Nationals Baseball: The Ian Desmond Situation

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Ian Desmond Situation

Barry Svrluga, author of 'The Grind' soon to be released in paperback - makes a great Easter gift!,  wrote a column yesterday about Ian Desmond and why he hasn't signed. It's a good piece so read it.

In the column we get the why but we don't get the nitty-gritty. It's easy enough to say "draft pick compensation" is the reason, because it is, but does that reason even make sense?

The equation - as far as performance on the field - is simple. What will Ian Desmond bring to the team and when versus what a draft pick will bring to a team and when? The projections aren't kind to Ian, given how terrible he was last year. Let's look at what is probably the low-end and give him a projection that has him giving a team ~6 WAR over the next 4 years. That's not very good. Clearly a draft pick would be better than that, right?


Even looking at high draft picks and that low a bar your chances of getting better production from a draft pick than from Ian is worse than a coin flip. For those at the bottom of the first round it's hardly better than a roll of the dice. Don't believe me?

Here are the drafts. Figure a few years to get to the majors so let's start in 2012 and go back five years.... 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.

There's a lot more nothing in these things than even average MLB players. So there's a better than even chance the player you draft ends up giving you nothing and hey - even if they do give you something it's at least a good 3 years away. NOTHING on the field says a draft pick is better than signing Ian for anyone competing today or tomorrow really.

Well that's Ian's problem #1. A lot of teams, like half the National League really, are not competing for today or tomorrow, they are competing for some time down the road. They have no use for a player like Ian because they don't care about production for the next few years. But that's not all the teams - what is it about for the rest of them? Money.

Let's say you hate Ian and you project him to give you that 1.5 WAR a year for four years. Let's say you also have a draft pick 16-20 and you project on average for him to give you .5 WAR a year. That's worse. But Ian costs you 10 million dollars for each of those four years, and the draft pick costs you maybe 500K each. 40 million for 6 WAR vs 2 million for 2? It's not even close what is the better deal.

In theory the better deal can help you spend more money on better players down the road, but it's not about the hypothetical. It's about the reality. Draft picks are excellent bargains when they pan out. So much so that if what you care about is value than it is silly to give them up for a FA signing unless you can get a good deal, or perhaps you plan to sign multiple FAs (you lose another draft pick but 2nd round picks have garbage chances at being good helping spread that lost value among more deals)

Wait though - didn't the other QO decliners all get signed? Well yes. But...
  • Three players (Gordon, Iwakuma, Kendrick) re-signed with original teams meaning no draft pick loss. 
  • Three teams signed more than one (O's, Tigers, Cubs), spreading out the value loss among seven players. 
  • Two teams (Tigers and Marlins) had protected first round picks that couldn't be lost and it cost them a 2nd round pick instead. 
  • The Cubs pick was so low, 28th, to be more comparable to a 2nd round pick.
So only four signings really, not 15, were really of the "give up decent draft pick for a single player" variety. 

Normally it may be enough to only have a handful of teams (these four teams, D-Backs, Royals, Giants and the Nationals, and let's add the O's, Tigers, and Cubs) ready to spend money on FAs but this was a particularly deep class that highlighted the compensation issue that had been only touched on before.

It was supposed to work out because some teams were supposed to put winning ahead of value. But the system is suffering because too many teams in a given year make value the driving factor in their business model. That sounds like a good idea. Rebuild smartly, get good young players, compete and when ready sign a few good free agents. Except... aren't all those other teams not competing this year doing that? And it's not like the teams that aren't giving up on 2016 are going to fade away to nothing. This isn't any smarter strategy for winning than what was done before. It's a smarter strategy for not losing a lot of money when you don't win.

Where does this leave Ian? A player that can help you win today but costs a lot and worse yet loses you that potential value down the road? Waiting for the clock to run out on that value question hanging around his neck or hoping for a team that has already made a signing to just go ahead and pick him up. Come on O's... you know you want to.


Zimmerman11 said...

He's a player w/o a home... fitting for the last Expo :( He fire his agent yet? Someone will pick him up in June, right?

Richard Parker said...

I understand why, but I still think it' ridiculous the Nats wouldn't pick him back up at a bargain. I think last year was an anomaly and he's got plenty of pop left that bat.

Richard Parker said...

I understand why, but I still think it' ridiculous the Nats wouldn't pick him back up at a bargain. I think last year was an anomaly and he's got plenty of pop left in that bat.

Harper said...

RP - it's quite possible Ian doesn't want to go back. Even if the Nats offer a decent 1 year deal there's a decent chance a good contract is waiting for him... after the draft from another team.

Matt said...

Just a stupid guess, but I wonder if the holdup is that Desmond doesn't want to sign the type of contract which teams are offering.

Harper -- I'm not sure it gets much better after the draft pick goes away, since if we think he's "worth" 2.5 wins next year at $8 million per win, by waiting half the season a signing team gives up roughly $10 million worth of production, which is probably about the value of the draft pick.

Anonymous said...

You know what? I'm getting kind of tired of all the whiny media apologias on Desmond's behalf. Because frankly, he doesn't deserve them. He's just not all that special. He gambled on himself and lost, big time. That's life; happens to guys all the time. And he would still be a multimillionaire even if he never played another inning.

The gap between his opinion of himself and reality was simply too big, even by pro athlete standards.

Jay said...

I'll say that Ian seems like a great guy. I wish he had signed the extension the Nats were offering. Having said that. What they offered was pretty much at market value. He could have been a Nat for life. He said he didn't want to ruin it for other players coming up to the majors by taking a "lower offer". Unfortunately, it seems likely he will never make that money back.

I still think the Nats should sign him for a year or even multi-year with an opt out next year. I worry that both Rizzo and Ian have sort of dug in and would not consider it. I also think he could possibly end up in colorado where breaking balls don't break. That would be a great fit for him. It's also a lousy team and really a lousy organization that hasn't come close to winning in a long time.

Final thought. I have mentioned this before but I really hate the Orioles and Angelos now. They've spent the most money in the MLB on free agents this offseason, but MASN (I know they are separate but owned by Angelos) can't "afford" to pay the Nats a even semi-legitimate regional sports fee.

Old Man River said...

I think Ian is a quality professional in that way he carries himself. I'll miss that. However, I won't miss him whiffing on low-and-away sliders, him swinging for the fences no matter what the situation/count, booting ground balls, and watching him get in his own way mentally. I'm excited about his replacement.

You really never can predict how a player will do in his do-or-die contract year. Most all athletes won't back down from the challenge of an agent saying, "well if you play even better than last year, you'll get way more that your current team's extension offer." It's in their nature. But shame on Ian and his agent for not knowing his mental state and what they can handle pressure-wise. Pretty sure they could have just asked any knowledgeable fan how he handles those situations. For his sake - he clearly should have taken the Nat's extension. For our sake - thank Jesus, Mary & Joseph he didn't.

Ric said...

Not signing the multi-year deal two years ago. Not agreeing to the QO.

In a vacuum, both those decisions made sense.

But man, I feel like Desmond just sailed into the perfect storm this offseason. I really feel for the guy.

Bjd1207 said...

I wouldn't say I'm part of the Ian Desmond pity party by any means, I definitely he made calculated decisions that just didn't work out in his favor so there's no love lost there. But another factor is that he's missing out on his Spring Training and development time at this point. We saw first-hand last year how true to the "100 ABs" rule can be. If he misses most of Spring Training waiting for a deal, he'll have a slow start and everybody will be slamming him right out of the gate. If he has to try and find his form mid-season, signing after the draft, then he could be in for a very rough season.

Completely unrelated thought. I was reading the mlb article on Bryce and his relative "weakness" on pitches low and inside. As I was skimming through fangraph data, I realized how silly it is that we don't split pitch-type numbers by L/R by default. Max Scherzers slider and Clayton Kershaws slider would both show up under a hitters "SL" column, but those pitches break the opposite way from each other...seems like we should be categorizing based on the direction the pitches break (putting Strasburg's changeup and Kershaw's slider in roughly the same category, breaking down and in on a righty) or at the very least split the categories into lefty-sliders, righty-sliders, and so on.

blovy8 said...

Bjd makes a good point about his being ready to help a team - he'd have that dreaded several week period where he wouldn't hit on top of throwing the ball into the stands if that's an early thing rather than an April thing.

Did you consider his trade value, Harper? If you sign him to a short-term year deal where he's only getting 10-12 million a year, if he proves to be more like his old self, and regaining his silver slugger form, he will either have tons of trade value by July that should get you at least some of the value of that pick back or will be giving you 10 million in value for the deal pretty easily. If it's only the one year, you could get the QA pick again or a solid SS for 16 million who, again, has trade value if he's good. For a team like the White Sox - it allows them to hedge their bets. If they're contending and he's helping they can keep him while their SS prospect Tim Anderson proves he belongs, or they can flip Anderson for what they're lacking. In the offseason, their inventory is better at a cost they can easily afford, perhaps someone can be converted to another position, etc. But you are assured of a major league player as you say at a fairly low risk. If the White Sox still stink, and Desmond's good, they can trade him for prospects that are closer to the majors than a draft pick. It only doesn't work if they want to blow their team up and really need picks, my guess is there should be more urgency than that with Sale and Quintana fronting their rotation in their prime. I wonder what the rule is for a free agent signed mid-season - it seems like a team couldn't do a sign and trade, but I'm not sure.

Harper said...

Matt - it gets better, because I think he'll get a multi-year deal. Now if I'm wrong about that then you're right about this

Anon - I'm not apologizing for Desmond. Worst case scenario is he plays baseball and is not as rich. I'm bothered by a system that doesn't put the onus on winning but value. Ian is just the poster boy for it today.

Jay - my guess is even if they wanted to Nats don't have payroll flexibility. I'm curious if moves like Cespedes would have created counter moves (like dealing Pap for nothing to dump salary).

To be fair to O's they are willing to pay what would be fee agreed upon by most common method (or at least this is what they say). MLB/Nats are trying to squeeze more. Not that what the Nats are doing is illegal, but the O's have what amounts to high road here. If the Nats wanted to screw with Os they should agree to Bortz now. O's case folds and stuck with high payroll.

OMR - Eh, you can't even really say he choked it away because of pressure. Look at his 2nd half - even more pressure - results more in line with past years. He had a bad half, probably because he's beginning his decline. He just had it a year early for him.

Ric - Feel for him all the way until he signs something like 3 yrs / 27 mill with a mutual option in May and you realize he's making 30 million on top of what he has. Then shrug your shoulders for him.

BJD1207 - problem is sample size. He saw 2700 pitches last year. about 15% were sliders so... 405 sliders. About 29% of his PAs were against LHP but lets say they throw more sliders to LHB so 35%.... so we're dealing with 140 or so pitches. We have a hard enough time pulling stuff from 2700 pitches. 140?

I'm sure the data is out thre is you want it though. Have to break it down from like Brooks baseball data.

blovy8 - I would worry about his fielding. His hitting not so much. He'll be streaky one way or another.

His trade value would be pretty high in what you say - that's mostly what I'm expecting to as far as a deal goes. 8-12 a year, 3-4 years.

One thing I think teams shouldn't worry about is blocking prospects. Too many good players is not a problem, just something you need to work around. Too few is the problem.

John C. said...

Desmond's goal should be to re-establish himself as a top level MLB player (as he was legitimately from 2012-14). Not playing doesn't do that - strike one against waiting until after the draft in June. As others have pointed out, waiting also means that Desmond would be coming in cold against players that are in midseason form, meaning that for some period of time he'd be disadvantaged. Another bad way to re-establish oneself. Strike two. Finally, there's the little problem (also mentioned by others) that Desmond tends to get off to slow starts anyway - particularly defensively. And that's a terrible way to rebuild your value.

OTOH, if he waits until after the season has started to sign, then he can't be hit with another QO after the season even if he returns to his full 2012 glory. That's to his benefit, but betting on himself didn't exactly go well last year. And that same fact also wipes out one of the incentives for the team signing him. A team with a protected 2015 pick could actually view Desmond as a potential means of getting a player on the cheap and getting a better draft pick if Desmond plays well enough to put himself back into range for a qualifying offer. Punt a second round pick, get Desmond on the cheap, he plays well and signs after a QO next year that comes between the first and second round. Free upgrade! But act now, because this isn't available once the season starts. So if Desmond isn't signed by Opening Day, he's not likely to sign with anyone (other than the Nationals) until after the draft.

John C. said...

To be fair to O's they are willing to pay what would be fee agreed upon by most common method (or at least this is what they say). MLB/Nats are trying to squeeze more. Not that what the Nats are doing is illegal, but the O's have what amounts to high road here.

But the O's do not have the high road, at least not on the methodology. Yes, that's what the O's/MASN are contending. But as pointed out by the court in the MASN case, the problem with MASN's argument is not only that the MASN agreement doesn't require any specific methodology for establishing the rights fees, but that MASN produced no evidence at all in the proceeding to establish that the so-called "Bortz Methodology" is in fact the industry standard.

Ironically (and to me hilariously), because of this even in the (very) unlikely event that MASN manages to get the arbitration taken away from MLB and to a third party panel on COI grounds, that third party panel may well end up making a higher rights fee award to the Nationals than the one that the MLB's RSDC panel made and MASN subsequently litigated to block. To me Angelos is simply playing for time to try to compel the Nationals to do what MLB did in the first place - cave to a bad deal. The Lerners have deep enough pockets and enough motivation that I'd be surprised if that happened.

Francis P said...

Fowler signing with the Cubs for a one-year deal gives Desmond a precedent to do the same thing with the Nationals.

Harper said...

John C - we've played out this disagreement before. I think they left the methodology question open - the phrasing of the decision seemed to be "We're not interpreting if Bortz may be established or not, because you didn't give us something hard and fast. Given that, we can take anything that seems remotely reasonable and the deal on the table passes that test" Meaning that IF the O's could prove Bortz is used every time then they could use it. Of course I'm no lawyer and honestly I doubt they can prove it because even one example would probably undermine the whole thing.

However, I'm thinking about the general sense. If Bortz is used in most cases (and no one has disagreed with that statement) then what the O's are asking for seems more than reasonable. Hence the "high road" but....

The more I think about this the more "Bortz" feels like a red herring, just another thing they could throw out there along with every other reason they did. Like you say I think even Bortz could end up giving the Nats around the same or more as the initial decision. That's why I think they seem hung up on one piece of the methodology that ensures a level of profit. I think that's noted over and over so if Bortz is used and does give the Nats something like 60+ million then they can sue over that factoid. The end game isn't getting Bortz used, it's delaying the process until TV rights come down. We all think they will at some point but it still hasn't happened.

John C. said...

Except that the Cubs had a clear need in CF, and so making an $8M commitment (with a $5M buyout of a mutual option making it a $13M minimum) makes sense for them - that way they can leave Heyward in RF. The Nationals, OTOH, have many options at SS. With 1b (Zimmerman), 2b (Murphy) and 3b (Rendon) penciled in, the Nats have a
conga line of Turner, Espinosa, Drew and Difo lined up at SS.

What can the Nats promise Desmond? The chance to battle for a starting job? RH bat off of the bench? I know that Desmond offered to play other positions, but I think that he meant as a starter, not as a swing man off of the bench. Signing Desmond also creates the risk that the team leaves perhaps its best option, both short- and long-term, (Turner) in AAA all season.

John C. said...

About Bortz, the court said:

(1) The MASN agreement doesn't require the use of any specific methodology, and given the deference due to arbitration awards the proper legal standard is that if the panel decision has any barely colorable justification it is upheld as a matter of law. The panel decision cleared that with flying colors (the judge went out of his way to praise the work of the panel in reaching the award). AND
(2) Even if you take the argument that the panel should have used an industry standard argument, MASN failed to show any basis for concluding that the BM was in fact the industry standard.

The judge's decision is fascinating. He really seemed annoyed with MLB and Proskauer for not addressing the COI concern even with some sort of token gesture. He made it clear that any sort of basic gesture at all would have led to a slam dunk decision to uphold the award - he even listed a whole bunch of different options well short of the Nationals simply getting new counsel - and said that even that list was by no means exhaustive. Because other than that point, he spent most of his time ranking on the MASN arguments. So after spending all of his time tossing out various MASN arguments, MASN still ended up the nominal "winner" based solely on the COI.

OK, I found the decision fascinating. But then again, I am a lawyer. I'm sure y'all are shocked :D

Francis P said...

John C., I have a question : which is likely to yield the quickest, best result for the Nats, 1) the cross-appeal of the Court's decision on the COI issue, OR 2) the request for another MLB panel and a restart of the process ? As I understand it, the Nats are doing both.

Harper said...

JC - Yes but why even bring up #2? If #1 was enough than point two not only becomes superfluous but potentially confusing. It could be that the judge was just speaking off the cuff, but I believe he was leaving it open. If you can prove Bortz was established then we can get into argument of what was meant in agreement - established overall or established specifically in the agreement. You still may lose that argument but we can have it. With what's hear - no we can't even have it. At least that's how I'd argue it if I were the O's and had clear proof Bortz was established.

John C. said...

At least that's how I'd argue it if I were the O's and had clear proof Bortz was established

The problem with this is that it assumes the conclusion - that the O's have clear proof that Bortz was established. When the O's do not have clear proof that Bortz was established. And that's not my opinion, your opinion, MLB's opinion or the Nats' opinion. That's the finding of the trial court/finder of fact. It's very hard to get such a finding overturned.

Francis, the appeals process is the shortest result, but arguably a different route produces the best result for the Nats. It's not the Nats that have cross-appealed the trial court's decision on the COI issue, it's MLB (at least in part because they are protecting their process). The appeal is the shortest route to resolution, because if MLB wins then the original RSDC award is confirmed, game over.

The Nats are pursuing a different, somewhat parallel course. What they have done is to retain new legal counsel (thus addressing the COI issue per the trial court's decision) and filed a motion with the trial court to compel the O's/MASN to come back to the RSDC (as currently constituted - membership has changed since the previous award). The argument is that they are seeking to compel the O's/MASN to live by the process that they agreed to in the original MASN contract. My guess is that this motion will be granted, but then immediately stayed pending the outcome of the various appeals. What this would do is to speed the process if the trial court decision is upheld in toto (i.e., both MASN and MLB lose on their appeals). It also puts in play a pretty good chance that the Nationals ultimately win a larger rights fee for the 2012-16 period. This is quite likely if it gets that far, because as I understand it the original panel decision was made based on very conservative assumptions about where the RSN market is going - assumptions that have been overtaken by events. The motion also has the effect of increasing the pressure on MASN/O's to settle.

John C. said...

And FWIW I don't doubt that the O's would try to bring a subsequent RSDC panel award back to court. The problem is that, as unlikely as their win was in the original round of litigation, their chances in the next round would be reduced to essentially nil. They'd run into the principle of res judicata on all of their grounds for appealing the original order (process fouls, COI, methodology, etc) and would have to come up with brand new bases for overturning the award. That's about as likely as it was that I would hit a dinger and win my seats for a year at the "sing for your seats" event. For the record, I hit a line drive to left field. In a couple of years, it will be a one hopper to the wall ;)

Harper said...

JC - It doesn't assume the conclusion. Clearly stating I have no idea. "If" I were the O's and "if" I had clear proof.

I'd say the finding was the Os didn't PRESENT clear proof that Bortz was established. Now of course the logical assumption is that they don't have it, because they most likely presented all that they could. But they also threw everything that they had at the wall to see what would stick. I leave open the possibility that they could read this, reevaluate how they presented the Bortz argument (as opposed to hear are a handful of cases where it was used which seems like how they did it the first time), and present a stronger case for it. Possibly. Maybe. That's all I'm saying. There is a door potentially left open here and IF the O's can walk through it, they MIGHT. That level of proof may not exist because Bortz isn't established in that way. It could be established but they could not find that level of proof. It might be established and they could put it together but they could take that level of proof and run into someone like you that says "Nah, I think they covered that last time" so it could not be used again. It might be established and they could put it together ahnd they could be allowed to bring it up, and still lose because the next judgement could unequivocally state - doesn't matter, the agreement didn't say "use Bortz".

This isn't an opinion on the facts of the finding. It's an opinion on the reading of the judgment.

SM said...

John C.--Wow. Your exchange has me feeling like I'm reading an abridged version of Bleak House. I'm left with the curious sensation of being simultaneously edified and dismayed.

Incidentally, in 10 years your line drive will be a bullet off the top of the wall.