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?