In 2012, Ian Desmond broke out in a big way. After showing middling power in his first two full seasons, Desmond led all shortstops with 25 HR despite playing just 130 games. In 2013, he solidified his position as one of the best shortstops in the game, going 20-20 for a second straight season. By pairing his elite bat with speed and solid defense, Desmond accumulated 9.5 fWAR over the two seasons, the most of any player at his position over that span and nearly 1.9 fWAR more than the next closest, Hanley Ramirez.
That offseason, the Nationals signed Desmond to a 2-year, $17.5 million extension that covered his two remaining arbitration years. But they reportedly wanted to lock him up for much longer, offering an additional $89.5 million over his first 5 free agent seasons. This would have made it a 7-year, $107 million extension, though it was also reported to include deferred money. Desmond didn't bite. Mike Rizzo can probably thank Jon Daniels for that.
When Elvis Andrus signed his $120 million, 8-year extension in April of 2013, he was in the position Ian Desmond would find himself the following offseason. Like Desmond, Andrus had two years left before free agency, but that's probably where the comparison ends as their paths -- and profiles -- could hardly have been more different. Andrus established himself as a slick fielding shortstop and a burner on the basepaths when he broke into the league at 20 years of age. Actually, his success rate was so poor after his first season that he may be better described as a slick fielding shortstop to whom Ron Washington gave the green light a little too often. Either way, Andrus wasted no time making himself valuable to the Rangers and put up 13.2 fWAR in four seasons prior to his extension.
Desmond, on the other hand, didn't reach the majors until he was 23. He established himself as a regular the next season but didn't break out until 2012, when he was 26. Incidentally, that's how old Elvis Andrus is today. Desmond also had a dramatically different skill set, possessing the rare pairing of power and speed. While he did not equal Andrus' fWAR through four seasons of service time, he contributed more during his peak years.
Compare each player's fourth full season. Desmond and Andrus stole the same number of bases, but Desmond did it with 10% greater efficiency while hitting 17 more home runs. Despite the age difference, Desmond was in line to get paid, and instead of taking the Elvis Andrus-lite extension, he set his sights on free agency.
Things went according to plan in 2014 as Desmond posted his third consecutive season 20-20 season. He was just the 4th shortstop to accomplish the feat three times and joined Alex Rodriguez and Hanley Ramirez as the only shortstops to do it in three consecutive seasons. However, below the surface, troubling trends were beginning to churn.
Desmond's strikeout rate jumped from 22 percent -- where it had sat the previous three years -- up to 28 percent. Not awful for a slugging shortstop, but a steep increase nonetheless. His infield fly ball rate also jumped from 9 percent all the way up to 13 percent. Still, putting together above average offense, defense ,and baserunning made him an attractive piece at a coveted position.
Now fast forward to present day and it's all come crashing down. Half the season is in the bag and on the eve of free agency, Desmond has never been worse. His strikeout rate has held steady at 27 percent, but his walk rate has tumbled to a meager 5 percent. Pitchers know it and are challenging him with a first-strike rate (72 percent) that leads all qualified hitters.
So what's happened? Desmond's batted ball profile has changed this season. He's continued to hit too many infield fly balls while also hitting more grounders (53 percent) and fewer line drives (15 percent) than ever before. This, combined with a career low rate of hard hit balls (27 percent) and bad defense has resulted in a season to forget. It seems almost certain that Desmond has lost some money in free agency, but will he have left money on the table?
This offseason, SBNation's Marc Normandin speculated that Desmond could command $20 million over 6 years. possibly more. Now that contract seems rich for a 30-year-old shortstop coming off what has been a sub-replacement level season to date, but by how much?
According to MLB Trade Rumors, only 7 shortstops have been good enough to land a contract of three or more years, which Desmond will still undoubtedly be offered, on the open market since 2008. Jose Reyes -- who was much better and younger but whose hamstrings possessed the elasticity of sun-dried plastic -- signed the largest deal at 6 years and $106 million before the 2012 season. Jhonny Peralta was 31 and coming off a solid but PED-suspension shortened season when the Cardinals surprised everyone by signing him to a 4-year, $53 million contract prior to 2014.
Shortstops with Desmond's track record just don't hit free agency very often, so despite his awful season, Ian Desmond will still get paid. But will he get $89.5 million over 5 years? The more I roll it over, the more that seems like the perfect contract, should his season hold its course. If Desmond signs the same contract he turned down but without the deferred money, he would come out slightly ahead, but only after assuming considerably more risk than warranted by the return. One thing seems certain -- when he signs in free agency, it won't be with the Nationals. That money (and much more) has been earmarked for Max Scherzer. So far, that money has been well spent.
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Matt Jackson is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score and a staff writer for Royals Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacksontaigu.