Nationals Baseball: Ian Desmond and the future

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ian Desmond and the future

We'll get back to the Braves Nats when it's 5.0 games... maybe 5.5. For now let's talk about Ian Desmond

Last night Kilgore noted  Ian was three steals away from his third straight 20SB/20HR season. It's true and it helps explain why Ian Desmond is a key piece to the Nats future... potentially.  He's a steady presence of power (and speed) in a position that doesn't lend itself to power. In the past 3 years Ian has hit 66 homers. The next best SS (Hanley) hit 56, the 5th best (Rollins) hit 46, and by the time you get to the 10th best you are talking about SS with half the homer power of Ian. He's a unique player and young enough that it's not too hard to expect he'd be near the top of this list for another 3 years. He hasn't signed long term yet but he seems to like it here, the fans want him here, and the Nats really need a SS because their minors is lacking in the MI dept. There's one problem.  Well two problems really.

The first problem is that Ian will be disproportionately expensive to sign, meaning you will get less from him than would be expected given how much you are paying him.  This is a problem contenders often face. To go from bad to ok isn't expensive, to go from good to great is. Teams need to get a little better, or reduce the variability of performance a little, but there aren't many places to do that if you are already good. So they spend more money than would theoretically be necessary in order to make this improvement. Usually it's the "3 years, 15 mill for a reliever!?" situation, but some long-term player signings fit the bill as well.

The Lerners haven't shown much interest in these kinds of signings. The good news for Ian is that both times when they have done it, it's been with position players (Werth and Zimm). The bad news for Ian is that so far those haven't worked out great. Werth has been worth it the past two years, but robbed the Nats in those first two and has got three more years in his late 30s at even more money. Zimmerman was doing well at 3rd base even though he never got back to star status, but injuries and arm troubles make the team worried that they'll be paying 14 mill a year for a part-time LF.  Of course neither of these are a surprise for someone who follows a perennial contender. You sign a long term deal with the idea that you are paying for the first half of the contract. The back half is lost money you hope to luck into. It's a terrible way to run a business but as a way to get results? It works, if you can afford it. The Lerners can definitely afford it but considering they just placed a bean-counter high up in the organization, they used the phrase "topped out" earlier in the year... well you get the idea.

The second problem is that Ian is declining. The K% which ticked up last year, has made a full jump this season. He's always been prone to the K, his former rates would put him around the top 25% of all players, but he was saved by the jump in his power. That made him an very good hitter despite being a bit strikeout prone (and not much of a walker).  Now though with this big increase (he's 7th in the majors) the average has dropped accordingly and his power can't keep him a very good hitter. He's merely ok overall. He has seen his walk rate go up but not nearly enough to help.

What's going on? Something kind of scary. He's not really swinging at more bad pitchers. He's always been a bit of a free-swinger and his swing % out of the zone has been worse than what we see this year. The problem is he's having a problem making contact when he does swing. The number of swinging strikes is on the rise and the contact rates are all dropping. So it doesn't seem to be a recognition issue. He sees inside and outside the zone as he has before. He just can't hit the balls. Is it the pitch type he's seeing? Maybe. He is seeing more curves and less changes but there isn't a single pitch you can pick out and say "oh he's always hit that" or "he's never hit that" since 2012. So... I don't know.

Homework assignment : find out if this contact rate drop at this age is telling of a greater problem or not. If it's something that gets worse then Ian is a few years from being done. The average will drop enough that he will no longer be a positive at the plate (unless he can magically start walking a ton or hitting even more homers). If it stabilizes... well Ian should probably be fine for a while. There's no reason he can't hit 20-25 homers for the next 3-5 years and that's enough to make him a good hitting SS. If he doesn't lose range in a hurry that's worth a deal. Or maybe, just maybe, it's often a blip. Something that corrects itself and leaves Ian able to be that very good hitter he was before. I'm not betting on that, but you gotta leave that option open.

 The Nats undersold Ian with their 6/90 deal before the season. That was too little for a top defensive shortstop who was arguably the best offensive player at his position, 28 years old or not. But after this year? 6/90 sounds about right. That's a lot of money but for a reliable fielding SS who can hit 20+ homers a year? It's fair.  To give Ian more would be betting on a reversal. 

I'll be interested to see where this goes in the offseason. A re-offer by the Nats should be taken by Ian. He's not the player he was post-2013. Will the Nats offer that though? They undersold last year, so perhaps they come at Ian with 5/65 now? If they do that they put Ian in a similar situation as last year. It's not close to what he can get on the open market. However, going into 2015 he'd be coming off a year where he potentially cost himself money by not signing. Would he make that same bet on himself again?


Section 220 said...

Some of Ian's comments (e.g., not wanting to be the guy who takes a below-market deal and sets other shortstops back; not needing a lot of money beyond $17.5 million) make me think he will have no problem rolling the dice and betting on himself. I suspect he'd like to stay here, but that he's not willing to do the billionaires any big favors to make that happen, and as you point out, the Lerners may not feel that paying market rate has worked out so great for them. I don't think Ian's position is unreasonable, if I'm right on my totally tea leaf based mind reading, but that would probably mean he leaves.

Wally said...

I think that your analysis is spot on. As a fan, I like Desmond as much or more than any other Nat, but for these contracts the team has to be coldly pragmatic about it.

These kinds of conversations always come down to how 'much/how long' for me. Desi ends next season at 30; if it takes more than 5 years to sign him at that point, I'd pass. I'd probably go 5/$90m if they include next year. Anything in between gets me nervous but I might do it.

If I was a GM, my mind would tell me to only sign 5+ years for guys still in their arb years (or maybe said differently, not beyond someone's early decline years 32ish) (Rendon/Ramos/Harper), and I'd go short term for over 30 guys to fill needs. Don't know if I'd have the guts to actually do it.

Miles Treacy said...

I've seen some articles that speculate a trade with the Cubs this offseason for Castro with the Cubs recent surplus of SS. Castro will be a lot cheaper than Desmond and under control through 2020 potentially. What do you think the Nats would need to give up for something like this? I'd like to see Desi stay, but the Werth and Zimm contracts make it tough to add another $100+ contract on the books. Damn you, Reyes and Tulo!!!

Vdub said...

Thinking outside the box... maybe Rizzo tries to trade Desmond this offseason and resign Cabrera to a 2-3 year deal with an option year? Then he could pick up ALR's option year and try to squeeze one more 3B year out of Zim, with Rendon back at 2nd?

Obviously Rendon makes the most sense at 3B, but with so much money tied up in Zim, it is hard to imagine them not keeping him at 3rd a little while longer. Not to mention if he is not hurt you really want his bat in the lineup.

Zimmerman11 said...

The. Last. Expo.

Will be a sad day if he doesn't re-up in DC.

Shame on the Lerners for pretending to run this like a business when truthfully the tax breaks, etc are surley lining their family's pockets even further.

"Beyond Tapped Out" is a clown comment, bro. It's a joke. I hope it's just negotiation wrt the TV rights deal/MASN and that when they get resolution on that, they'll start acting like they want to win. But letting the talent go instead of paying them will be like deja vu all over again... and I'm not going to continue to root for a team like that doesn't take winning seriously.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing wrong with Desmond's swing that cutting down on it with 2 strikes wouldn't cure. The batting coach needs to make it clear to Desmond that a looping single to right is better than a strikeout. As for his signing, the Nats need to get it done. No baseball team wins without a strong middle, (catcher, shortstop and centerfielder). Right now the Nats have all 3 covered with Ramos, Desmond, and Span.

Bjd1207 said...

On the contract topic, I agree with most of the contributors so far. And I think I posted it on a thread a couple weeks ago. He's gonna be expensive, but you gotta pay it. Luckily this year should make him more amenable to the deals offered from the organization. And I think Rizzo respects him and see his value clearly enough that he won't low-ball him too bad. Given his slight downturn this year things look much more agreeable from both sides.

On his production, one interesting thing to note is that his Z-swing% is almost exactly in line with career averages. Almost his entire drop in contact has come on pitches outside the zone. That, coupled with his maintained ISO numbers, batted ball profile, and overall BABIP tells me there's nothing necessarily mechanically wrong (or drastically different) with his swing. This both encourages and discourages me. It's encouraging because this is absolutely the type of problem that's fixable through approach/pitch recognition. The numbers that typically indicate age-decline are holding true. It's discouraging however, as pitch recognition and plate discipline have never been Ian's strong suit, and I don't know that its fair to expect a significant change this late into his career.

Harper said...

sec 220 - I lean toward him signing but I agree that he'll bet on himself. I just think the Nats won't have any other option though maybe...(see VBdub comment)

Wally - generally you want to avoid beyond 35, maybe abandoning ship on slow power guys and catcher a little earlier (then again - LaRoche) Desmond's an odd duck with his power at SS. He'll probably age harshly at the plate (meaning watch out after 32) but ok in the field (might be a playable SS through 35). 5 years would be good, I'd go 6 if I had to but the money would have to be fair, not favoring him. 7 PAST next year would be a non-starter.

Miles - funny thing is - everyone sees this and everyone wants Castro. Cubs could also shift him to 2nd so really they are at a huge advantage. It'll take a good pitcher to pry him away. Cole is a maybe, not because that's not fair (it kinda is - Castro isn't perfect) but because they may be able to get better.

VDub - that's not crazy. Cabrera is not Desmond. He does not have his power or speed and is a little worse in the field. But he's Desmonds age - will probably be an average SS for the next few years and could be gotten cheap. 3/20? My guess is though if he performs well enough he'll try for a better deal elsewhere. 4/30 would be possible I'm sure. Still that's a big savings on Desmond so maybe you match...

It's certainly one way out - he plays 2nd next year shifts over when you let Desi walk. But you are getting worse in the exchange so you better get better elsewhere or else you are just saving $.

z11 - not quite yet but possibly. (probably).

You can't shame the Lerners yet. Yet. They've put the money necessary to get them to this point. Now to move them beyond or keep them here? Either is more expensive. We'll see.

Wally said...

Here is a different slant on Desi (and more); I am not advocating it (necessarily), but offering it for consideration. What if the Nats collapse down the stretch? Fall to the wildcard game (and lose) or miss the playoffs altogether?

Would you blow things up dramatically? Would you conclude that this group of players in this window can't get it done, and retool for the next one?

When you look at the players who can leave within the next 1-2 years, quite a few have good to excellent trade value: JZimm, Stras, Fister, Span, Clip, Storen, Ramos, Desi.

They are stuck with Werth and RZim, and they would keep Rendon, Harper, Roark, Gio. Maybe they pick one of the SPs to extend at market prices (call it JZimm), and one of the position players (say Ramos), and trade everyone else this offseason. Maybe take a little step back in 2015 with the idea to create a new window starting in 2016?

Zimmerman11 said...


There aren't any good prospects left, Theo already traded for all of them, LOL!

JE34 said...

@Anon - There is nothing wrong with Desmond's swing that cutting down on it with 2 strikes wouldn't cure. The batting coach needs to make it clear to Desmond that a looping single to right is better than a strikeout.

YES! Cannot agree more with this. When he jumps out of his shoes, swinging as hard as he can, when the situation calls for shortening up and poking a ball to the right side, I wonder aloud, "Is he not coachable, or are the coaches not coaching?" There are times when Desi looks like Pedro Cerrano trying to hit the curveball.

That said, who doesn't get giddy when Desi is up with the bases loaded? He knows he's getting a strike, and he is lights-out awesome when the bases are full. Like Pedro Cerrano hitting fastballs.

I'd be much more inclined to pay him big dollars if his BA with 2 strikes on him improved a lot.

John C. said...

Zim11, JE34, I don't disagree with the theory of Desmond cutting down on his swing and taking the ball to right field. The only problem is that he is bloody awful at doing it. For two seasons Riggleman tried to get Desmond to hit like a middle infielder, cutting down on his swing and taknig the ball to right field. The result was not only less power, but a lower batting average and OBP. Desmond only got his OPS over .700 (!) after Davey showed up in camp and basically said "what, are you nuts? Eff that. You're a power hitter. Swing hard."

I'm not saying it wouldn't be nice if he could do it. Based on past results, I'm just pretty sure the attempt wouldn't be helpful.

Froggy said...

"We'll get back to the Braves when it's 5.0 games....".

Maybe my math is wrong, but if we drop 3 more games we are suddenly talking about Wildcard berths instead of the division. Maybe we hold off on the championship t-shirt design until after this road trip.