Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich recently appeared on MLB Network Radio, and said of recent big-money signee Ian Desmond:
#Rockies Bridich on Desmond: "We have to have flexibility on the team and to be able to add an elite athlete is a huge boon for us."
— MLB Network Radio (@MLBNetworkRadio) December 20, 2016
Bryan Grosnick did a great job of putting the signing into context (as much was possible at the time), as the Rockies were toeing the line that Desmond would be playing first base. Reading the tea leaves related to the above quote suggests that Desmond won’t be limited to first base, but rather will be playing where he’s most functionalâ€•and, for now, that’s first base.
This is well and good, but it still raises the question: Just what in the hell is Colorado doing over there?
Ian Desmond is a pretty good player. It’s arguable as to whether he’s worth $70 million, in addition to the 11th overall pick (valued at around $3.3 million in 2016), but by and large he’s been good enough to rack up 12.4 WARP over the last four years. If you’re a $/WAR(P) type of reader, then you should be able to justify Desmond’s cost without hesitation.
The confusion sets in only when putting Desmond in context with the rest of the Rockies' roster. For starters, it’s going to be harder for him to be worth his contract at first base (though if you wanted to assign value for the presence of his versatility and less how it’s employed, I’d be amenable). He was once a tolerable shortstop, but that position is manned now by Trevor Story, who may or may not be the real deal, but whom the Rockies should continue to play in search of the answer. Desmond was passable as an outfielder in Texas, yet putting him in the cavernous confines of Coors could return a failing grade.
Besides, the Rockies are stacked at those positions: David Dahl just impressed (.289 TAv) in under half a season; Carlos Gonzalez just roped 67 extra base hits; and Charlie Blackmon just posted a five-win season; and that’s not all!
We’ll double your order if you call in the next 10 minu– They also have Gerardo Parra, who they gave $27.5 million to LITERALLY A YEAR AGO, and Raimel Tapia, who reached the majors last year and shouldn’t be more than a year or so away from contributing.
“Okay, stop yelling, they’ll trade a guy” you tell me, reasonably, except for wait, what is this?
#Rockies Bridich: "There's never been any desire for us to trade Carlos (Gonzalez) or Charlie (Blackmon)."
— MLB Network Radio (@MLBNetworkRadio) December 20, 2016
[Extremely George Costanza voice] AaaaaaahHAAAA!
Look, GM Speak is a real thing and Bridich saying that there’s no desire to trade these guys doesn’t mean they won’t get dealt. That’s the most logical end point for all of this, and acquiring a versatile guy like Desmond to fill in the gaps when that happens is a completely reasonable approach to take. It would a make a lot more sense, however, if the sequencing were different.
We saw the value versatility can bring in this year’s playoffs, and earlier this week Rob Mains noted its growing presence in recent years. The Cubs could play many of their guys in different spots, and the Dodgers roster benefited from its versatility throughout the regular season. Even Carlos Santana’s (limited) athleticism allowed him to be a viable option in left field, making room for his bat in a National League park.
But none of this makes the Rockies’ logic any easier to grasp. Colorado has entrenched gloves at second and third base, a player it needs to get a handle on at shortstop, and more outfielders than it (perhaps literally) knows what to do with. So yeah, a trade of an outfield bat for controllable pitching to pair with Jon Gray, Jeff Hoffman, Tyler Anderson, and others makes plenty of sense on paper, but it all made sense on paper before signing Desmond, too.
Maybe we’re approaching this wrong. Maybe Story’s volatility is the cause for the Desmond signing: If he fails at shortstop, Desmond returns to his native position (but one he hasn’t played in a year), and the Rockies offense (hopefully) doesn’t see a dropoff in anticipated production. That does leave first base as a gaping hole for offense, while it’s ostensibly easier to fill in with at least league-average production there than at short, yet a) it’s harder to do in-season and b) one might wonder why the Rockies didn’t just fill that spot for a cheaper value in the offseason in the first place.
The answer to all of this might be that Desmond’s flexibility allows him to backfill two crucial positions (shortstop and center field) at a moment’s notice. But taking a league-average bat that cratered in the second half and squeezing him in at the bottom of the defensive spectrum in the meantime isn’t exactly acquiring versatility. It’s mismanaging your assets, which might just be what Colorado has been doing all these years anyway.
Update: Bridich's complete interview on MLB Network Radio's Inside Pitch with Casey Stern & Brad Lidgeâ€‹ fleshes out his plan with Desmond, including his value to a National Club in situations like double-switches, as well as Desmond's ability to be a one-man contingency plan at multiple positions. He did reiterate his desire to have Desmond play a lot of first base but also indicated how important his character is, which is something not addressed above, but is worth noting as part of the value he brings. This doesn't change the thrust of the article above, but is worth noting in the context of why the club had as much interest as they did. Listening to the full interview is very much worthwhile.
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