I’ve posted thousands of comments over the years. This is my first article.
Much of the commentary following Ian Desmond’s reported deal with the Rangers depicts him as motivated primarily, or solely, by “greed”. Others depict him and his advisers as the village idiots for turning down not one but two deals better than the one year and $8 million reported Sunday. Some even see it as a little of both: a classic comeuppance from the baseball gods for acting as a greedy fool. It’s easy to jump on those bandwagons; the narratives are well-worn and it requires little thought to simply toss them about as some sort of truism.
Jim Bowden on Ian Desmond's deal: "I have NEVER seen a worse contract. Ever." https://t.co/OvOS0myzdU
— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) February 28, 2016
Is the explanation really that simple, or is there nuance to this? I submit that this is not simple at all… which does require a discussion that is not simplistic… or short.
Let’s start with some ground upon which I think most everyone can agree: Desmond would like a do-over. Whether going back to the Nats extension offer (widely reported to cover 2 arbitration years and 5 free agent years: thus, 7 years total and something like $107 million) or to the $15.8 million Qualifying Offer (“QO”) made last fall. He’s now getting a lot less guaranteed money and is looking at the added uncertainty of a position change to boot. No question, at this point, it hasn’t turned out at all well.
Extravagances aside, let’s also agree that no one making tens of millions of dollars (Desmond reportedly had made about $23 million playing baseball through 2015) truly “needs” more for himself and his family. “I decline X million dollars because I believe someone else will pay me more” is the scenario, right? And it is easy to draw the inference that anybody making that much money and wanting more must be motivated by greed.
All that said, the appearances alone aren’t, in my view, sufficient to address these central questions: first, is “greed” the motivator for Ian Desmond (and free agent baseball players generally), and second, if not greed, what does motivate a player to make decisions in free agency? Let’s start with that word: greed. Most definitions read something like “A selfish and excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves, especially with respect to material wealth.” Think Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, hoarding his gold coins while disdaining all fun and kindness. Or more contemporarily, Smaug from The Hobbit, hoarding his gold coins and raining fire on all who enter Erebor. But what the definitions say to me is that greed is wanting more only for the sake of having more.
Let’s look at an example: why did Clayton Kershaw want to be paid more per year than Justin Verlander? Or David Price over Kershaw? Or Zack Grienke over Price? When you are making that much, are the relatively few extra dollars the thing (wow; did I just characterize one to three million dollars as “relatively few”? Yes, “relatively” being the key word), or is there something else at work? I have yet to hear a player say anything close to “I can’t live on [however many million the other guy is making]; I need more to put food on the table” with a straight face. Nope, for most significant free agents it’s something like “I just want to be recognized for my value.” Which, not coincidentally, is often just a little more than some “other guy” to which the player compares himself. For me, this translates as “Feed my ego” and/or “Treat me fairly based on my comparables.” Importantly for me, this is not “I want more money for the sake of having more money.” I think a lack of greed is shown in some players who have charitable foundations, others who build sports facilities for their college, high school, Little League, or country, and so forth: they have so much, many honestly can’t conceive of how to spend it, especially before it gets taxed away, and instead find ways to give it away.
And then there are the players themselves. Do you think the MLBPA tells players “do whatever you want”? Or are they counseling “don’t take too little” for fear of depressing the comparables other players can use in their free agent negotiations? For me, there is no doubt that peer pressure is a factor.
What I would argue is that many, maybe even most, view “more money” as an indicator of something else. Ian Desmond is a proud man. By all accounts, he is a good man, a charitable man, a good family man. And competitive as all get-out. Does it make the most sense that this Ian Desmond, already a multi-millionaire, cares more than anything else about more money for money’s sake? Or is it just possible that what he really wants to hear (metaphorically) is “tell me you love me more than Elvis Andrus or Jhonny Peralta; tell me I’m more valuable than Troy Tulowitzki or Jose Reyes”?
Which brings us back around to that stupidity thing. If you look at Desmond’s decisions today, from a purely economic perspective, it sure looks like he overestimated his value. Of course, we do have the benefit of hindsight in being able to say that.
Let’s go back to 2014 and play GM for a minute: first, let’s fix the “value of a win” on the free agent market at the low end of the generally-accepted range and call it $6 million per win. In a long-term-contract-in-2014 scenario, viewing Desmond as the 3.5-4.0 win player he was at that time, his value as a free agent would look like this: $21-24 million per year for 2016-2018 (ages 30-32), decreasing by half a win, and thus $3 million, per year after age 32. For a 5 year contract, through age 34, that is in the range of $96-111 million. For a 6 year contract, through age 35, we are looking at $108-126 million. By all accounts, the Nats 2014 offer was well under that, and more so if we move the “value of a win” to the midrange number of $7 million.
Moving to the “what about the Qualifying Offer” scenario: after the 2015 season in which he was only a 2 win player, Desmond was nominally worth $12-14 million for 2016, less than the QO of $15.8 million. How could he turn that down? If we are following the standard player decline model, that money is per year for 2016 through 2018. If he could get even a 3 year deal for a total of $36-42 million, that would be far more guaranteed money than the QO. Given that choice, don’t you still decline the QO?
Bottom line: monetarily, if things don’t go totally off the rails, at every turn Desmond could expect to earn more than the Nats offered; maybe a lot more. Non-monetarily, he wanted to have his ego stroked, to feel valued, to feel confident around his peers, and/or to help out the next generation of free agents. In that light, I’d argue that his decisions were economically reasonable and served a variety of non-economic goals, some of which were his and some of which served a broader good. No “greed” per se needed to understand it.
Unfortunately for Ian, the teams with a need at shortstop weren’t high revenue and went cheap: and that, as they say, is baseball.