Rangers Sign Shortstop, Get Left Fielder

I don’t know how often Ian Desmond thinks about the nine-figure extension offer he turned down. He probably doesn’t think about it as often as people who write about Ian Desmond think about it. Desmond, after all, has to live his own life, and he still has to worry about the present and the future. Not to mention, he’s already earned some tens of millions of dollars, so it’s not like one tough decision has caused Desmond to go bankrupt. He’s doing fine, all things considered. He had the chance at a big payday, he didn’t take it, so he’s collected fewer millions — but still millions, and he could, in theory, go on to earn that whole sum anyway. Just has to prove himself on the baseball field. It’s the thing he’s best at.

In a way, it’s not fair to hold the decision against Desmond. He was justified in making his call, and now it’s in the past and no longer relevant. We have the advantage of knowing more now than we could’ve known back then, and of course what happened in 2015 made Desmond look a lot worse. His decision was a fine decision. But. But. There’s no way around the visual of all this. Desmond bet on himself as a soon-to-be free agent. He signed for one year and $8 million after spring training had already started. And he signed to play a position he hasn’t played.

Ian Desmond is doing fine. Ian Desmond is a major-league-caliber baseball player. It’s just been a hell of a drop. If it weren’t for Josh Hamilton, he might still not have a job.

Here’s a fun fact for you. Two of them, actually. One, Desmond is just 30 years old. And two — over the last three years, Desmond actually ranks third among all shortstops in WAR. He’s been an excellent player before, and he’s not old, and not long ago he was deemed worth a nine-figure commitment. Desmond’s track record is why so many people have been questioning the role of the qualifying offer, here. The perception is that the QO killed Desmond’s market worse than anyone else’s. The compensation did, of course, play some kind of role. Every team goes through the same calculations when there’s a draft pick hanging in the balance.

But it’s important to understand it wasn’t simply the QO that led to Desmond signing for a year to play left field. Desmond did just have a nightmare of a 2015. People like to say Desmond rebounded in the second half, and if you just eyeball the raw splits, it’s true, but really, Desmond had a big August, and then a lousy September. He didn’t really finish that strong, and his strikeouts stayed elevated, after they reached a new level in 2014. Desmond’s basic record has its red flags.

And then, this just wasn’t a great offseason to be an available shortstop. Not with so much money going to pitchers, and not with so many young shortstops emerging from the minors. Alexei Ramirez didn’t have a QO, but he sat out the market for a while before signing a modest deal with the Padres. Jimmy Rollins settled for a minor-league contract, and, yeah, Desmond is a better bet than Ramirez and Rollins, but those players have also been pretty good recently. The market didn’t care. Good teams didn’t come into the offseason looking to make a free-agent-shortstop splash.

So we heard it rumored pretty early that Desmond was pitching himself as a more versatile sort. To this point he’s played shortstop almost exclusively, but he’s been a pretty good shortstop, and it stands to reason those skills could translate to other positions. I heard this chatter as far back as the winter meetings, and it didn’t seem like a bad idea, given all the market interest in Ben Zobrist. Zobrist, though, hasn’t been running a Ryan Howard-level strikeout rate, like Desmond. And Zobrist is actually proven at several positions. Desmond’s versatility is purely theoretical. That introduces a certain level of risk.

He’s going to go through an unusual transition. Since 2002, I could find just two cases of a guy playing at least 500 innings as a shortstop one year, and then at least 500 innings as an outfielder the next year. One of those examples is Hanley Ramirez, and Ramirez was a disaster, and now he’s a first baseman. The other example is Bill Hall, and Hall managed just fine. Desmond doesn’t have the same question marks that have always lingered around Ramirez, so there’s reason to believe this should work, but teams are going to want to see it first.

This is the upside for Desmond. His market never developed, but an injury to Hamilton opened a door. So now Desmond gets to play for a competitive team, in a hitter-friendly environment, and he can go back on the market when he’s 31. Maybe he’ll have a QO and maybe he won’t, but there’ll be more interest if he hits better, and there’ll be more interest if he proves his versatility. It figures, with Texas, he’ll play mostly in left field, but he could also get reps around the rest of the outfield, and he could also back up infield positions. Then Desmond really could pitch himself as a Zobrist type, and that has mass appeal. Consider it the thing that’s there to motivate Desmond to have a big season.

Yet, the risks are clear enough. There’s no security in a one-year deal, and if Desmond doesn’t hit or field well enough, the Rangers have no strong obligation to keep him in the lineup. He could conceivably get pushed out by Josh Hamilton, and he could conceivably get pushed out by Nomar Mazara. If he has a decent season, he could be looking at just another QO, and then, as a regular outfielder, he’ll be spending a lot of time as not a shortstop. Zobrist himself didn’t play any short in 2010 or 2011, but there’s no guarantee the market sees Desmond as a legitimate shortstop again next November. If other teams think he’s mostly just a corner outfielder, that puts a lot more pressure on his bat to deliver. Signing anywhere is a relief for Desmond, but next offseason could be another uncomfortable one.

I think I’ve spent almost this entire article writing about Desmond, instead of about the Rangers. From the Rangers’ side, this is a pretty good move, albeit one with its own potential downsides. There’s enough reason to believe Desmond can still hit, and there’s enough reason to believe Desmond can handle the corner outfield, defensively. Desmond probably comes with more overall upside than, say, Austin Jackson, and Desmond can also back up infield positions, which Jackson can’t. So the advantage of Desmond over Jackson is twofold, and the team should like the flexibility. Yet Desmond comes with the lost draft pick, and if the Rangers get a pick back a year from now — which is by no means guaranteed — that pick will be lower, so it’ll be of a lesser value. There’s a reason teams don’t love giving up picks for one-year contracts.

This is something of a bold move, in that Desmond becomes a full-time left fielder even though Hamilton might simply miss the first month. It’s pretty clear evidence the Rangers aren’t counting on anything out of Hamilton, and that’s probably the right strategy. It puts Hamilton in a weird and difficult place, but he hasn’t exactly earned the benefit of the doubt. And though the Rangers arguably should’ve addressed their outfield depth earlier, before Hamilton turned up hurt, it wouldn’t have been easy with Hamilton healthy and on the active roster. This created an easier opening, and by bringing in Desmond, the Rangers are going to have plenty of future options, and they’ll also be kept from rushing Mazara or Lewis Brinson along. Desmond serves one clear purpose right away. If he does well, and then if Hamilton comes back and looks good, Desmond can move around. Managers love those options.

Desmond is probably just happy to be somewhere. His new teammates should be happy to have him, because all his old teammates kept coming to his defense while he was looking for work. If there’s one thing I think we know about Ian Desmond’s 2016, he’ll be a good teammate and he’ll be a good leader. In question is whether he’ll be a good hitter and a good left fielder. For the second time in as many years, Desmond is going to play with an awful lot on the line.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

Don’t forget Jurickson Profar. He’s light-years away from being a sure bet, but he’s expected to be 100% by March, and if he shows he is able to hit (and maybe throw) his role would overlap with Desmond’s.

6 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

And also shuts the door on Joey Gallo getting at-bats as an outfielder too. Maybe the real opening for Desmond is CF is Deshields takes a step backwards this year.