VIERA, Fla. — Few players have been entwined with the fabric of the Washington Nationals like Ian Desmond. He was drafted by the Montreal Expos in 2004 and remained in the organization until 2015, his final season before free agency, blossoming into an all-star, a beloved teammate and serving as the heart and soul of the organization.
So Sunday, when he finally — a week and a half into spring training — found a team for the 2016 season, his former Nationals teammates rejoiced while lamenting the draft pick compensation system that, in part, hurt his market. Desmond, 30, will give up playing shortstop, the position he’s played in all but seven of his 920 career games, to become the Texas Rangers’ primary left fielder on a one-year deal, two people familiar with the situation said.
The deal is not official until Desmond’s physical exam, but he agreed to a deal with a reported base salary of $8 million, nearly half of the one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer from the Nationals he rejected in November. Two years previously, Desmond and his agent, Doug Rogalski, rejected an $89.5 million extension that would have covered five free agent seasons, believing it was short of market value.
“You’re never gonna get a draft pick that’s like Ian Desmond,” said outfielder Bryce Harper, who considers Desmond a friend and leader who helped him grow. “Whether that’s on the field or off the field, the Rangers are getting a great baseball player and also a great person. He brings that to the clubhouse. I know he’s very excited to start playing.”
Several factors undermined Desmond. He put pressure on himself entering his free agent year when he turned down the Nationals’ big extension offer before the 2014 season. (His final two arbitration years plus the extension offer totaled $107 million over seven years.) Desmond won three straight Silver Slugger awards from 2012 to 2014, but his production slipped some. Then in 2015, he hit .233 with 19 home runs and a .674 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, his strong second half not enough to salvage his worst season since 2011.
“I consider last year sort of an outlier,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I would lean toward him doing more what he did those three, four years that he had rather than what he did after.”
Even though Desmond was the best of this winter’s class of free agent shortstops, the few teams that needed shortstops — such as the New York Mets, Chicago White Sox and San Diego Padres — chose to go other directions. Some teams were also unwilling to part with a draft pick — valuable because of the money attached to it — to sign Desmond. But with the right team, Desmond was even willing to play other positions, including the outfield. He told friends earlier this offseason that he was willing to take less money for the chance to win.
The Rangers, who won the American League West last season, jumped at the opportunity for a bargain. They already have a shortstop — Elvis Andrus in the midst of an eight-year, $120 million deal — but starting left fielder Josh Hamilton is expected to begin the season on the disabled list because of a troublesome knee. Desmond has only played two games in the outfield in the majors, the last time in right field in 2010 when he wasn’t an established major leaguer yet. But he has things working in his favor.
“Anyone can play left,” said Zimmerman, laughing about when he had to learn left field on the fly during the 2014 season. “Ian’s a great athlete. I wouldn’t be surprised if he does great things out there. He’s one of those guys that’s willing to learn. His work ethic is through the roof and his ability on the baseball field is pretty special.”
Desmond is still expected to get the chance to float around the field when needed, a person familiar with the situation said. If Andrus needs a day off, Desmond could return to shortstop. He also played second base briefly early in his career.
“Sometimes it’s really nice to get a new beginning with a new team and see how things are done elsewhere,” Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth said. “The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, but I think he’s the type of guy who’s not gonna have any problems. He’s a good teammate.”
Desmond will have to play through the pressures of another walk year. Globe Life Park in Arlington, Tex., is known as a hitter’s park. “That place is an absolute launching pad, so I’m very excited to see what he does there,” Harper said. Desmond can reenter next winter’s weaker free agent market and perhaps have a chance to return to shortstop while still only 31. “The guy is just an absolute athlete — a specimen,” Harper said.
When the deal is official, the Rangers will forfeit the 19th overall pick in this summer’s draft. As a result of draft pick compensation for Jordan Zimmermann and Desmond, the Nationals will own the 28th and 29th overall picks. The Rangers could still recoup a draft pick next winter if they extend Desmond a qualifying offer and he rejects it.
“I think all the players are united on this: That we’re extremely disappointed in how qualifying offers are impacting some free agents,” Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer said. “This is something that has to be addressed in the next [collective bargaining agreement, which expires in December]. I feel like all the players, even the young guys, the old guys, everybody realizes this is a problem, and it must be addressed with the owners.”