Earlier this morning, it was announced that former Washington National and Texas Ranger Ian Desmond had found a new home. It is probably not the one you expected:
This is our first real Mystery Team signing of the offseason. There are plenty of franchises who need center fielders and were thus linked to Desmond — the Orioles, Cardinals, Nationals, and Rangers have all been mentioned as potential landing spots. The Rockies were not, of course, and with good reason. Just take a look at their outfield depth and you’ll understand why. Between Carlos Gonzalez, Charlie Blackmon, David Dahl, Gerardo Parra and Raimel Tapia, you can make an easy argument that Colorado has one of the most talent-rich outfields in the majors.
So why sign Desmond? Well, apparently not to play the outfield:
For those asking .... yes the plan is to play Ian Desmond at 1B for #Rockies— Patrick Saunders (@psaundersdp) December 7, 2016
If that tweet made you do a double take, you’re not alone. It’s the weirdest part about this signing. Desmond wasn’t great in center field — both Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus had him as a minus defender in 2016, his first playing the outfield full-time — but unless you’re a Hanley Ramirez-level disaster out there, there is a lot of value in just being able to play the position competently.
So moving Desmond from one of the three truly vital defensive positions (C, SS, CF) to the spot on the field with the lowest talent threshold is clearly a strange move. While Desmond certainly doesn’t have to play first at all times — he can be moved around to rest other players — but first his primary responsibility seems like a strange use of perhaps Desmond’s best skill: versatility. It would not be a surprise to see his athleticism translate into some excellent defensive numbers for a first baseman, but even then it would be difficult to argue that Colorado is getting the most out of a unique player.
Of course, that is only focusing on Desmond’s new defensive responsibilities. When you play first base, you’re also expected to hit like a first baseman. The average first baseman hit .255/.334/.447 in 2016, good for a 108 wRC+. Desmond’s career slash line is .267/.316/.427 hitter, with a 101 wRC+. He may well exceed the production of an average first baseman next year, but he'll obviously be playing at Coors Field, which will inflate his numbers.
By sticking him at first, not only are you failing to take advantage of his versatility, you’re also asking him to hit at a level above what he’s shown to be capable of on a regular basis. Just twice has he exceeded a 108 wRC+ in his career. Steamer projects him for a 92 wRC+ in 2017. With Desmond, it’s not just going to be a question of whether you’re getting the average first baseman at the plate, it’s a question of whether you're getting an average hitter, period.
So what does it cost to get an athletic center fielder to come play first at Coors?
The Rockies give up the highest unprotected pick in next year's draft -- No. 11 overall -- to sign Ian Desmond. 5 years, $70 million.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 7, 2016
Ignoring all the concerns attached to the position shift we discussed above, five years and $70 million is a very fair price for what Desmond has provided in the past. If he’s a league-average player, that’s a fair contract. There’s even a club option at the end of the deal the Rockies can exercise if Desmond is still an effective player heading into his late-thirties.
Desmond breakdown $8M in 17 followed by $22M, $15M, $15M, $8M and 2022 club option $15M with $2M buyout #Rockies— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) December 7, 2016
What I don’t really understand is the Rockies’ willingness to give up the 11th pick in the draft — the highest pick you can possibly give up for signing a free agent — to, again, sign a guy you’re moving to the bottom of the defensive spectrum.
In 2013, new Angels director of baseball operations Andrew Ball wrote an article on this site determining the expected value of each draft pick through the first 100 picks. His research showed that players drafted 8-15 provided an average net value of $25.76 million. Of course, that was three years ago, so that figure has likely increased.
But just to give Desmond the benefit of the doubt (and because I can’t find any 2016 research on the subject), let’s say that $25.76-million number hasn’t changed in the last three years. That means Desmond not only has to be worth the cash Colorado is depositing into his bank account, but in order to justify this signing, he needs to exceed that value by over $25 million. Signing Desmond is much closer to a five-year, $100 million investment than the actual terms of his contract once you factor in the draft pick the Rockies are forfeiting.
Using an $8 million per WAR estimate, Desmond would have to be worth 12.5 wins over the course of his five years to justify the approximately $100 million Colorado committed to him this morning. That’s 2.5 WAR per season over the life of the contract.
Desmond has been worth an average of 3.7 wins over the last five seasons, using FanGraphs WAR, so it’s not out of the question he’ll be worth that. But then consider that he’s already 31 years old and — because this really bears repeating — spent those five years playing either shortstop or center field instead of first base, and you get back to our original question: What the hell are the Rockies thinking with this signing?
To me, the only way to justify this is if the Rockies make it the first in a series of moves. Shifting Desmond to first seems like you’re setting him up to fail. The Rockies clearly want to be good in 2017, and while adding just Desmond would help in that regard, stopping there would be a half-measure.
Claiming the Rockies’ purported desire to play Desmond at first is just a smokescreen for future transactions has already become a popular Twitter conspiracy theory. Perhaps the Rockies can move someone like Blackmon for pitching help. Maybe they can get in on the White Sox fire sale, targeting either Jose Abreu — who is, you know, a first baseman — or David Robertson to support their bullpen. Colorado is rich with hitters, and it’s a seller’s market with this free agent class. They can compete for a playoff spot if they use that hitting depth wisely.
Whatever that next move is, assuming there even is one, you hope that it will allow Desmond to make full use of his skill set elsewhere on the diamond. For the investment the Rockies just committed to, nothing else really makes sense.
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Joe Clarkin is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.