The days to spring training are dwindling and many good players are still available, including, and perhaps surprisingly, Ian Desmond. At the start of the winter, he was the best free agent shortstop on the market, and a few teams had pressing needs at shortstops. A match seemed destined to happen. It hasn’t yet.
The Padres signed Alexei Ramirez to a one-year deal, preferring a short-term commitment that wouldn’t block their young prospects, such as Javier Guerra. San Diego also didn’t want to give up a draft pick to sign Desmond. The White Sox have a hole at shortstop but, so far, seem willing to try out youngster Tyler Saladino.
Four of the 16 players who declined the $15.8 million qualifying offer remain unsigned: Desmond, Howie Kendrick, Dexter Fowler and Yovani Gallardo. Some teams will point to the draft pick attached to the players as a reason not to pursue them. Which leads to the inevitable question: could the Nationals simply re-sign Desmond then? They are the only team that wouldn’t lose a pick by signing Desmond.
That ship, however, has sailed. The sides haven’t negotiated since Desmond turned down a five-year, $89.5 million extension before the 2014 season, and there has not been contact this offseason. Planning for Desmond’s departure for some time, the Nationals prepared. They traded for a potential future shortstop, prospect Trea Turner. They also signed Daniel Murphy to play second base, which freed up Danny Espinosa for shortstop. They signed Stephen Drew to serve as the backup infielder. Middle infield prospect Wilmer Difo will await in the minors. The Nationals have options.
There still could be many scenarios for Desmond this winter. He is 30, so he could take a one-year deal — Rockies? Hometown Rays? Diamondbacks? — and rebuild his value with a solid season, building on his improved second half of 2015. Then, he could re-enter the market at 31 in next winter’s free agent class, which is much weaker than this offseason’s. But it might be hard for a team to justify giving up a draft pick, even if it was a second-round pick, simply to sign Desmond for a one-year deal.
Desmond could also sign with a team, perhaps longer than a year, that would use him all over the infield, not just shortstop, and some in the outfield. The challenge with this is that Desmond’s best value is as a shortstop; despite a down season last year, he averaged 22 home runs and 20 stolen bases each of the past four seasons. That’s rare for a shortstop.
Either way, the offseason hasn’t unfolded as expected for many players, including Desmond. While Desmond has a strong connection with the Nationals, and vice versa, the team has moved on to other infield options. Even this late in the winter, Desmond will land on his feet; it is just a matter of where.