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The Rays and Ian Desmond

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In which I try not to write an article about Ian Desmond, and do it anyway.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Rays beat writer Marc Topkin used his weekend column to stoke all those old Rays rumors you've been sitting, waiting, and wishing to happen. He confirms the Rays have a strong interest in Javier Baez, as well as Corey Dickerson of the Rockies.

But Topkin also drops in this nugget: Tampa Bay could still target SS Ian Desmond:

With [Steve] Pearce's signing, which should be made official early this week, the formation of the Rays' roster seems just about set.

That is, unless they find a way to make it work financially to sign free agent SS Ian Desmond.

His lack of a deal elsewhere increases at least the possibility of the Sarasota native fulfilling his interest in coming home on a short-term "pillow" deal, though a major hurdle is that it would cost the Rays a valued draft pick.

This one is hard to imagine, as the Rays already acquired a starting shortstop in Brad Miller.

Additionally, as he notes above, in order to sign Ian Desmond the Rays would have to surrender their first round draft pick -- the 13th overall selection. Different people have done different amounts of research on the value of draft picks, but a recent piece from the Hardball Times pegs a $24.1 million surplus value on picks in the 10-15 range.

I don't want to waste too much time on this rumor -- I'm an unabashed fan of Ian Desmond, his swing is one of my favorites in all the game, the desire to write about this rumor is strong -- but this is pure speculation!

That swing though...

No! I have to focus. Read the relevant phrase again.

His lack of a deal elsewhere increases at least the possibility

Without a strong market for his services, Topkin wonders if the Rays could be the answer. So could a lot of teams though, and even if Desmond or Brad Miller transform into utility men, this doesn't pass the sniff test.

What Topkin is proposing is a pillow contract, not much unlike what Asdrubal Cabrera signed with the Rays last year. At the start of the off-season, we found Desmond made perfect sense for such a deal, and thought he was the only free agent SS worth signing. And he's still available...

GAHHH, this is impossible! Here's why.

The trouble comes with recouping the opportunity cost of that draft pick. Using the $24.1 million goal from 2014, and rolling it forward to 2016 market values (say, 5% inflation), our goal is now $26.5 million.

If we were to offer Desmond a contract in line with Asdrubal's pillow contract, which was 75 percent of his previous year's contract, here's the level of WAR the Rays would need out of Ian Desmond to justify losing their pick:

Contract WAR $/WAR WAR Value Surplus Value
$8,250,000 4.4 $8,000,000 $35,200,000 $26,950,000

Unfortunately, projection systems don't favor a 4.4 WAR projection. Steamer sits at 1.5 WAR and a .299 wOBA for next season, ZiPS projects a .328 wOBA and 3.1 WAR, and Clay Davenport sees something like 2.4 VORP and .326 EqOBP. Those aren't equal measures, but they paint the appropriate picture:

With no clear short term projection, a one-year deal seems like a poor choice.

The article should end there right?

Maybe we could make things interesting by making this a conversation about a long term deal, but that would require a significant investment from the Rays.

There might be room in the budget, the team's payroll looks to be below $70 million as of this writing, but to recoup the draft pick value, you'd have to assume a 2.0 WAR floor for Desmond, and one stronger year than that:

Year Contract WAR $/WAR (5% infl) WAR Value Surplus Value
1 $8,250,000 2.5 $8,000,000 $20,000,000 $11,750,000
2 $11,500,000 2.0 $8,400,000 $16,800,000 $5,300,000
3 $13,000,000 2.0 $8,820,000 $17,640,000 $4,640,000
4 $13,500,000 2.0 $9,261,000 $18,522,000 $5,022,000
Total $46,250,000 8.5 $72,962,000 $26,712,000

If you see the Rays signing an aging former All-Star to a contract worth more than half the payroll, I have a couple cars I'd like to sell you as well.

But is that two-WAR floor fair? Ian Desmond averaged 4.49 WAR in his three seasons prior to last year! And even with his poor showing in 2015, his overall WAR eclipses all shortstops since 2012.

Maybe you'd think this is more plausible if you make Ian Desmond a utility man and limit the exposure at shortstop, but that sells short what Desmond can do when he settles in.

The range and arm strength are real:

The Rays have extensive defensive data, so they wouldn't be unwise in selecting their defenders... are you still reading? Are you as tempted as I am to beg the team to go for it and spend money on a star?

Because this is all certainly a very interesting discussion when you consider his bat. And it's here I defer to some great writing by others, who have already put some work in on this topic.

Foremost, the case for Desmond was well laid out by Andrew Simon for mlb.com, noting the following silver linings:

Desmond notched a career-high 5.5 baserunning runs above average, per FanGraphs, and overcame the early errors to finish at roughly average defensively, according to Defensive Runs Saved (1) and Ultimate Zone Rating (-3.7). His second-half batting line (.262/.331/.446 with 12 homers) was roughly in line with his 2012-14 output.

Then there's StatcastTM, which measured Desmond's average exit velocity at 91.9 mph, or 36th-highest among 246 players who had at least 200 balls in play tracked (Exit velocity correlates well with success at the plate). Desmond ranked even better (20th) with a 4.1 mph average generated exit velocity [...]

Out of the top 40 hitters in average generated exit velocity, Desmond's .294 wOBA was the second-lowest, which suggests some bad luck was at play.

Each of the 19 hitters with a higher average generated exit velocity than Desmond also had a higher wOBA.

In terms of power, Desmond slammed eight home runs that eclipsed a projected distance of 425 feet. In terms of arm strength, his 35 throws of 85-plus mph were third among shortstops. And in terms of running, he was one of 52 players to reach the 21-mph mark on the bases at least nine times.

Our friends over at AZ Snake Pit, the Diamondbacks affiliate, picked up the story there. After finding only positive differences in Desmond's overall approach at the plate in 2015, the question turned to his hard hit rate, noting that "his hard hit rate dropped from 32% to 28% while his soft hit percent jumped from 16% to 20%."

After wondering how this variance impacts Desmond's ability to maintain high BABIP rate as he ages, the writer turned his focus to Simon's wOBA observation above:

The graph predicts that Desmond should have posted a wOBA around .345-.350 in 2015 based on his exit velocity and the .294 figure he actually posted is more due to bad luck. However, the plot is a complete scatter, so the correlation is unreliable as well. I do believe he is likely due for a decline in bat speed because of his age in the future, but the 2015 drop off seems unexplained by looking at exit velocity.

[...]

MLB Statcast listed Desmond as a 5-tool player, with their criteria being this:

Hitting: Batting exit velocity of ≥ 110 mph
Hitting for power: Home run distance of ≥ 425 feet
Fielding: Route efficiency of ≥ 98 percent
Throwing: Throws of ≥ 85 mph
Running: Top base running speed of ≥ 21 mph

We are just entering the age of Statcast, and the future is bright -- and not just because I've talked myself back into wanting Ian Desmond on the Rays. You're welcome to plumb the depths at Baseball Savant yourself to see what more you can find on Ian Desmond.

For instance, Desmond had 53 batted balls 100+ MPH in the second half last season, which was the highest among shortstops, and tied with Evan Longoria for 24th in baseball.

Ian Desmond remains a very good baseball player, and he is still a free agent. Topkin's musings could be right on, maybe this makes the Rays a plausible location for his services, as a shortstop or a utility man. Maybe even a bottom dollar figure in 2016 with a year-one opt out could make both sides happy.

Of course, the Rays would have several trades to make to sort out the roster and fit the important pieces into the lineup. Nothing in this scenario is simple, but if the Rays suspect the bat could come alive, and that Ian Desmond could return to his 4.0 WAR days of 2012-2014, then a one year deal is plausible.

It's a high-risk, high-reward gamble that could be a game change for the Rays in a tight division.

Then again, that's a very nice draft pick.

Either way, you are selecting the mystery box. It's just the one of those boxes has an 18-year old, and the other one has Ian Desmond, and Ian Desmond is amazing.

Conclusion

It's easy to see why Topkin would keep this rumor going. Ian Desmond is a great baseball player, and if there is any team with salary room (although having it and being willing to use it are two different things) and a willingness to take strikeouts for offensive production with great defensive ability, it's the Rays.

Ian Desmond would need to come as advertised (willing to become a utility player) but the bat should play, and with top prospect finally back in the Rays farm system (Willy Adames, Blake Snell, Brent Honeywell, Daniel Robertson, Jake Bauers), now might be the right time for the Rays to take the gamble.

If he can return to four-win levels of production, a one-year deal makes sense. If the Rays feel he's worth more than eight wins over the next four years, signing the three-time silver slugger is likewise justifiable.

If the ceiling is above either of those benchmarks -- and in my opinion, the Statcast numbers seem to indicate it should be -- then it's a genius move for a small market team who would normally priced out of any such market.