With the news that the Nationals are looking for a young shortstop to be included in a deadline deal, the Ian Desmond contract situation has come back into the news. Desmond is scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the 2015 season, and over the last three years, he’s been one of the Nationals’ best offensive players. In fact, if we rank all Nationals from 2005 to present by fWAR, Desmond is the second-best Nationals position player, behind only Ryan Zimmerman.
Desmond’s rise up these rankings was a sudden one. At the end of the 2011 season, there were many people that thought the best Nationals infield would be Danny Espinosa at shortstop and Steve Lombardozzi at second. Desmond was a low-power, no-walk shortstop that had made 57 errors in his first two seasons. The only positive thing about Desmond in those first two seasons was that he was a shortstop, one of the most difficult positions on the field to find someone to play.
The 2012 season looked to be Desmond’s last shot to secure a spot with the Nationals, and not only did he improve as a shortstop, he took a giant leap forward with the bat. Desmond owes a lot of his success to Davey Johnson for telling him that he is allowed to pull the ball and that he should use his natural power. Under Jim Riggleman, Desmond bought the company line of “always go the other way” more than any other player and it limited his success. With his pull power on full display, Desmond had a career year with a batting line of .292/.335/.511.
In both 2011 and 2012, Desmond walked a measly 5.5 percent of the time. As he admitted, he isn’t at the plate to be patient, he’s up there to party, and over the past three seasons, Desmond has hit 61 homeruns, the most by any shortstop in that span. Desmond’s power is elite for a shortstop, but is it worth the contract he is going to get? That is the question the Nationals have to ask themselves. Desmond rightly turned down a $90 million contract offer spread over the next six or seven years.
Take out the $17.5 million Desmond is being paid for his last two arbitration years and at the high end, the contract offered Desmond pays him an average annual value of $18 million for his first four free agent years. That sounds perfectly reasonable, but Desmond plays one of the most valuable positions on the field and brings with him a skill set not often associated with that position. Desmond’s power on the free agent market is going to get him a contract north of $100 million and closer to $20 million average annual value. Desmond is right to seek that kind of money, not only because he is worth it, but because it helps to set the market for future free agent shortstops.
The problem is that Nationals are also in the right to question if a 30- to 37-year-old Desmond is going to be worth the seven-year $100 million-plus contract he’s going to get on the free agent market. Compare the batting line of 2011 Desmond of .253/.298/.358 to his 2014 line of .240/.291/.427. The only thing that has really changed is the power. Desmond still doesn’t walk, he still swings at too many pitches out of the zone and on defense he’s still prone to stretches where he makes too many errors. None of this is a problem now, but as Desmond ages, his bat speed is going to slow down, his power will decrease, and he’s going to lose range on defense and may even have to move off shortstop at some point.
In any large contract, a certain number of dead money years are included, but Desmond has the warning signs of a player who is not going to age gracefully and the Nationals are right to not ignore them. Desmond is also right to want to be paid like the best power-hitting shortstop in the game of baseball because he is. This is a situation where what is best for the player and what’s best for the team may not be the same thing and will end up taking them in different directions. Sometimes the hardest thing to do as a front office executive is knowing when to let a player walk. Just ask Ruben Amaro Jr. of the Phillies.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals at Citizens of Natstown. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHuzzard. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our regular roster of writers.