One of my favorite things about professional sports is that it allows us all to lose touch with reality. If McDonald’s started charging $10 for a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, there would be riots in the streets, and that is literally not an exaggeration (Also, “literally” is literally the most misused word in the English language). Think things in Los Angeles get dicey every time the Lakers win a championship, let Mickie D’s double the price of a Royal with Cheese and even Vin Scully wouldn’t be safe. On the other hand, the Dodgers’ payroll last year was an astounding $216M according to Cot’s Contracts, and to my knowledge no one was harmed. The reason: Other People’s Money or OPM for short.
Still, even though it’s not our money, baseball payrolls are in fact finite, so how much the Nationals spend on any given player will factor in to how much they can spend on other players which will factor into how insufferable we find Bob Carpenter. When the Nats are winning “serious jammage” and the eleventy billionth Dirks Bentley commercial that game are only mildly annoying, but when they’re losing and he tries to rewrite baseball’s vernacular with terms like “side-door” breaking ball little boys throughout D.C. and Virginia learn words they probably shouldn’t learn, from father’s who have heard enough of the vanilla stylings of Bob Carpenter. So as Ian Desmond approaches free agency, it’s worth while to ask the question: How much is he worth? and should the Nationals pay it?
The short answer to both questions is: a lot and probably.
This offseason, someone will probably pay Stephen Drew a ton of money despite the fact that in the last 3 years he’s been worth a whopping 4.6 rWAR over that span. Shortstops, like nearly all resources, find their value in simple supply and demand. When demand is high and supply is low, price increases. When supply is higher and demand is lower, price decreases. Omar Vizquel is a super awesome guy and the best shortstop I’ve ever played whiffle ball with, but he played until he was 45 years old. So obviously, supply is low and there remains at least 30 jobs in the United States and Canada for such individuals.
Still, the important question for the Nationals is just how much is Ian Desmond worth? Well, over the last two seasons the shortstops with more fWAR than Desmond would be….no one. Over the last two seasons Desmond has posted a total of 10.0 fWAR, the next closest shortstop isn’t necessarily a shortstop, Hanley Ramirez has posted 8.0 fWAR over the last two seasons, followed by Andrelton Simmons–who provides most of his value on defense–with 6.9 fWAR. Over the last two seasons, Ian Desmond has been, perhaps, the best shortstop in baseball.
So what’s that worth? In 2010, Troy Tulowitzki signed a 10 year contract that will pay him $157.75M over that time span, but he was 26 when he signed it, so it may be better to look at what the contract will pay him in his age 29 through 36 seasons, which is actually $145M or a little over $18M per season. Now, Desmond is a great player, but he probably doesn’t bring the same upside to the table that Tulo does, however he also doesn’t get hurt with the same propensity that Tulowitzki does either.
One of the other elite shortstops to sign a long term contract recently is Elvis Andrus, who is owed about $15M per season until 2023 (which makes me feel quite old just typing, perhaps I should go yell at some kids to get off my lawn, and it looks like we won’t even have flying cars by then, guffaw indeed). Unlike, Tulowitzki however, Andrus probably doesn’t offer the upside that Desmond does. Sure, he’s only entering his age 25 season and most players peak between 27 and 29, but Andrus has never even posted an OPS+ of 95, let alone a league average 100. Andrus is very good defensively and won’t kill a team on offense, but shortstops with great gloves and light sticks are not a terribly scarce resource. Sure they might not be quite as good as Andrus, but Brendan Ryan is perhaps the best defensive shortstop in baseball and he’s never made more than $3+M a year.
The thing is, both Tulowitzki and Andrus were relatively young when they signed their contract extensions, and while Desmond is still relatively young, he’s entering his age 28 season. When Jose Reyes was entering his age 29 season, he signed a six year $106M contract with the Marlins, which works out to a little over $17.6M a year. The thing is, not only is the supply for shortstops relatively limited within baseball, so is the supply for offensive power.
While Ian Desmond’s 45 homeruns over the last two seasons ranks first among shortstops, they also rank 40th in all of baseball. Desmond has out-homered power hitters like Billy Butler and Adrian Gonzalez so he provides not just power from the shortstop position, but legitimate power from any position. Not only, that , but it’s another scarce commodity in the form of right handed power, something else that is diminished throughout baseball.
Many people misunderstood–and continue to misunderstand–Michael Lewis‘ best-selling book “Moneyball” to be about advanced statistics, when it was really about exploiting market inefficiencies. When compared to similar elite shortstops in baseball, Ian Desmond stacks up quite well. Jose Reyes hit free agency at close to the same age that Ian Desmond will, but with a much more extensive injury history and no where near the power, albeit with somewhat similar defense and increased speed. If the Nationals can sign Desmond to a similar deal to the one that Reyes they should jump all over it knowing that they have locked up a player who provides a scarce skill-set at a scarce position.