Heading into the 2014 season, few shortstops in baseball were trending up like Ian Desmond. Back-to-back Silver Slugger seasons for a Nationals franchise that was beginning to establish itself as a perennial contender catapulted one of the last remaining Expos draft picks into the national spotlight.
And that meant Desmond was due to be paid big money in the near future.
The Nats recognized this, and in the kind of move they hadn’t really been in position to make with many homegrown players during their brief history, they made Desmond a sizeable extension offer: seven years, $107 million.
Desmond turned them down. Not because he had no interest in staying in D.C. long-term. He absolutely loved it here, making a real impact not only on the field but in the clubhouse and the community. But because he believed he was worth more than that, and he was willing to bet on himself and keep playing, understanding another season or two as an elite shortstop would net him an even bigger deal.
And when Desmond responded with another Silver Slugger performance in 2014, it appeared he knew what he was doing. He was a 28-year-old shortstop on a two-time division champion who was averaging 32 doubles, 23 homers, 81 RBIs and 22 stolen bases per season. Why wouldn’t that make him the prize of the free agent market following the 2015 season?
It didn’t, of course. That’s because Desmond picked the worst possible time to turn dismal at the plate and in the field: his walk year. He slogged his way to a .233/.290/.384 slash line in 2015, striking out 187 times and committing 27 errors.
His market collapsed. And because the Nationals had already decided to move on when they acquired their shortstop of the future the previous offseason, Desmond had no safety net. His time in Washington was done. And his career would never be the same.
Leaving us to pose one of the great unknown questions in Nats history: What if Desmond had accepted that initial $107 million offer?
The Nationals wouldn’t have been upset if he said yes at the time. They were fully committed to him, believed he should have been a franchise cornerstone for many years. But once he said no, they didn’t bother waiting around to see if he’d change his mind. They immediately looked elsewhere for a long-term replacement.
And that led to the best trade in club history. In mid-December 2014, the Padres and Rays were trying to work out a deal that would send power hitting outfielder Wil Myers from Tampa Bay to San Diego. But those two teams couldn’t make it work. The Rays wanted another big league outfielder to replace Myers.
So Mike Rizzo swooped in and saved the day. He offered Steven Souza Jr., a backup corner outfielder best known for making a diving catch to preserve Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter on the final day of the regular season, to Tampa Bay, along with minor-league lefty Travis Ott. The Rays sent Myers and three others to San Diego. The Padres sent three players to Tampa Bay, and then sent two prospects to the Nationals: Joe Ross and a player who wasn’t allowed to publicly be named yet but was immediately identified as Trea Turner.
At that moment, any hope of Desmond having a future in D.C. beyond 2015 vanished.
And after his subpar 2015 season, Desmond found the open market to be far less welcoming than he ever imagined it would be. As camps across Florida and Arizona opened, he remained unsigned.
Finally on Feb. 28, he accepted the best offer he could find: one year, $8 million from the Rangers. Not to play shortstop, but left field. It was a shockingly small contract for a player who only two years earlier had turned down $107 million for reasons that weren’t invalid at the time.
Desmond hoped he could re-establish his value in Texas. And to his credit, he put together a solid 2016 season (.285/.335/.446 with 29 doubles, 22 homers and 86 RBIs, earning the second All-Star selection of his career). And the following winter, he did get a long-term deal, though still not close to the Nationals’ offer he turned down: five years, $70 million from the Rockies.
It didn’t go well for him in Colorado. Injuries limited Desmond to only 95 games in 2017. And though he was healthy in both 2018 and 2019, his total numbers (.244/.308/.447) were pedestrian, especially for someone playing half his games at Coors Field.
Desmond actually hasn’t appeared in a game since then. He opted out of both the 2020 and 2021 seasons, citing both the pandemic and his desire to make more of a difference off the field in the wake of the nation’s reckoning with racial injustice during the summer of 2020. The Rockies then declined his $15 million option for 2022, leaving him currently unemployed as he waits to see when the current lockout ends.
If this is it for the 36-year-old Desmond, he’ll have enjoyed a solid career, though hardly the spectacular career he seemed to be on track to enjoy.
And he’ll forever be left wondering, like so many others, if things might have turned out differently if he had said yes to the Nationals’ offer back in 2014.