It's not difficult to see why Ian Desmond's market this winter has been slow to develop. The 30-year-old former All-Star is coming off a season that saw his WAR drop from 4.0 in 2014 to 1.7 last year. His production fell across the board, as he failed to continue his elite offensive production for a shortstop, and an early-season bout with errors translated to a sub-par defensive performance.
As Steven Martano elaborated on at Beyond the Box Score last week, Desmond's production seems to be trending down in many aspects:
Entering into his age-30 season, Desmond is on the wrong side of the hitter's aging curve. His production has steadily declined over the course of the last three seasons, and his differentiating skill as a speedy shortstop has eroded as well. Desmond only posted 13 stolen bases last season, despite having stolen at least 17 in each year as a regular starter. That number is also significantly down from his peak, where he stole 20+ bases in four consecutive years from 2011 to 2014.
Martano goes on to detail Desmond's declining ability to hit offspeed pitches, which has led to his offensive slip. Unless Desmond can buck that trend, it seems unlikely that he will find a way to recover his All-Star level of play.
Projection systems are seemingly mixed in opinion, with ZiPS foreseeing a strong bounceback campaign, while Steamer views a showing similar to last season.
ZiPS clearly projects a relative bounceback in offensive production, especially in the power department. Desmond's precipitous dropoff could be perceived as a mere outlier, though the downwards trending statistical indicators seem to point more towards production closer to what Steamer predicts. Though, as ZiPS' projection indicates, Desmond does still carry the lofty upside of an elite-level shortstop, but his considerable risk has certainly made teams wary.
Due to his 2015 season and the loss of draft pick compensation that would come with signing him (Desmond was extended, and declined, a qualifying offer earlier this winter), Desmond is assuredly not going to come close to the five-year, $89.5 million extension he was supposedly offered by the Nationals two offseasons ago. However, he will be pricy enough to exclude certain small-market teams, unless he decides to take a short-term "pillow" contract, in which case his market would certainly expand.
Not many teams have been directly linked to Desmond, and very few have expressed any sort of interest that would hint at a serious pursuit. The San Diego Padres appeared to be an ideal fit a couple months ago, but with the signing of Alexei Ramirez, that ship has likely sailed. Let's explore some possible landing spots for Desmond, and try to pinpoint where he may be playing this spring.
Having recently added Jean Segura in a head-scratching move, Arizona seems unlikely to make another move to shore up the middle infield. They are also likely tapped out financially after signing Zack Greinke to a rather enormous deal, and then refusing to add any other free agents despite clear needs and opportunities, due to Dave Stewart's unwillingness to give up another draft pick.
Despite all of this, Desmond would still represent an upgrade over incumbent Nick Ahmed. Desmond would make quite a bit of sense if Arizona is truly serious about contending in 2016, especially on a one-year pact.
The White Sox have perhaps been the team most heavily linked to Desmond, however, a White Sox official told USA Today's Bob Nightengale last week that the "ship has sailed." This could very easily be posturing, and that's why the White Sox may still be favorites for Desmond.
The #WhiteSox have been publicly linked to free agent SS Ian Desmond, but one White Sox official said Thursday: "That ship has sailed.''— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) February 12, 2016
Consider that the White Sox have a clear need for Desmond, and are seemingly built to contend now, with the average age of their starting lineup being approximately 29. Desmond would join offseason additions Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie in a revamped infield, relegating Tyler Saladino to a utility role, where his versatility and defensive prowess would be better suited.
The White Sox have a reasonable chance at contention in 2016, so it makes sense for them to invest in Desmond's upside. They may also offer the ability to sign him to a longer deal, with a number of heavy contracts coming off the books after this season (including a combined $28.75 million between Adam LaRoche and John Danks). Chicago also has the advantage of a protected first round pick (10th overall), allowing them to only give up the 28th overall selection, which they received as compensation for Jeff Samardzija signing with the Giants.
It's still questionable whether or not the White Sox would be willing to pony up the money to spend on a player with Desmond's risk. However, t does help that the White Sox have already indicated interest, and they seem to be the team most aligned to sign Desmond.
This is really dependent on the results of Jose Reyes' pending domestic violence investigation by MLB, and if Reyes winds up being eligible for most of the season, there is essentially a zero percent chance of this occurring. Even if Reyes is dealt a lengthy suspension, the odds of Desmond heading to Colorado are still minute. They would have an opening at shortstop, and with a protected first round pick, they would only lose their Competitive Balance Round A selection at 38th overall.
For the Rockies, it would essentially come down to weighing the value of the 38th overall pick compared to a bet on Desmond signing a one-year deal and performing well enough to warrant a mid-season trade that returns further assets. There are clearly many flaws with this approach, as one would have to assume Desmond would be willing to sign with a club that is most likely going to trade him mid-season. Yet, he may be willing to do just that to recoup his value. Playing at Coors Field would certainly help pad his stats superficially (for fun, here are Desmond's career numbers translated to the context of 2000 Coors Field).
There are just simply too many caveats to view this match as having a strong possibility of occurring. Desmond is likely to have signed by the time Reyes' fate is decided, and while Colorado probably has a better idea of the consequences he may face compared to the general public, they aren't going to make an investment without certainty.
Aside from the Jose Reyes conundrum, much the same holds true for the Phillies. There is a clear need at shortstop in Philadelphia, with Freddy Galvis being nothing to take note of. The Phillies also have the first overall pick, so they would give up their second round selection. Again, they would be weighing the tangible value of that pick versus the potential value a rebounding Desmond could return in trade. If the Phillies were to flip him at midseason, he also wouldn't cost them much in terms of marginal wins, not taking too much away from their odds of obtaining another top draft pick.
The Angels have wizard Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, so if Desmond is only willing to play shortstop, he won't be finding a home in Anaheim any time soon. However, the Angels could find use for him at another position
In his major league career, Desmond has spent just 37 innings at positions other than shortstop, with the bulk of those coming in 2009, his rookie season. With a limited number of shortstop vacancies this winter, Desmond's camp has marketed his positional versatility in an effort to expand his market.
While Desmond is a career shortstop, it is generally assumed that a decent defensive shortstop, such as Desmond, could transition smoothly to a position lower on the defensive spectrum, such as third base, second base, or the outfield. While this rings true for many players, it is worth noting the fallacies of this logic as it occurred with Hanley Ramirez's disastrous move to left field last season. Ramirez never was quite the same level of defender as Desmond, however.
The Angels are currently employing Johnny Giavotella as their starting second baseman. While Giavotella was serviceable last year (1.1 WAR, 95 wRC+), he's not talented enough to warrant a starting position on a probable playoff contender, which should warrant some consideration for the upgrade Desmond would provide. For the Angels, an aspiring playoff team in the competitive AL West, marginal wins hold excess value relative to other teams. With the Angels, Desmond could either be used at second base, or at third, with the recently acquired Yunel Escobar sliding over to second.
What makes this fit unlikely is a combination of unwillingness to exceed the $189 million luxury tax (which Desmond would likely push them past), and give up a draft pick. The Angels' farm system is in dire need of an influx of talent, with ESPN's Keith Law recently calling it the "worst system [he has] ever seen." Thus, a first round pick would seem to be more valuable to the Angels than for a team with more talent on the horizon.
Now, it's obviously highly unlikely that Desmond will end up playing in Tampa Bay next season. For a small-market franchise such as the Rays, Desmond's price tag will likely be too expensive, and the Rays clearly have little interest in surrendering the 13th overall pick.
But the Rays are perpetually looking for undervalued assets (last month's Corey Dickerson-for-Jake McGee swap is exemplary), and Desmond has likely seen a precipitous decline in his market price, making it easier for a club like Tampa Bay to land him on a short-term deal for less money.
The Rays made a similar move last winter in adding Asdrubal Cabrera, a player who is quite similar to Desmond, on a one-year, $7.5 million deal, as he was coming off a down year (which he coincidentally spent part of with the Nationals). Cabrera was able to recoup some of his value with the Rays, and signed a multi-year deal with the Mets this offseason.
Desmond does have a slightly better track record than Cabrera, so it seems unlikely that he would settle for anything less than eight figures per annum, especially considering that he turned down a $15.8 million qualifying offer in November, and that could very well be out of the Rays' price range.
Adding Desmond would allow the Rays to shift Brad Miller to a utility role, and the Rays have traditionally valued positional versatility, especially among infielders such as Ben Zobrist and Logan Forsythe.
As Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times points out, there are a few other factors working in favor of Desmond landing with the Rays:
That Desmond has indicated he would like to play for the Rays, that he is from Sarasota, that he is represented by the same agency as Rays manager Kevin Cash (Sports One Athlete Management) and that he is close friends with Rays OF Steven Souza Jr. are all factors.
But then it all comes back to that draft pick. The Rays are clearly a franchise that relies on cost-controlled talent more so than any other, and while if Desmond returns to form in 2016 the Rays could receive a compensatory selection in the 2017 draft, that is far from a certainty, and the pick would likely fall in the 20's. And as Daniel Russell of D-Rays Bay so exceptionally points out, research by the Hardball Times pegs the surplus value of a draft pick in the 11-15 range as approximately $24 million.
So, even if Desmond were to take a one-year contract in the $8 million range, he would need to produce over 4 WAR for the Rays to come out ahead in terms of value. Russell suggests that the Rays may be better suited signing Desmond to a longer-term deal, but the largest free agent contract in Rays' history is the $21 million given to James Loney over three years, and a long-term deal for anything less than $50 million would likely be rebuffed by Desmond.
So, unless Desmond enters a state of desperation, let's call this a reach.
Given the efforts that the Nationals have made this offseason, this is highly improbable. James Wagner of the Washington Post reported last month that the Nationals have no desire to bring Desmond back, with no negotiations having taken place between the two parties. This offseason, they added Daniel Murphy to take over at second base and Stephen Drew as infield depth.
The club also added top shortstop prospect Trea Turner a year ago, and he seems poised to reach the majors at some point in 2016. Additionally, they have Wilmer Difo, a highly regarded prospect in his own right, who spent some time in Washington last year. Danny Espinosa is also still present, and should hold down the position in the short term.
Yet, the Nationals are the only team that would not be required to give up a draft pick in order to sign Desmond (they would forgo the opportunity to add a compensation pick were Desmond to sign elsewhere, however). This gives them an inherent advantage in being able to acquire him for less than other suitors would have to give up.
While there is no clear position available for him, he could be used in a super-utility role, allowing him to showcase his defensive versatility. Desmond would also be an upgrade over Espinosa, so Washington could potentially find room for him as their starting shortstop on a one-year deal, though this could delay the development of Turner and Difo.
The fact of the matter remains that the Nationals have viable and substantially cheaper options to replace Desmond, which makes this reunion unlikely.
Ultimately, where Desmond signs appears to hinge on what type of contract he is willing to settle for. A bevy of organizations should be interested were he to express content with signing a "pillow" contract, including some not listed above. If Desmond opts for a longer-term deal, that's where things get a tad tricky, and the process could be draw out even longer. The ideal landing spot for Desmond would appear to be with the White Sox given their combination of positional needs, prior interest, and less-severe draft pick forfeiture.