It’s fall of 2013. Ian Desmond is 27 and is coming off his best year ever. He had hit 24 Home Runs, stolen 24 bases, carried a nice WAR of +3.6, and had two years remaining before Free Agency. The Nats wanted to sign Desmond to a long-term deal that would cover his first five years of Free Agency. That would give the team seven years of stability at Shortstop for the tidy sum of $107 million. Desmond rejected the deal signing instead a two-year extension for $17.5 million that a) avoided arbitration, and b) essentially guaranteed that he would be leaving the team after 2015.
The phrase often heard in conjunction with such a move is that the player is, “…gambling on himself.” The nature of Free Agency is that staying with the home team is usually associated with a discounted contract. The team takes the risk that the player will remain healthy. The player has security of remaining in a familiar setting. Turning down the “Team-friendly offer” means that the player will work the remaining term of his contract on an audition stage for the rest of baseball. Max Scherzer turned down $144 million only to make $210 million. Jayson Werth turned down a mid-year contract that was reportedly ranging from $48 million for 3-years to $66 million for 4-years from the Phillies to later get $126 million over 7 years. Gambling on oneself can work in a very big way.
Team-friendly contracts don’t always work out for the home teams. The Phillies are a recent example of long-term deals that went awry simply due to age. At the start of the 2015 season the Phillies were carrying $57 million in salaries for just three players. Ryan Howard was making $25 million and had clearly declined. At the end of the year his WAR was -1.4. Ryan still has two more years on that contract. The Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman contracts are worrisome. Werth will make $21 million for the next two years after coming off a decidedly down year. Zimmerman will make another $60 million, minimum before being buyout-ready in 2020. His injury-prone last two seasons are a cause for genuine concern. Making a long-term deal clearly carries risks for the home club.
Shortly after Desmond rejected the offer, in March of 2014 he said the following: “At the same time, there have been a lot of people that have come through this game that have sacrificed a lot for us, the players that are coming through now. I don’t want to sign a deal — and this isn’t to say they’ve offered me this — but I don’t want to sign a deal that is so bad that a future shortstop gets screwed because I signed a terrible deal. I’m not going to be that guy, that kink in the chain. I’m going to get a fair deal, or I’m just going to wait.” While his altruism was commendable, at the end of the day this is still business and a player is, in essence, an independent contractor. On the eve of the 2014 playoffs Orioles’ Shortstop JJ Hardy signed a 3-year deal worth $40 million. Hardy decided he’d better get it while the getting was good.
MLB Trade Rumors notes that only seven shortstops have commanded a three or more year deal since 2008. Jose Reyes got a six-year $106 million deal before the 2012 season. Jhonny Peralta inked a four-year $53 million deal before the 2014 season. Those work out to between $13 and $17 million per year. Desmond turned down $18 million per year for his
Fast-forward to fall of 2015. Desmond had a stinker of a year. His 27 error total was his worst ever. The “All-or-nothing” hitting approach produced 187 strikeouts. To get that in perspective, his strikeout total was equivalent to 19% of the Kansas City Royal team total for the year. His 3.6 WAR in 2013 was reduced to 2.0. Much of that was a salvage job late in the season. On June 30 his WAR was a -0.3. It was a brutal year. It was exactly what you don’t want when on the stage at an auction.
So, did Desmond gamble on himself and lose? One would think so based on the performance this year. But, Shortstops don’t grow on trees. Shortstops that hit 20 Home Runs every year are even rarer. There is a market for Desmond. How strong is it? That depends on the source. Baseball Essential gives a figure of four or five-years at $50 to $60 million. Jim Bowden on MLB radio gave a figure of four-years at $60 million. MLB Trade Rumors was the most optimistic giving Desmond a 5-year deal at $80 million. If that MLB Trade Rumor price were to actualize that would be a $10 million loss for Ian. It could well be more. We will have to see this play out.
— Joe DeMayo (@PSLToFlushing) November 7, 2015
How about the Nats? They didn’t sit still when Desmond rejected them. Obtaining Yunel Escobar and prospect Trea Turner in off-season trades the Nats have set the stage to replace Desmond at a fraction of the cost. Escobar will make $7 million in 2016. Turner received a $2.9 million signing bonus when drafted by the San Diego Padres. Details of his contract are not available. However, it’s a surety that the numbers are lower than Desmond’s. Additionally, budding pitcher Joe Ross came to the Nats in that Turner deal. In essence the Nats have traded Desmond for Turner and Ross. It’s a deal that looks promising.
So, how does this all work out in the end? It’s too early to tell. It could be that Desmond gets a comparable offer to the one he turned down. Then he goes off and plays well for the five full years. Or he could lose many millions of dollars. His effectiveness going forward is in question based on a dismal “Walk Year.” The rest of this story has not unfolded.