Let's dive right into the deep end. Ian Desmond is up for free agency after this year. He turned down a rather large contract supposedly 7/107* to test the waters and since those numbers have been recently made public it's fair to think that that is the starting point. At that price fans are pretty divided on whether to keep Ian or not. Even I, who run season simulations through my computer brain as I have powered down for the night, am not clear on what the Nats should do. Let's see if we can talk through this.
The "sign" side argument is as follows. Ian is one of the top shortstops in the majors. Even in an "off" year like 2014 he was still an All-Star. He fields well and provides power in a position where any pop is at a premium. He isn't old, is durable and more importantly is here. The FA market is weak and the minors present no obvious replacement.
The "walk" side argument is also strong. Ian is at an age where we start to see skills fade. This feels more true for the skills that Ian possesses. Last year was probably the first in a string of diminishing returns. In a couple of years the difference between Ian and a rando FA couple be about 1 win and 20 million dollars. The Nats have remained a top team without making a lot of big money signings and frankly the ones they have made have had questionable results.
Let's review the easiest points. "Sign" first.
Ian is one of the top shortstops in the majors and an All-Star in his off year.
If you believe in WAR then this is easily proven. 2.5 wins better over past 3 years than any other SS (and 3 year intervals are good intervals to compare WAR), 2nd in the majors last year. If you don't, offensively I can throw any number of numbers that would back it up; OPS, isoSLG, wRC. Basically he's the been the best offensive SS not named Tulo (who's injured all the time) or HanRam (who should be learning 3B). Defensively he's not elite, but looking at the 3 year range, his range is solid enough to complement his bat.
He fields well...
Like I said - he's been a good fielder the past 3 years, a bit iffy with the errors, but good range.
...and provides pop at a position where that's a premium.
.188 isoSLG past 3 years, where average in majors is around .115. Oddly enough all the top SS power wise (1-7 with a split year for #5 Asdrubal) played in the NL last year. Just mentioning it.
He isn't old...
This is debatable. He's 29 now but turned it late in the season so he's "29" for 2015. That's not old but it's closing in. What isn't debatable is the fact that among top SSs he's young. Only Alcides Escobar was younger and in the Top 9 for SSs in WAR last year, and I'd say the average age of the other Top guys is about 3 years older.
Ian had an injury in 2012 that limited him to 130 games, other wise he's played at least 154 games since 2010. SSs as a whole have been pretty durable so it's not the best it the majors but it's undeniably durable.
The FA market is weak...
While things could change the best available non-Desmond SSs the next few years will be Alexi Ramirez after this season and Erick Aybar after next.
and the minors present no obvious replacement.
The Nats have high hopes for Wilmer Difo, who did put up a .315/.360/470 line in the minors. But it was Low-A and he was 22 so we can't really hang a hat on this guy. After that there might be a decent bat in Rookie ball in Andres Martinez but that's rookie ball. That's it. And don't forget the Nats need a 2B too and things are even bleaker there with slap hitting Tony Renda (.758 OPS - age 23 High A) being the best bet for future help. But before you get too excited for either remember Lombo put up an .820 OPS in AA at age 22. Bleak.
Ian is at an age where we start to see skills fade
Yep. Here is some general age curve information. Hardball Times. Beyond the Box Score. If you don't like fancy stats it's backed up by common sense. We all get older. Things aren't as easy.
Last year was probably the first in a string of diminishing returns.
We talked mostly about 3yr intervals because that's the fairest way to judge performance that includes fielding. But if we look just as last year it's easier to pick out what didn't start to slide than what did from 2012-2013. Average down, isoSLG down, K-rate up, range down. We can expect some fluctuation but there's no reason to expect Ian to defy aging any more than anyone else.
The Nats have remained a top team without making a lot of big money
signings and frankly the ones they have made have had questionable
I hope I don't have to explain the first part. As for the big money signings the Nats did make. Werth has been a mixed bag. Terrible at first, then when healthy better than expected, but it seems pretty safe to say now that he's both losing pop and can't play in the OF which could make the last 3 years of this contract a drag. Zimm can't stay healthy and his arm has moved him off of 3B which was a good part of his value. I'd say if given the chance the Nats would definitely not sign Zimm again and Werth, well you probably sign him up to this point but there's 3 more years to push it to "not sign". The point is neither of these things say "Oh yeah. Good idea. Keep doing this"
Ok we're at the point where we get into the things that are harder to prove. Are Ian's skills more susceptible to fading with age? If so, what kind of difference will there be between him and an average SS replacement. The usual WAR fade out is about 1/2 win per year. That would give Ian 4-5 years before any Joe off the street could replace him. Given that you probably give him the money-eating year or two of bad play on the back end. But if his skills were more susceptible to fading then you have to speed up that time frame and signing him becomes a bigger question mark.
Do SSs age rough?
Probably. Which makes sense given it's the position that most relies on a combination of jump and speed. (more time to react in CF makes it slightly more forgiving) You can probably see an elite SS doing well all the way until his mid 30s. Ian isn't elite though and his range did drop a bunch last year. My guess is last years big drop was a SSS fluke but he'll probably age out of when he should be playing the position by 32/33.
Does Power age poorly?
There is some thought yes. It's not really a strength thing though. Basically if you don't make a lot of good contact and identify your pitches well, age will help pitchers work your weaknesses and that'll diminsh your power.
This is where I worry about Ian.
His contact rate is plummeting. from 81.5% in 2011 to 78.2% to 75.3% to 72.1% last year. His swinging strike rate goes up and up (8.2% to 11.8% to 12.4% to 13.8%). Why? He can't cover the plate like he used to. Here's Ian in 2012
He swung at missed at pitches out of the zone but made decent contact otherwise. You certainly couldn't get away with a mistake here. 2013?
The percentages jump and his coverage area shrinks. It's especially of note that he's losing the top of the strike zone so completely. That's where you hit FBs. 2014?
You can beat him down the middle now.
I took a look at his isoSLG by location too and this is what I'll say looking a the the three years in transition. In his breakout 2012 year he was a guy that could hurt you from anywhere except low and away. He especially would turn on and punish inside pitches. By 2014, he was a mistake hitter. He'd crush middle of the plate oopsies, but could be blown away and is having big issues catching up to balls inside and/or up.
His contact rate is pretty good on balls middle and low especially where he can extend but as you'd might expect those are GB areas of the plate. As expected his GB rate jumps back up to pre-breakout numbers. From 43.4% last year to 50.1% this year. So he's not less powerful (HR/FB is fine) but he can't hit as many FBs because he can't turn on those high pitches.
Sure the walk rate is up, but that happens as you age. Part of it is being comfortable at the plate but part of it is not being good enough to hit your way on anymore. You take more close pitches. You walk more. This latter explanation jives with what I see with Ian. He's taking more pitches outside the zone (O-Swing % down from 37.5% in 2012 to 35.6% to 34.6% last year), but he's taking more inside as well (72.8% to 70.2% to 68.6%)
This type of decling continues and Ian would be only a win better than Joe Q Shortstop by 2017.
Does speed age poorly?
Yes for SB threats. But it's likely that speedy guys don't really fall off a cliff thanks to declining speed until later - like late 30s.
And here lies the crux of the Ian argument. For the next couple years Ian will be worth whatever you pay him. He'll play decent SS and he'll still hit for power 20+ HR power, something you can't get from most SSs. If that alone is worth a long contract to you, by all means sign him, but it's not that way for me. It's likely 3-4 years from now that pop will be gone and he'll have to move off of SS.
It's here we hit the divergent road. One path sees Ian taking his speed and embracing a 2B/3B way of life. These guys age much better than pure HR hitters. This would extend the usefulness of his strength. Shift over to 2B where range is slightly less an issue and you could squeeze out 5+ years of usefulness from Ian. The other path sees Ian not adjusting and becoming a swing and miss 15-20 HR guy hitting .230 and no longer walking because no one needs to anymore. Unable to move off of SS because of only marginally better options and no willingness to he's a suck on the Nats for the back half of a 7 year deal.
Where do I fall? I do think those first two years are very important and I think he can transition to a 2B/3B hitter because he was that type of player before in 2010/2011. If he can keep that walk rate right about where it is now and a couple more decent years at SS and you get that 1/2 win per year decline and I think you can get 4 good years out of him. I suppose a big part of this gamble is the fact he suprised me before. I didn't think he would bust out and he did. Why can't he do it again?
So I think if you can sign him for something like 6/120, including his last arb year he's scheduled to get 11 mill for, the Nats should do it. Anything longer and you risk getting too much nothing. No 7th year (6 years past 2015). This assumes Nats are going for consistent contender status. If the plan is to say... let Clip/ZNN/Fister/Ramos/Storen all get away over the next 2 years, well Ian's gotta be part of that too. A big part of this value is what he'll return in 2015-2017. If you aren't buying into the last two of those years then you aren't buying into Ian.
*Of course that's buying out two arbitration years. Really the contract was probably something like 13/14/16/16/16/16/16 for a FA deal of 5/80. Looking at it that way you can see better why it was turned down. Barring collapse, he'll get more than that.