Contract-year struggles, slow market for shortstops have hurt his prospects as a free agent
By Andrew Simon
Heading into his contract year, there was plenty of reason for Ian Desmond to feel optimistic about his upcoming free agency. After all, he had won three consecutive National League Silver Slugger Awards at shortstop, topping 20 home runs, 20 stolen bases and 4.0 WAR (according to FanGraphs) in each season.
Sure, the numbers held a few concerning signs, but nothing that suggested the dramatic dropoff Desmond endured in 2015. It was a downturn that came at the worst possible time, and one that almost certainly has a significant hand in Desmond's current situation. More than two months into the offseason, he still hasn't found a team, and his dwindling list of options took a hit with the Padres reportedly agreeing to a deal with Alexei Ramirez.
So what went wrong for Desmond, both during the season and on the free-agent market? Why does Statcast™ paint a somewhat rosier picture than the traditional statistics? And where might he go from here?
Meanwhile, Desmond got such a nice headstart from 2012-14 that he still leads all shortstops with 15.1 WAR over the past four seasons, according to FanGraphs.
But, no, 2015 did not go well for Desmond. Prior to the All-Star break, he committed 20 errors and batted .211/.255/.334, and although he recovered well in the second half, it wasn't enough to save his overall numbers.
While Desmond's stats actually have -- in some ways -- declined for three straight seasons, the fall got much steeper in his contract year.
From 2012-14, Desmond averaged 4.5 WAR, with a .326 on-base percentage, .462 slugging slugging percentage and 116 wRC+. In '15, he collected 1.7 WAR, with a .290 OBP, .384 slugging and 83 wRC+. Between those two periods, his strikeout rate shot up (23.8 percent to 29.2 percent) along with his ground-ball rate (46.9 percent to 53.4 percent), while he saw declines in line-drive rate (19.5 percent to 15.6 percent) and batting average on balls in play (.332 to .307).
While 2015 certainly looked ugly for Desmond, there are some reasons for clubs to view the glass as half-full.
Desmond notched a career-high 5.5 baserunning runs above average, per FanGraphs, and overcame the early errors to finish at roughly average defensively, according to Defensive Runs Saved (1) and Ultimate Zone Rating (-3.7). His second-half batting line (.262/.331/.446 with 12 homers) was roughly in line with his 2012-14 output.
Then there's Statcast™, which measured Desmond's average exit velocity at 91.9 mph, or 36th-highest among 246 players who had at least 200 balls in play tracked (Exit velocity correlates well with success at the plate). Desmond ranked even better (20th) with a 4.1 mph average generated exit velocity, which subtracts the velocity of the pitch from the exit velocity.
Weighted On Base Average (wOBA) is an advanced stat for measuring a player's overall offensive production. Out of the top 40 hitters in average generated exit velocity, Desmond's .294 wOBA was the second-lowest, which suggests some bad luck was at play.
In terms of power, Desmond slammed eight home runs that eclipsed a projected distance of 425 feet. In terms of arm strength, his 35 throws of 85-plus mph were third among shortstops. And in terms of running, he was one of 52 players to reach the 21-mph mark on the bases at least nine times.
The marketplace problem
Besides his 2015 numbers, a few things likely have been working against Desmond. First, he turned 30 in September. Second, he declined the Nationals' qualifying offer, meaning many teams would have to forfeit their top pick in the 2016 Draft to sign him.
Meanwhile, few teams had a clear need for a shortstop this winter. Even fewer were clubs looking to win now, who also have the resources to pursue Desmond.
Meanwhile, a horde of extremely talented young shortstops has entered the game recently and plugged holes for several teams for the foreseeable future, including Xander Bogaerts (Red Sox), Carlos Correa (Astros), Francisco Lindor (Indians), Addison Russell (Cubs) and Corey Seager (Dodgers). Desmond's old team, the Nats, potentially acquired their long-term replacement last winter, when they traded for prospect Trea Turner.
Where does he land?
After declining Ramirez's club option, the White Sox appear set to go with 26-year-old Tyler Saladino, who hit .225/.267/.335 over 68 games as a rookie in 2015, while playing mostly third base. As a bonus, the Sox's first-round pick is protected, so they wouldn't lose it for signing Desmond. This looks to be the most sensible destination.
There have been rumblings about Desmond's willingness to spend time at other positions, such as third base, second base and the outfield. Even so, it's difficult to pinpoint many other great fits.
The D-backs look like contenders now, already lost their first-round pick for signing Zack Greinke and didn't get a ton of offense from their infield last year, aside from Paul Goldschmidt. Most of their options at second, third and short are young and relatively unproven, especially with the bat.
The Tigers are suited to win now, and Desmond would cost only a third-round pick since they already gave up their second rounder to sign Jordan Zimmermann. He could provide insurance in case shortstop Jose Iglesias is injured or third baseman Nick Castellanos fails to take a step forward in his third full season, and he also could serve as a right-handed option in left field.
One thing that could shake up the situation would be if Desmond becomes open to the idea of taking a one-year deal and trying again next offseason. That could bring in more teams willing to take a chance on a player with a lot of question marks.
Andrew Simon is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.