Ian Desmond: First Baseman/Outfielder Points: 41 Highest Rank: 4 Lowest Rank: 9
This off-season, the Rockies signed Desmond to a 5-year, $70M contract and announced that he would be the team’s primary first baseman in 2017. And the baseball community promptly lost their minds.
The hot takes came flying in fast and furious. FanGraphs’ Nicolas Stelleni recapped the signing in an article titled “Let’s Get Weird: Ian Desmond Is A Rockie“, where he wrote the following,
"“This move is the equivalent of the Denver Broncos signing Lionel Messi. It’s unexpected. It’s bonkers. It’s newly legal in Colorado, and Jeff Bridich is into it.”"
And so it went across the internet. Sporting News was even more direct, publishing an article titled “Ian Desmond Signing Highlights Ineptitude of Rockies Management“. Few moves this off-season received more scrutiny or out-right skepticism.
To be fair, there are certainly concerns surrounding the deal. Desmond has been a wildly inconsistent player throughout his career. Forget about his brutal 2015 season for a second; even in his bounce-back season last year, Desmond was like two different players.
Desmond 1st Half Slash Line: .322/.375/.524
Desmond 2nd Half Slash Line: .237/.283/.347
Outside of Desmond’s hot-or-cold nature at the plate, there’s also a lot of uncertainty surrounding his place defensively. The Rockies have said he’ll primarily play first base in 2017, and that makes sense in theory; Desmond was a shortstop before moving to the outfield, and first base is an easier position to play than short.
But that theory buries a crucial point: Desmond didn’t just randomly move to the outfield, he stopped playing shortstop because he wasn’t good there. He averaged roughly 24 errors per season in his six full seasons playing the position in the big leagues.
It’s also an oversimplification to suggest that anyone who can play shortstop will be a capable first baseman. First base, while one of the simpler positions on the field, still requires a unique set of skills, most importantly clean footwork and the ability to scoop throws off a short hop. Desmond is a good athlete, so he can likely learn and improve upon those skills quickly, but it’s going to take time.
Desmond also will likely struggle to hit like a prototypical first baseman. 20 home runs and a .280 batting average is a good season for a shortstop or a center fielder, but it’s solidly below average for a first baseman.
If this all sounds very negative, well, there’s a lot of potential for this deal to go wrong. For the Rockies to maximize their return on Desmond’s contract, they’ll likely have to utilize his versatility and deploy him all over the field as a “super utility” type, similar to the role Ben Zobrist has made trendy in recent years.
No one can look at the Desmond signing and accuse the Rockies of not being serious about competing in 2017. But spending, in of itself, does not make a team a winner; smart spending does.
Does the Desmond contract fit into that mold? It’s too early to tell, but to be perfectly honest, I’d be lying if I said I was particularly optimistic.