Free-agent shortstop would provide boost for Tampa Bay in tough AL East
By Hal Bodley
Start with this: Shortstop Ian Desmond is coming off a very disappointing season with the Nationals, and he has been unable to obtain the mega-bucks contract he dreamed that he would get as a free agent.
Add this: It's a stretch, but signing the 30-year Desmond would be a tremendous public-relations gesture for the Rays, not to mention making them a better team in the rugged American League East for 2016.
As mentioned above, there's a lot of dreaming here.
That Desmond would be a nice acquisition for the Rays is not news. As recently as Thursday, MLB.com's Bill Chastain and Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times mused about what a nice fit Desmond would be for the low-budget Rays.
On another section front of the Times, there's a story about how Tampa and St. Petersburg are readying their pitches as a future home for the franchise, which is desperately in need of a state-of-the-art stadium to replace Tropicana Field.
It's important to point this out because principal owner Stu Sternberg has repeatedly said that it's unwise, if not impossible, to sign free agents at hefty sums given the Rays' current revenues. And unless Tampa Bay is able to get a "sweetheart" deal with Desmond, he falls into that category.
The Nats paid Desmond -- who turned down a seven-year, $107 million contract in 2014 -- $11 million last season. They gave him a qualifying offer of $15.8 million after the 2015 season, which he rejected. All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria, often considered the heart and soul of the Rays, is their top-paid player at $11.5 million. I can't picture Tampa Bay giving Desmond more than Longoria.
Desmond, who was the longest-tenured member of the Nationals (he signed when they were the Expos), has undoubtedly been unable to get the multiyear contract he desires because of his unimpressive 2015 season. He batted only .233 with 19 homers and 62 RBIs. Desmond remains an outstanding fielder, but his power numbers have gone down and his strikeouts have gone up, from 113 K's in 2012 to 187 in '15.
Over a seven-year career, Desmond has batted .264 with 110 homers and 432 RBIs. From 2012-14, he hit .275 while averaging 23 homers and 81 RBIs a year. Desmond is a three-time Silver Slugger Award winner and an All-Star.
The odds of the Rays signing Desmond are low: They're planning to open the season with Brad Miller at shortstop, but as the days before Spring Training dwindle, the chances increase that they could work out a deal with Desmond.
Maybe Sternberg & Co., who've been enormously creative in the past, can concoct a one-year deal, heavy with incentives, that would entice Desmond. That the Rays will lose a valuable Draft pick (13th overall) if they sign Desmond is another road block.
But as Topkin reports, Desmond, who grew up and lives just 35 miles from Tropicana Field in Sarasota, Fla., has indicated he'd like to play for Tampa Bay. He's represented by Sports One Athlete Management, the same agency manager Kevin Cash uses. He's also close friends with Rays outfielder Steven Souza Jr., a teammate of Desmond's with the Nationals in 2014.
If all the reports coming out of Washington are accurate, it seems unlikely Desmond will return to the Nats.
When the Nationals signed Mets postseason hero Daniel Murphy to play second base, that enabled Danny Espinosa to be their shortstop. And they have shortstop prospect Trea Turner waiting in the wings. They've obviously moved on from Desmond.
Aside from the Rays, the D-backs and White Sox seem to be the best fit for Desmond, who can also play other infield positions and maybe even the outfield. With the White Sox, he'd be their shortstop: They have Tyler Saladino listed at short, but Desmond would be an upgrade. They have their top Draft pick (10th overall) protected, and should the White Sox sign Desmond, they would forfeit only the 28th pick in the first round.
The D-backs are another landing spot, but with Nick Ahmed at shortstop, Desmond would probably have to be their second baseman, a position where young Chris Owings is penciled in for the moment.
And there's always the possibility a team with deep pockets might swoop in at the last minute and overwhelm Desmond.
Tampa Bay has been a model franchise when it comes to making the most of its Draft picks and young players. Based on that successful philosophy, it's difficult to imagine the Rays sacrificing their 13th overall pick to sign a free agent. On the other hand, Desmond would be just 45 minutes over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge from home to play at Tropicana Field. The comfort for him and his family might outweigh the dollars if he goes for an incentive-laden one-year contract. With an outstanding season, Desmond would be poised to go after the multiyear deal he desires, and Tampa Bay could get an additional high Draft pick if he leaves after 2016.
This just might be a win-win deal for both sides.
Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.