Was signing Ian Desmond the right way for the Rockies to spend their money?

To Whom Should the Rockies Hand Their Money?
by Jim Silva

    70 million dollars is a large sum of money to spend on gum, or tape, or paper cranes, or lima beans, but it is not a large sum of money to spend for five years of service from a bona fide baseball star. The Rockies spent $70 million this offseason to improve their infield and their lineup. They signed Ian Desmond, a shortstop, and more recently a center-fielder to play first base, in theory plugging the only hole in their infield. Yes, that part is a bit confusing. Why did they sign someone to play first base who has never played a professional inning – not in the majors and not in the minors – at first base? Also, why did they pay so much money to improve at first base? I mean, didn’t they already have a first baseman? They short answer is, “Yes” and the long answer is, “kinda”. Mark Reynolds, the guy who got the lion’s share of the time at first, was almost exactly league average – maybe a touch below. Another question you should be asking is, “Why did they sign Ian Desmond when the market was glutted with big, strong first basemen types?” Ah, that’s a good place to start, so let’s!
    Here is a short list of free agent first basemen who were free agents this offseason. I’ve included a few numbers to go with their names and ages. I included Desmond even though he isn’t yet a first baseman. It isn’t an exhaustive list – I cherry-picked a bit – but it is still pretty long. Several of these guys still haven’t signed.

Name/Age
wRC+ 2016/career
First base (DRS/UZR per 150 for 2016) & (DRS/UZR per 150 for career)
(Slash Line for 2016) & (Slash Line for career)
Ian Desmond/31
106/101
Never played
(.285/.335/.446) &
(.267/.316/.427)
Edwin Encarnacion/34
134/126
(0/3.5) & (-17/-6.0)
(.263/.357/.529) &
(.266/.352/.498)
Mark Trumbo/31
123/111
(0/1.3) & (12/6.3)
(.256/.316/.533) &
(.251/.303/.473)
Steve Pearce/33
136/111
(2/5.2) & (12/8.8)
(.288/.374/.492) &
(.254/.333/.441)
Sean Rodriguez/31
129/92
(1/-22.4) & (4/5.1)
(.279/.349/.510) &
(.234/.303/.390)
Brandon Moss/33
105/110
(-3/-10.1) & (-22/-9.3)
(.225/.300/.484) &
(.241/.319/.455)
Jose Bautista/36
122/132
(0/0) almost no data & (-2/-8.3)
(.234/.366/.452) &
(.255/.368/.493)
Mike Napoli/35
113/123
(-4/-6.1) & (15/3.3)
(.239/.335/.465) &
(.252/.352/.480)
Kendrys Morales/33
110/114
(0/10.9) & (11/6.2)
(.263/.327/.468) &
(.273/.331/.465)
Matt Holliday/37
109/137
(1/10.5) & (1/10.5) small sample size
(.246/.322/.461) &
(.303/.382/.515)
Chris Carter/30
112/112
(-5/-5.7) & (-19/-7.1)
(.222/.321/.499) &
(.218/.314/.463)

    Glancing at the numbers above, the weakest producers offensively based on career numbers are Desmond and Sean Rodriguez. I am basing that on wRC+ which is runs created above average where 100 is dead average and each point represents a 1% increase on the field after adjusting for park and league, and OPS combining on-base percentage and slugging percentage. If you look at last season only, then we are probably looking at Moss and Desmond – maybe Holliday too. If you base your judgement on defense then there is really no data on Desmond. If you look at his numbers in left field and shortstop it is a mixed bag, although he is probably not worse than mediocre nor better than average. Moving to a new position if he works hard he could probably reach average, but it would be foolish to count on more than that. Of the guys who have put in real time at first, Moss and Encarnacion are probably the worst of the group.  If you want to factor age into it, then Desmond is one of the youngest and Holliday and Bautista are the old guys. Basically you pick your poison, but what poison did the Rockies pick?
    What to make of all of this? Well, they signed the guy with the third highest batting career average who is probably the most athletic of the group and one of the youngest who is likely to age the best. He is also arguably the most durable – since 2010 when he became a starter he has played fewer than 150 games only once. Perhaps they were signing someone who could play multiple positions in case they made a late signing of one of the other guys on the list above who was pretty limited to first base. Other than that I am unclear as to why they would commit $70 million over five years to a guy who is perceived to be better than league average, but is in reality pretty much league average. I hear he is a great guy and who doesn’t love a player who works hard, but for $70 million one must wonder if they could have locked down one of the other guys on the list like Bautista, who signed for 1 year and $18 million, or Encarnacion, who signed for 3 years and $60 million (plus a 1 year option). They could have also gone the cheaper route and inked Trumbo, who signed for 3 years at $37.5 million, Carter who signed for 1 year and $3 million, or Pearce who signed for 2 years and $12.5 million. All those mentioned above have better offensive numbers and have played first base with varying degrees of success. Some of them are good defenders at first and some are monster power hitters, but again, all of them are better run producers than Desmond over the course of their careers and based just on last season. I guess in summation I have to say, oops. Desmond will be fine, but they could have spent their money better, hoped to solve first base internally in a year or two (Nevin, McMahon, or Welker are solid prospects who have or likely will play first) or just waited instead of jumping so early on Desmond in a market flooded with first base dudes. But the rest of the infield is really interesting.
    Moving to the other corner, third base, we have the legitimate superstar of the Rockies, Nolan Arenado. It is challenging to discuss the 25 year old without resorting to strings of superlatives about his defense and his production at the plate. Last season was his best with the bat as he created 124 wRC+, hit the ball harder more often (37.9% of the time), nearly doubled his walk rate (to 9.8%) while decreasing his strikeout rate from the previous season and still crushing 41 home runs. Jeez! He slashed .294/.362/.570 while staying close to career BABIP numbers indicating that this is just what he is now as opposed to this being  fluke season. With the glove, his 20 DRS/5.3 UZR per 150 innings played is consistent with his career numbers and he won his fourth consecutive Gold Glove. Yes, his fourth and he is only 25. It is easy to think of him as being older than he is because he has been so good since he came up. If you are into WAR (Good God, y’all!) here are his numbers for each of his four seasons in the majors in chronological order: 3.8, 4.1, 5.8, 6.5. Yes, it has gone up each year and may very well continue that trend if he holds onto his growth in plate discipline and stays healthy. He is simply the best at his position at a time when some of the best players in baseball play third base. One of the reasons that the Rockies need to try to win in the next two years is because Arenado can become a free agent in 2020 and he will be courted hard by any team with money. If he leaves it will be a devastating blow to Colorado. But the Rockies have a chance to win now and they need to capitalize on that short window, because Arenado will likely be too expensive by 2020 for all but the teams with the biggest pocket books – the Red Sox, Dodgers, Yankees, and Giants, Tigers, and Cubs and maybe a couple of other teams who will build around Nolan.
    Second base is usually the place for failed shortstops who can hit some. The Rockies starting second baseman DJ LeMahieu was in fact a shortstop as a freshman in college before moving to second base and played more shortstop than second base is his first year as a pro before reversing the trend from there on out. DJ is 28 and has been the starter at second for four seasons, since coming over from the Cubs in the Ian Stewart trade. In 2015, LeMahieu showed some growth in his ability to hit for average finishing the season hitting .301 and making the All Star team. In 2014 LeMahieu won a Gold Glove for his play at second posting a DRS of 16 and a UZR per 150 innings of 11.0. It was his second excellent defensive year in a row and he was recognized for his work. Still, DJ had never posted a wRC+ of 100 as a big leaguer so it wouldn’t have taken much to dethrone him and turn him into a utility infielder – after all he has played short, and third, as well as second, so he was well qualified to handle the bench job. Well, 2016 changed all of that possibly for good. The 6’4 second baseman hit .348 to win the batting title, contributed 128 wRC+ and posted his first season with a WAR over 2.0 as his overall game was worth 4.9 WAR.
    A lot changed in LeMahieu’s game in 2016. Since 2013, his walk rate has jumped 1.7%, then 2.0%, and finally last season another 2.3% to put him at a walk rate of 10.4%. That combined with his batting average jump gave him an on-base percentage of .416 making him an elite leadoff man. One caveat – LeMahieu is not a great base stealer although that kind of depends on what season you are viewing. Last season he went 11 for 18 so his career rate is now about 68%. If the decline is real, he is now at the point where he should just stay put. He is at best an average base runner so if you think all leadoff men need to run like Rickey Henderson then you will be sorely disappointed by Mr. LeMahieu. But the rest of DJ’s offensive game is pretty glorious. He sprays the ball all over the field and last year hit the ball hard – really hard – with a hard hit ball percentage of 35.2%. Without looking at launch angles I can’t say why more balls don’t leave the yard, but when he hits the ball that hard to all fields and only hits 11 out of the park, but tags 32 doubles and 8 triples, one can infer that he hits the ball on a line without a ton of loft. It was a huge year for him and obviously analysts wonder if he can do it again at 28. The peripherals – his yearly increase in walk rate, his increase in hard hit balls, his growth toward using all fields – point to this being the new DJ LeMahieu. I would be shocked to see him increase his output, although he could probably trade some batting average for another 10 homers or so if he wanted, but the Rockies would probably prefer to have DJ be DJ. He isn’t flashing the leather like he used to – the last two seasons have seen numbers that make him look like a league average guy instead of a Gold Glover – but his offense, combined with his solid D, make him a low level star nonetheless. He is the slightly less flashy half of the double play combination and that is just fine.
    The other half of the double play combo was Troy Tulowitzki for many years. He was the star of the team even though he was often injured. Last season was the Rockies first full season without Tulo and it was looking like they would be stuck with Jose Reyes and his considerable baggage (and bloated contract) until Reyes impugned the Rockies organizational worth, and then became embroiled in a domestic abuse scandal resulting in a suspension. This opened the door for, well, anybody but Reyes. The Rockies had a handful of interesting young shortstop types in the minors and one was about ready for a major league trial. Trevor Story won the job and put on a power show that cemented him into the starter’s job before the first month of the season was over. The Rockies wisely ate Reyes’ contract and cut him so as not to undermine Story’s confidence. Story was having a (don’t worry – I wasn’t going to say a “Storybook season”) stupendous rookie year and had pretty much locked down the Rookie of The Year Award, when he injured his thumb, requiring surgery and ending his season after 97 games and 415 plate appearances. Story had always shown solid power in the minors, but had shown a pattern of needing two seasons to master each level. Apparently Trevor forgot about that pattern, because he had 10 home runs by the end of March and 21 by the halfway mark in the season. He had slowed down a bit by the end of the second half with his average dropping to .260, but then Story apparently made some kind of change in approach (or just got some rest) during the All Star break and hit .340/.417/.698 in 15 post All Star games before his injury. If he is something between his first half and that second half surge, then he is a perennial All Star at shortstop in the National League. A rookie who puts up 120 wRC+ and plays shortstop is gold. The read on Story’s glove is that he isn’t flashy or particularly wide-ranging, but he makes plays on balls he gets to. His DRS of 4 and UZR/150 innings played of -4.5 support that claim with his range factor hurting his UZR rating. Story only made 10 errors for a fielding percentage of .977. The Rockies are used to having a great fielding shortstop, but having a solid shortstop who can rake, next to a great fielding third baseman is going to have to do until Brendan Rodgers – their top prospect who happens to be a shortstop –  advances, and forces the Rockies to make a decision. The future might have Rodgers at short and Story at third where his glove, arm and lack of range look better.
    Brendan Rodgers isn’t just the Rockies top prospect. Keith Law ranked him as the 19th best prospect in all of baseball for the 2017 season. The 20 year old third overall pick from the 2015 draft will start the season in High A after completing his first full season of professional baseball last year. Rodgers showed that he can hit, although some analysts disagree on what his home/road splits (.973 OPS at home and .682 on the road) say about what his numbers really mean. Rodgers managed 50 extra base hits including 19 home runs in 442 at bats. There was a decent amount of swing and miss to his game as he struck out 98 times, but he walked 35 times to mitigate his fanning ways. As a 19 year old playing full season ball for the first time, it means something when you put together a .281/.342/.480 slash line while playing most of your games at shortstop. He still has work to do, so don’t expect to see him in Coors Field anytime soon – his .923 and .933 fielding percentages at short the last two years mean that his glove is not ready even if you think his bat is close. This will be a big season for him as he moves up a level. If he maintains his power and continues to improve with the glove at shortstop, the Rockies can start to get excited about another potential star on the infield playing in the thin air of Denver.
    Even when you take into account the ballpark, the Rockies had an infield full of run producers and some legit stars. Arenado is one of the best players in baseball, period. Their weak spot if you can call it that is at first where Ian Desmond will likely be at least league average. The rest of the infield is set for as long as they can afford them and they will be fun to watch as they blister the ball all over the field and handle their glove work between spectacularly and adequately. One scary thought, if the Rockies get off to a bad start, look for them to trade their superstar Arenado for maybe the best haul of young talent in the last decade and not miss a beat as their young studs start to mature and push the Rockies toward a future in the postseason. Rockies fans, send Nolan your love while you have him!

Author: elfuego25

When I'm not writing about baseball (or shoving kettle corn into my mouth at the ballpark), I am probably walking Daisy, who is a very good dog, researching my Portuguese-Irish roots, or wondering when my lovely wife will return from her latest fabulous trip. Yes, life is good!

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