predict the Mets will find the money to make this deal happen.