Ian Desmond and the Cost of Doing Business

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I imagine that the merriest of holidays for Ian Desmond would have included Mike Rizzo calling Christmas Day and offering him one of those 6-year for 106 million dollar deals like Jose Reyes signed in 2012 with a little extra added for inflation, say 110 million. Desmond and agent Doug Rogalski make out better than the 7-year/107 million dollar deal they turned down last offseason and Desmond remains with the only franchise he’s ever known. Maybe. Maybe he’s looking for an average salary similar to Hanley Ramirez’s 22 million.

Aren’t we all?

It’s difficult to not side with Desmond here. He’s the sort of guy traditionalists love because he hits home runs and steals bases. Advanced statistics place him as either the best or third best shortstop in all of baseball since 2012. The only NL shortstops that are close to his value are Troy Tulowitzki and Jhonny Peralta. Next year, when he becomes a free agent, he’ll be competing with Jimmy Rollins and Ben Zobrist (who plays about everywhere) for dollar bills and shortstop needy teams like the Dodgers (Rollins’ current employer) and the Mets (if they ever decide shortstop is a priority) ready to pounce. What if the Yankees call it quits after one year of Didi Gregorius hitting .220?

This is a dream setup for Desmond, right? Dollar bills will be raining from the sky.

It won’t be raining in D.C., most likely. Apparently the team needs to re-sign one or two starting pitchers after next season; owes Jayson Werth 21 million through 2017, Ryan Zimmerman at least 76 million through 2020; and Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper a couple of blank checks come 2017 and 2019. Let’s just say the idea of paying Desmond around 18-20 million a year into his mid-30s probably isn’t on Rizzo’s To Do list. Sometimes you have to pinch pennies. Sometimes you trade for a cheaper alternative like Trea Turner and hope scouting reports and potential replace the genuine artifact.

At this point, would the Nationals even still offer a 5-year/90 million dollar deal comparable to the last five years of the deal Desmond rejected? While reasonable, 18 million a year would place Desmond as the highest paid shortstop in baseball when you consider Hanley Ramirez will be an outfielder. If Rizzo loses his mind and overpays a middle infielder for his declining years he could always seek a trade for Robinson Cano.

Barring a hometown discount, the Nats best option is to sit this one out and let the market dictate the price of a 30-year old shortstop. The Nats make a qualifying offer, maybe get an extra year of Desmond at 15-16 million, and at worst receive second-round draft pick in the 2016 draft, a place Rizzo has done quite well. Otherwise, the Nats will be paying premium dollars for Desmond’s inevitable decline.

How much?

Dismissing the notion of what teams will be bidding for Desmond’s services—really, we’re going to project what the Dodgers and Yankees will do next offseason now?—how much is Desmond worth on the open market? If we use Matt Swartz’s calculations from Hardball Times (from March of 2014), the cost of purchasing a win on the open market typically comes in around 6.5-7.5 million per. That’s not how much players receive, mind, but how much it costs a team after factoring in decline and reduced production based on age, performance, etc.

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At that kind of cost, assuming Desmond were to provide an average season of 3.6 bWAR similar to his last three seasons, GMs would be handing the tattooed shortstop anywhere between 23 to 27 million a year. Now we’re talking. Desmond would be a fool to sign for chump change like the previously rejected extension. Rizzo brings that kind of offer to the table? An insult.

Of course, no GM in his right mind would offer Desmond over 23 million a year. Paying that much for a borderline All-Star is offering to pay Tesla prices for a Honda Accord. Championship parties are thrown because of guys like Desmond, but that doesn’t mean you pony up top dollar for the invite.

Desmond isn’t merely a win shares accumulating machine, however. He’s muscle and hustle at a position of slick-gloved ball hawks. Desmond has hit 20+ home runs three straight seasons, the only shortstop in the Majors to do so. In all of Major League history, there have only been 12 other men to have more seasons hitting 20 or more homers, and while most of those names play currently (think Tulowitzki and Hanley and Peralta) not a one of them is going to simultaneously steal 20 or more bases and slug 20 homers unless Rollins finds the fountain of youth hidden at Chavez Ravine. Only Rollins and Hanley have produced more 20/20 seasons at shortstop (four each) and only Desmond is going to be a threat to do that in next year’s free agent group.

Why a guy like Hanley received 22 million a year is that his upside is that of an MVP talent. That’s not Desmond. He has power and speed and a solid if unspectacular glove, but he’s way down on the ballot at his best. There’s nothing wrong with that. As far as shortstops, he’s one of the best, and if he receives an offer in the Reyes contract stratosphere he should jump. My guess is that he’s just south of that neighborhood, sitting around 15-16 a year. Things like qualifying offers and draft pick compensation tend to drive down prices.

I don’t know the Nationals plans going forward, and I haven’t the foggiest what Rizzo wants to pay, but at this point, even the 5-year/89.5 million that would consist of Desmond’s actual free agent years sounds like wishful thinking.

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