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What Ian Desmond’s versatility can and cannot do

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Two months later, can we make better sense of the Ian Desmond signing?

When I think of how the Rockies offseason progressed, I have an image in my head of Jeff Bridich pushing a cart through the mud…

“Bring out your first basemen!” he intones, clanging a cowbell as he strolls through the hotel bar at the Winter Meetings.

From one of the tables, an agent grabs Bridich by the shoulder, “I’ve got a Desmond right here! I’m his agent.” He then thrusts a contract into Bridich’s face.

Bridich frowns, “I said a first baseman, not a Desmond.”

“Oi! Desmond can be your first baseman.” The agent continues, “He can hit home runs for you at home and get in scoring position on the road. You’d get at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases from a guy who can play outfield, short, second and first, that’s a first round fantasy baseball player!”

“But that contract says $70 million,” Bridich notes.

“Exactly!” the agent beams, “The Rockies can look like big market spenders and as you know, big market spenders look like legitimate contenders! Think of the headlines: ‘Rockies Sign All-Star Ian Desmond to Plug First Base Hole!’”

“All-Star...” Bridich says wistfully.

Desmond moans over a glass of whatever he usually drinks, “I’m not a first baseman.”

“Quiet, you!” The agent barks, “You’ll be a first baseman any moment.”

“I can’t take him like this,” Bridich’s brow furrows.

The agent leans closer to Bridich, “The Rockies were a good team last year. You were getting credit for developing the young Rockies. Then when Trevor Story and Mark Reynolds got hurt...”

Bridich flinches. The agent gives him a comforting pat on the shoulder, “I know, I know. It was hard on all of us to watch. It’s a good thing you were smart enough to sign Daniel Descalso, to fill in. Guess what? Desmond can be your new Descalso.”

The agent leans in, “Think of it. Ian Desmond, All-Star. He’s a winner. In Coors Field, he’ll be an even better hitter than he was before. When altitude helps him hit 30 home runs as your first baseman, you’ll look like a genius!”

“I’m not a first baseman yet!” Desmond whines.

The agent continues, “We’ll get him a glove.”

Desmond smiles, “I feel happy! I feel happy!”

Whereupon, Bridich looks to his left thinking Edwin Encarnacion will be too expensive. He looks to his right, realizing how many ground balls could go past a wanna-be-divin’ Mark Trumbo. Then, he hits Desmond over the head with a contract.

★ ★ ★

Ok, that’s probably not how Bridich thought about things this offseason. He ain’t that emo.

You’d think this Rockies offseason would be pretty straightforward. The Rockies biggest need wasn’t starting pitching, for once, but a first baseman. Dovetailing nicely with that need, there were a lot of free agent first basemen of all shapes and sizes of talent and contract requirements. Sounds simple, no? Instead, Bridich went outside of the box, maybe because boxes are square and he’s too hip for that.

If there’s one thing Bridich has revealed he values in position players, it’s been versatility. Over the course of a baseball season, injuries happen, causing lineup and defensive position adjustments. Also, consider that the Rockies are a National League team that requires double switches even when the pitching isn’t poor. With precious few roster slots mostly tied up in bullpen arms, having a player who can fill multiple needs is important.

Along those lines, Bridich has been proactive in nudging current Rockies to try out different hats, er, gloves. Last year, we saw Rafael Ynoa (LF), Gerardo Parra (1B) and Daniel Descalso (LF) all play positions with no prior experience. Yet in terms of Ian Desmond, you just don’t find a guy on the free agent market that often who can hit more than a lick and can theoretically play all three outfield positions along with shortstop and second base.

And yeah, though his home runs and stolen bases are flashy, I wouldn’t call Desmond a great hitter, especially for a first baseman. He doesn’t get on base much, nor hit for a high average. In terms of OPS+, which adjusts for ballparks differences, he clocks in at 100, which means his bat is right at the major league average. That makes Desmond sound kinda meh but there are quite a few positions, primarily the middle infield spots and center field where his bat would be an upgrade. Throw in a touch of speed and Desmond can help the Rockies in those pesky alternate reality road games where the Rockies struggle to get runners in scoring position for weeks at a time.

So, warts aside, that doesn’t mean he’s not a good player. Bridich might even realize that, though Desmond is the Rockies first baseman today, he might not be by the trading deadline. These things have a way of working themselves out.

Think back to the 2015 offseason. The Rockies had quite a few question marks. No one was quite sure if Trevor Story would hit above .200, David Dahl and Corey Dickerson’s health were no sure things and the Rockies had an opening at first base. It just so happens, Ian Desmond was also available then. If, instead of signing Gerardo Parra for three years and $27.5 million, the Rockies had signed Ian Desmond to that exact same contract with the idea he’d be the regular first baseman and could back up at shortstop and the outfield, it’s a bit of outside the box thinking but it does make sense. When Story got hurt while the Rockies were hot, Desmond and Descalso in the lineup would’ve done better than Descalso and Adames/Ynoa.

Branch Rickey once said he’d rather trade a player a year too early than a year too late. Perhaps in the Rockies case, they paid heavily for the privilege to acquire Desmond a year too late. That doesn’t make it an outright terrible move now necessarily—just a bit suboptimal.

Missed opportunity aside, it turns out the pre-2016 rationale is still valid. With the exception of Story’s thumb, the Rockies were atypically healthy in 2016. It’s possible Charlie Blackmon’s turf toe becomes a more regular problem, that CarGo’s knee goes boom or DJ LeMahieu pulls a muscle hugging his batting crown. There’s even a chance that neither Story nor Dahl can continue their rookie success and need more seasoning. In that case, Ian Desmond’s positional flexibility suddenly makes a heck of a lot of sense.

Also, the Rockies “overpayment” for Desmond isn’t quite as horrible as it seems at first dollar blush. It’s a frontloaded contract, starting at $8 million in 2017, peaking at $22 million for 2018, then $15 million for 2019 and 2020 then limping to $8 million in 2021 in his age 35 season. 2022, the sixth year, is a team option year with a $2 million buyout. Since he gets cheaper as he gets older, even if his talent declines, his contract wouldn’t be such an albatross that he’s untradeable. On the flipside, if it turns out he can handle first base defensively and his bat gets a good Coors Field boost, he can stick at first base the entire time and the Rockies get gravy.

Keep in mind that a lot can happen in the next few years. If the Rockies are contenders in 2017 or 2018, finding a first baseman at the trading deadline’s pretty easy compared to finding a decent injury fill in for a different position. The Rockies could buy a hitter for the playoff chase and move Desmond to whichever position needs the most help. If the Rockies have a poor start to 2017 or 2018 and decide to sell off Charlie Blackmon or Carlos Gonzalez, they can move Desmond to the outfield. Meanwhile, they are still covered for injuries at the other positions. Still, it is an expensive insurance policy.

I can’t say I agree even 50% with Desmond’s signing. I would’ve preferred to sign a first baseman who can really hit and actually field, especially if I was burning a draft pick. Desmond ain’t that. It’s possible that he stands at first base hitting poorly while waiting for an injury or trade that never comes. However, just because I don’t agree doesn’t mean I can’t see the Rockies line of thinking.

If Bridich thinks the Rockies need versatility to win and thinks Desmond won’t need that new glove for long, then signing a hard-to-find player such as Desmond now and worrying about a first baseman later if it’s needed does make some sense. With a bit of luck, just like Desmond was after he got paid, we can all hope that Jeff Bridich will also feel happy.