PHOENIX – There are 30 starting shortstop jobs in the major leagues. Wednesday morning, as the last position players arrived at camps strewn across the Valley of the Sun here and back east all over Florida, 30 clubs had a plan to go forward with the shortstops who already had jerseys, whose names were already on the roster. Ian Desmond sat at home, unemployed.
Of all the intriguing storylines at all the spring training camps opening in full this week – polished David Price showing up with the Red Sox to change the American League East, wise Zack Greinke joining the Diamondbacks to alter the National League West, fleet Jason Heyward landing with the Cubs to flip-flop the National League Central – the winter development that most surprises those in the game, with March now just a week away, might be that Desmond doesn’t yet have a job. And the prevailing sentiment was some version of the following, voiced by one executive here: “It’s just too bad, because he’s a good player, and all you hear is that he’s a great guy.”
This is a story, though, not just about Desmond, the homegrown Washington National who had reported for spring training in Viera, Fla., for 11 straight seasons, enough time for him to turn from a prospect into an all-star, from a boy into a father – three times over. Rather, it is a story about baseball’s current system for compensating teams that lose free agents, a system meant to help small market teams but that can, unintentionally, ensnare players.
The logistics are these: When Desmond’s contract expired after the 2015 season, the Nationals had to evaluate whether to extend him a “qualifying offer” – a one-year deal that would have paid him $15.8 million for the 2016 season. There was little risk involved on either side. Desmond wasn’t going to accept because he was certainly worth more on the open market – even coming off what in so many ways was a lousy season for him, a career high in strikeouts, a career-low in on-base percentage, struggles on defense, a disappointing second-place finish for the team.
The Nationals extended the qualifying offer not because they intended to keep Desmond nor thought for a second he would take it. The reason: If you extend the offer – which is always for one year, and always for the average of the top 125 salaries in the majors the previous season — you get a draft pick in return from the team that signs your player, a pick between the first and second rounds.
A dozen years ago, Desmond was a draft pick himself, a third-rounder out of Sarasota, Fla., taken by the Montreal Expos. Now, though, those picks are more valued than they were back then.
“Every team places a value on each pick, a monetary value,” said Billy Eppler, the new general manager of the Los Angeles Angels. “Now, every team might have a different value. But they’re important.”
Desmond isn’t the only player to endure this wait, though he may be the best. In 2014, shortstop Stephen Drew and designated hitter Kendrys Morales waited till May and June, respectively, to sign deals. Of the 16 players who declined qualifying offers this year, only Desmond, outfielder Dexter Fowler and right-hander Yovani Gallardo remain unsigned. Yet the last two have been linked to the Baltimore Orioles; reportedly, only concerns about Gallardo’s physical have stalled his deal.
When the offseason began, the Nationals had four primary outgoing free agents – Desmond, outfielder Denard Span and right-handers Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister. Three of the choices on qualifying offers were easy – yes for Desmond and Zimmermann, no on Fister. Span was worthy of some debate because he was a good player who was coming off of an injury-plagued season that ended with hip surgery.
The Nationals, concerned about Span’s health, didn’t extend the offer, meaning a new team wouldn’t have to forfeit a draft pick to sign him. Coming off a season in which he played just 61 games, he landed a three-year, $31-million deal that includes a club option for a fourth year from San Francisco.
“Whether that pick is there or not is huge,” Giants General Manager Bobby Evans said. “It just comes down to cost vs. benefit: How will that free agent benefit your club in the coming year and years ahead vs. the cost — which is not only financial now. It’s also a prospect. In that way, you have to think of it like a trade.”
In Span’s case, there was no trade: the Giants merely got the player. But the teams that entered the offseason needing a shortstop – definitely the White Sox and the Padres, but also potentially the Mets and the Mariners – had to consider the dollars and years Desmond was seeking, their projections for how he would perform and where they were picking.
“It’s part of your calculus,” said A.J. Preller, San Diego’s general manager. Preller’s calculus, then, told him signing former White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez for one year and $4 million – with a club option for 2017 – was better than giving Desmond a long-term deal that also would cost the draft pick.
Yet with Ramirez gone, the White Sox had a hole there, too. Rick Hahn, Chicago’s general manager, wouldn’t go into the team’s discussions on Desmond, but said: “The draft pick stuff, certainly the 27th, 28th pick in the draft — whatever it’ll wind up being — has real value to us. At the same time, we’ve shown a willingness to give up that pick for the right player on the right terms. We just haven’t had that opportunity this offseason.”
So their solution: Plug in 26-year-old Tyler Saladino at shortstop, and on Monday sign 37-year-old veteran Jimmy Rollins to a minor-league deal to push Saladino.
“Jimmy’s going to come in and potentially compete with him on an everyday basis,” Hahn said. “Jobs need to be earned, not given.”
Ian Desmond is 30 years old and has earned a major league job. Over the past four seasons, only one shortstop slugged at a higher percentage than his .443, only one posted a higher on-base-plus slugging percentage. None hit more than his 88 homers. None drove in more than his 291 runs.
And yet spring training is here, and Ian Desmond is at home, and baseball’s rules means there’s no telling when that will change.
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