Ian Desmond's Comeback All-Star Season Earning Back Big Bucks Lost in 2015

Seth Gruen@SethGruenFeatured ColumnistJuly 22, 2016

Texas Rangers outfielder Ian Desmond is enjoying a comeback season.
Texas Rangers outfielder Ian Desmond is enjoying a comeback season.John Froschauer/Associated Press

An underwhelming 2015 season left Texas Rangers star Ian Desmond in need of reinventing himself.

Like Apple on the brink of bankruptcy in the late 1990s or Taylor Swift transitioning from country singer to mainstream pop star, Desmond’s brand was due for a seismic change when he entered free agency this past offseason.

So the lifelong shortstop went into full marketing mode. In an interview with Bleacher Report Saturday, Desmond said his camp went to the Texas Rangers and told them he was capable of playing in the outfield. At the time, Desmond had played only 7.1 MLB innings in right field.

But the Rangers took a chance, believing in his athleticism. It paid off: Texas (55-41) sits atop the AL West, in large part due to a career year from Desmond.

Desmond has proved to be an elite outfielder. That, combined with his .319/.372/.535 line this season, has him poised to sign a megadeal when he re-enters free agency this coming offseason.

“That was kind of like the whole thing: I would be willing to move positions for a contending team or a team that I felt like had a shortstop that was better than me at short,” Desmond said of the position change. “So whatever I had to do to get to a contending team, I was going to do.”

Elvis Andrus was already firmly entrenched as Texas’ shortstop. So any hope Desmond had of latching onto the roster was at another position.

For the first time in his career, Ian Desmond is playing outfield.
For the first time in his career, Ian Desmond is playing outfield.LM Otero/Associated Press

According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, he signed a one-year, $8 million deal that offered him a spot on a contending team and a mulligan at free agency. He could prove himself this season and, if all went well, earn the lucrative deal he had anticipated when he initially rejected the Nationals’ $107 million offer prior to the 2014 season, according to MLB.com.

But it would take a team that was willing to take a risk.

In manager Jeff Banister, Desmond found his perfect match. During Banister’s first year as an MLB manager in 2015, he showed a willingness to be creative. He started 6'5", 235-pound power hitter Joey Gallo in center field for a game. This year, Banister has played Jurickson Profar, a middle-infield prospect, at first base in an effort to get him plate appearances. Profar had not played the position prior to this season.

The Texas manager’s outside-the-box thinking was exactly what Desmond needed when he was looking for a new home. However, Banister contends that his creativity had little to do with it, conceding that the team was fortunate to sign such a great athlete.

Banister relays a story from the opening week of spring training when he watched Desmond first take fly balls in the outfield. Desmond was shagging balls in left field but making plays in right-center. When Desmond showed that kind of range, Banister knew his athleticism would translate to the outfield.

“The guy’s a dynamic athlete,” Banister said. “So I knew from everything that I had seen, from all that I heard, that he had instincts for the game, feel for reading the bat. So once you could see the desire and the determination, I felt like it would be a good fit, a solid transition.”

But Desmond hasn’t just been a serviceable outfielder. Already this season, he has shown he can change the game defensively when playing on the grass.

According to FanGraphs, Desmond has an ultimate zone rating of 8.8, which ranks ninth among outfielders this season. Each player above him in that category is a career outfielder.

Such prowess in the outfield early in the season prompted Banister to move him to center field, one of the most important positions on the diamond, after Delino DeShields Jr., the team’s Opening Day starter, struggled.

Desmond has started 68 games in center.

That kind of flexibility defensively, combined with his infield experience, will make Desmond even more desirable to teams this offseason. The Chicago Cubs similarly employ Kris Bryant who can play all the outfield positions and third base.

A player who can play multiple positions in effect expands the roster. Desmond’s versatility allows those with only one comfortable position to be worked into the lineup should their bat create a favorable matchup against a given starting pitcher.

In the NL, with the double-switch in play, Desmond offers even more value defensively.

“We’ve always liked him,” Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. “Our scouts—I’ve got to give them a lot of credit—they’ve always identified him as a guy who would be a real natural in the outfield. I got to give him a ton of credit.

“We can’t imagine where we’d be without him. He’s been a huge part of this team.”

Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels has praised Ian Desmond's impact on the team.
Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels has praised Ian Desmond's impact on the team.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Of course, he's made an impact at the plate, too.

Desmond wouldn’t have earned a spot on this year’s American League All-Star team without stellar offensive numbers. Through the completion of Thursday’s games, Desmond led Texas in batting average, on-base percentage, RBI (58) and doubles. His .535 slugging percentage ranked first on the team among regular starters, while his 18 homers also ranked first.

It’s the best he has played since the 2013 season, when he hit .280/.331/.453. Desmond rejected Washington’s nine-figure offer prior to spring training the following season.

Two subpar seasons ensued. But in his comeback campaign this year, Desmond has seen a marked improvement in how hard he is hitting the ball.

According to FanGraphs, 21.6 percent of the balls he has hit this season were line drives—his highest total since 2013. Of the fly balls he has hit, 23.1 percent were home runs, which is a career best.

“It’s all about feel, and for the last couple years I’ve been looking for that feel, and I got it back and it feels really good,” Desmond said.

“It’s just a product of being in the right position and that matched with a little bit of pitch sequence that I’m seeing now in this league, and over here they’re starting to shift me a little bit more. So, it’s opened up some more holes where balls I would have hit before would have been caught.”

That approach is just one example of an advanced understanding of the game, which, along with his newfound versatility and elite hitting, has made him one of the stars of the upcoming free-agent class.

Certainly, it has affirmed his decision to walk away from the deal the Nationals offered in the spring of 2014.

And as he enters free agency this winter, there will be plenty of stats to throw around from this season that validate his asking for a more lucrative deal. Analytics will prove his value to any team.

But four words best describe Desmond’s 2016 campaign: I told you so.

Seth Gruen is a national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.

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