Ian Desmond Loses $100 Million, Shows Danger of Betting on MLB Free Agency

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 29, 2016

Sep 28, 2015; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond (20) in the dugout during the game between the Washington Nationals and the Cincinnati Reds at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Ian Desmond is now $8 million richer. Were he a normal person, that would be worthy of a pat on the back and an "Attaboy!"

But because Desmond is a fallen baseball star who could have been over $100 million richer a couple of years ago, all anyone can say is, "Tough break, man."

For anyone who wasn't paying attention, Desmond's extended stay on the free-agent market following a disappointing 2015 season finally came to an end Sunday morning. As Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports first reported, the 30-year-old shortstop signed with the Texas Rangers for one year and $8 million.

Whoops. Sorry. That should read "former shortstop." Though Desmond has played all but seven of his 920 career games in the majors at shortstop, he'll play left field for the Rangers. They signed him not to take over for Elvis Andrus, but to fill in for the eternally banged-up Josh Hamilton.

"This is a new chapter," the former Washington Nationals star said Monday morning, per Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News. "And I'm going to embrace the challenge."

Though Desmond may not be kicking himself outwardly, it's easy to assume he's doing so inwardly. On some level, he must know he just became a living warning about the dark side of free agency.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

As Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post reported in November 2014, Desmond could have made himself a very rich man in between the 2013 and 2014 seasons. The Nationals offered him a seven-year, $107 million contract extension that would have made him one of the highest-paid shortstops in baseball.

But Desmond turned it down. And even in retrospect, it's hard to blame him for doing so.

Because Washington's offer would have included the two-year, $17.5 million deal Desmond had already signed to cover his final arbitration years, it was realistically an offer to buy out five free-agent years for $89.5 million. There was also deferred money involved, which made that number less attractive.

At the time, Desmond could look beyond Washington's borders and see the nearly $160 million extension Troy Tulowitzki signed in Colorado and the $120 million extension Andrus signed in Texas. Knowing that, he had every right to feel underwhelmed.

After all, Desmond had posted an .812 OPS across 2012 and 2013 while reaching 20 homers and 20 stolen bases each year. One defensive metric rated him above average, and he was easily the best shortstop in baseball, according to FanGraphs WAR:

Top Shortstops by fWAR: 2012-2013
1Ian DesmondNationals9.4
2Hanley RamirezMarlins/Dodgers7.6
3Elvis AndrusRangers6.7
4Jimmy RollinsPhillies6.3
5Jose ReyesMarlins/Blue Jays6.2

Had Desmond been a younger player making the MLB minimum with a long stretch of club control still ahead of him, it would have been a no-brainer to take the Nationals' offer. But at 28 and with only two years to go until free agency, he rejected Washington's offer to pursue an even bigger payday—a decision virtually every player in his position would have made.

While turning down the offer may have been easy, the hard part was always going to be keeping up the performance that motivated Washington to present it in the first place.

And so begins the story of Desmond's downfall. He regressed offensively in 2014, as his .743 OPS qualified him as only a slightly above-average hitter. That begat an all-around regression in 2015, as he OPS'd just .674 and struggled with consistency on defense.

What happened? James Wagner and Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post wrote Sunday that Desmond seemed to let the pressure get to him. Between a bad strikeout habit that got considerably worse and a problem with errors that came back with a vengeance after quieting down for a couple of years, that's easy to believe.

The good news, such as it was, is that Desmond regained his confidence and saved face with a .777 OPS and better defense in the second half of 2015. Pair that with a widespread need for offense at shortstop, and he spurned a qualifying offer in November that would have paid him $15.8 million in 2016. It must have seemed like an obvious choice. 

And it wasn't just Desmond who figured as much. Jon Heyman, then with CBS Sports, predicted he would find a six-year, $90 million deal. Had Desmond been able to, refusing Washington's extension offer would have been no harm, no foul.

But it was too good to be true.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

If Desmond was guilty of anything in rejecting Washington's extension offer, it was overestimating his margin for error. 

Dave Cameron of FanGraphs noticed a couple of years ago that there has recently been a steep decline in the percentage of payroll allocated to MLB players in their 30s. This appears to be a reaction to how poorly players have aged in the post-PED era, and Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated wrote that it's especially apparent in free agency.

Baseball is in an age when teams are better off focusing their attention and their money on younger players, and not just the ones who are already established.

Teams have all the incentive in the world to collect as many draft picks as possible, which doesn't help players who are given qualifying offers. As soon as they say "No thanks," they're attached to draft-pick compensation. And as we've seen many times over the last four years, teams are generally hesitant to deal with players attached to draft-pick compensation.

Of course, there's still lots of money to be made in free agency. Teams spent roughly $2.5 billion on free agents this offseason—and not all on players who had momentum going into free agency. Jordan Zimmermann, Jeff Samardzija and Ian Kennedy were all paid well despite being tied to draft-pick compensation and despite not having great seasons in 2015.

But at the same time, those three didn't do nearly as well as they likely would have if they had performed better in 2015. And if one supbar season hurt them, it's no wonder two subpar seasons hurt Desmond considerably more. At a time when teams are hesitant to give up draft picks and hesitant to pay for players in their declining years, Desmond might as well have morphed into a giant red flag.

Now that his saga is over, there's no ignoring the distressing message that was sent to players who might find themselves in his shoes. If they're going to bet on their own ability, they better make sure they win.

If they don't, free agency won't be forgiving.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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