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The three big questions about this deal are: 1) why get Desmond instead of a veteran outfielder?; 2) can Desmond hit enough for left field?; and 3) can Desmond cut it defensively? The answers are intertwined, but let’s try our best to go bit-by-bit.
If you treat PECOTA’s outputs as the gospel, then the decision to sign Desmond makes no sense. Desmond’s projected .257 True Average is the same as Mets outfielder Alejandro De Aza’s (whose situation the Rangers were reportedly monitoring), and just three points better than Austin Jackson’s. Even if you dismiss De Aza as unrealistic (due to the possible prospect cost), Jackson is (a) available; (b) proven and experienced in the outfield; and (c) untied to draft-pick compensation. So what’s the deal?
For starters, the Rangers aren’t treating PECOTA’s output as the gospel; rather, they’re banking on Desmond’s upside—or, at minimum, his chances of exceeding projections. Your willingness to forgive Desmond’s 2015 determines whether you consider that a reasonable stance.
While it’s easy to forget given Desmond’s year, he entered the season having posted a TAv exceeding .270 in three consecutive campaigns. Obviously 2015 featured a few red flags that bear monitoring—his strikeout rate reached a new career-high, again, and his ISO dipped to league-average territory—but Desmond is, nonetheless, 30 years old and one season removed from a stretch of good hitting; you can bet on some rebound.
The catch is Desmond’s numbers won’t be as impressive contextually now that he’s playing a less demanding position. Last season, left fielders outhit shortstops by 16 TAv points. That’s a sizable gap, the difference between a resurgent Desmond ranking as one of the top hitters at his position and simply being average or slightly above.
As for Desmond’s defense, we know that moving a left-side infielder to the outfield doesn’t necessarily equal success. But comparing this situation to Hanley Ramirez’s is being too hard on Desmond, whose defensive struggles were often confined to clusters for whatever reason. It’s not a fait accompli that Desmond takes to left field and turns into Alex Gordon—he’s never played the position before, after all—but that shouldn’t be the bar anyway. If Desmond is an average or better glove, that should work.
Besides, let’s not overlook why the Rangers are making this move: Josh Hamilton is out for at least a month, and he’ll probably miss more time before the season ends. The Rangers were facing a situation where they used various bench types—like Ike Davis, Justin Ruggiano, and/or Ryan Rua and Drew Stubbs—on an everyday basis, or they rushed a top prospect to the majors. Considering the Rangers entered Sunday pegged at eight wins behind the Astros, either route is suboptimal to enter the season. Desmond ought to raise the ceiling on the position in a way that neither Jackson nor De Aza could offer, and should offer a higher floor than the kids.
Certainly there’s risk involved: Desmond might fail to hit or field well enough to satisfy the Rangers’ needs, and he’s unlikely to win his fourth Silver Slugger award with the position change. But the Rangers could afford to gamble with a draft pick, having gained a surplus with Yovani Gallardo’s departure, and that decision might have just netted them an above-average talent at the cost of an average one.
Prior to last season, Stubbs had earned a reputation as a good fielder and baserunner who just couldn’t hit enough to start. He challenged that assertion in 2015—no, no, not by hitting enough to start, but by failing to hit enough to act as a reserve. The problem wasn’t his approach (he remained patient and disciplined) so much as his inability to make contact: he whiffed on more than 40 percent of his swings . . . or the second-worst rank in the majors. Yikes. The Rangers will probably try to work with Stubbs to improve his bat path and all the other usual fixes put forth in light of extreme contact woes. If he shows progress (and boy, ain’t that a low bar?), he could win a bench job. —R.J. Anderson
On the positive side, he's going to a pretty good ballpark. On the negative side, just about everything else. Red flags abound as a hitter who struggles to make contact switches leagues and his new team is asking him to switch positions—to one he's never played before. There was too much hate on Desmond heading into this year (some of it warranted as he hadn't signed yet), but all of that value is now given back. Sure, the extra eligibility will be nice, and everyone's situation is different, but we've learned plenty of lessons of players taking their defensive struggles at new positions into the batter's box with them. Desmond is still a top-10 shortstop in most formats, but the enthusiasm with which he should be drafted has waned.
Nomar Mazara/Jurickson Profar (2016 only)
Neither of these players should have been much more than reserve picks in mixed leagues (as Mike Gianella and I made Profar in our LABR Mixed draft two weeks ago), but the Desmond acquisition makes it more difficult for them to have much value in 2016. That said, both are still potential superstars beyond that, so this note need not apply to dynasty leaguers. —Bret Sayre