Having already turned down a seven-year, $107 million extension prior to the 2014 season, Ian Desmond entered his final year before free agency needing to make a statement. With all of the pressure in the world on his shoulders to perform and make good on the bet he placed on himself in passing up a lengthy extension, Desmond floundered last season. The three-time Silver Slugger at shortstop batted just .233/.290/.384 in 2015, failing to crack 20 home runs or 20 steals for the first time since 2011. The 30-year-old was miserable at the plate in the first half of the year, batting just .211 with very little power.
In the two years since turning down a nine-figure extension, Desmond has slashed .244/.302/.407 with an OPS+ of 92 and 370 strikeouts in 310 games. He drew a walk in just a shade over seven-percent of his plate appearances. Defensively, he’s been a nightmare as well, making 51 errors at shortstop with a UZR of -3.7 in 2015. Desmond will never be mistaken for a defensive wizard at shortstop, and over his seven years with the Washington Nationals, has been worth -19 DRS.
Some players are able to handle the pressures of a walk year. Watching Ian Desmond last season, it was evident that he is not one of those players. He was pressing at the plate from Opening Day on, before finally beginning to figure things out in the second half of the year. Desmond has been a low-OBP, high-strikeout player his entire career, but had never struggled to produce for such an extended period of time at any point in his career. After the All-Star break, Desmond rebounded to slash .262/.331/.446 with 12 home runs in 72 games. Those second-half numbers are very much in line with his career averages. The on-base percentage in last year’s second half is actually 19 points higher than Desmond’s career .312 OBP.
There were a couple things playing into Desmond’s 2015 demise. The Nationals were not a healthy team last year. Injuries kept Denard Span, Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, and Ryan Zimmerman out for large chunks of the first half of the year. Rendon, Zimmerman, and Werth were mostly ineffective when they were able to get on the field in the early months of last season. The pressure was on Desmond from two fronts. He was being called upon to carry more of the load with so many core players out while also needing to produce a big year for his own future. All of it proved too much to handle.
After twisting in the free-agent breeze for much of the winter thanks to his qualifying offer, Desmond finally found a home this past weekend with the Texas Rangers. He will play out 2016 on a one-year deal for $8 million. With the Rangers, Desmond will not play shortstop or second base. He is ticketed for left field with a grand total of 7.1 career innings of outfield play. With Josh Hamilton out indefinitely with knee problems and Joey Gallo apparently still not ready for the big leagues, the Rangers are taking a chance that the athletic Desmond can pick up left field in a hurry. Desmond’s overall abilities as an athlete have never been in question, but learning to play a league-average left field in a few months is quite a monumental task. Throw in the fact that Globe Life Park has notoriously tricky winds, and Desmond is facing an uphill battle. Hitting in a stacked lineup should take some of the offensive pressure off the shortstop-turned-outfielder.
As the pages turned on the calendar, it became crystal clear that Ian Desmond was destined for a one-year deal. All of the pressure to perform he faced in 2015 is still on, perhaps ratcheted up even higher because he will re-enter free agency in 2016 one year older. He grossly miscalculated in turning down a seven-year extension. That type of money will never be on the table again, but if he hits well and plays a serviceable outfield, Desmond may be able to find himself a three-year deal next winter.
Having passed up a huge extension and qualifying offer, he is forced to prove himself as an outfielder on a team that is not without other options should he struggle. The Rangers may want to consider platooning Desmond and Hamilton if the former MVP can stay healthy. Opportunities at shortstop will likely be very limited, unless Elvis Andrus suffers an injury. Desmond must come out swinging a hot bat and flashing an average glove from Opening Day on if he hopes to re-establish his lost value in a meaningful way. The pressure was on last year, and it shows no signs of dialing down in 2016 for Ian Desmond.