Welcome to the 2017 edition of Ranking the Rockies, where we take a look back at the in-season contributions of every player to don the purple this past season. The goal wasn’t and isn’t to quibble with order. Instead, it’s to get a snapshot of a player along with a look forward. For that reason, we simply sorted by Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (rWAR) and will start at the bottom and end up at the top.
No. 40, Ian Desmond (-1.1 rWAR)
Ian Desmond ended 2017 by reminding us why any team would have considered signing him to a big deal in free agency. As the Colorado Rockies hoped for one last desperate comeback in their Wild Card loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Desmond provided a boost.
Having entered the game off the bench as part of a double switch (more on that in a minute), Desmond got on top of a Fernando Rodney fastball that was up in the zone and lined a single to center field. It was a hit that required grown-man bat speed, and it set up Desmond to score a run and keep an ultimately futile 9th-inning rally alive.
There were reminders of that raw athleticism and talent all season; unfortunately they did little to distract us from just how badly Desmond struggled in 2017, the first year of a five-year, $70 million deal.
In what was mostly a job-share in the outfield and at first base, Desmond slashed .274/.326/.375 with seven home runs and 40 RBIs. If he weren’t fast, it would have been even worse, as Desmond’s speed propped up that batting average and allowed him to steal 15 bases. He struggled to consistently drive the ball and hit one rollover groundball after another en route to an astounding 62.7 GB%.
Acknowledging that Desmond started the year on the DL, it still never felt like the team knew what they wanted to do with him. Signed to be the first baseman, Desmond saw Mark Reynolds shine early on and create a roster crunch. That shifted Desmond to primarily outfield duty for the summer months.
Then, as Reynolds faded, Desmond played some more first base, but there were at least a few clumsy moments. For example, there was one bad throw in September that led to the admission that the player signed to the largest free agent deal for a position player in franchise history still didn’t have the right instincts at the position he was signed to play.
What about shortstop? Given the chance to have him fill in at shortstop when Trevor Story was injured early in the year, the team declined to do so. That seemed to settle that question—the Rockies wouldn’t use Desmond at shortstop. But then they changed their minds, apparently, as they had Desmond take reps and play some shortstop when Story was struggling later in the year.
All of this unsteady shuffling with Desmond in 2017 speaks to the problem with signing him in the first place. A $70 million deal should come with a clear and obvious plan. In most cases, it should be so obvious that it’s not even up for debate. If it’s something less obvious, like envisioning a super-utility role, that needs to be the plan from the start.
The Rockies planned to use Desmond as an everyday first baseman. Even after he returned from injury, it quickly became clear they had a better option there. Less than halfway through the season their $70 million plan already had holes in it. They then pivoted to using Desmond as the jack-of-all-trades guy they insisted he wasn’t all winter.
But the Rockies didn’t even really commit to that path. Instead they used Desmond as part of a left field platoon (kinda), part of a first base time share (kinda), and just generally as a bench player (kinda). They only looked to Desmond at shortstop out of some sort of weird desperation when Story was struggling. That felt more like panicking than it did maximizing a player’s versatility, and all told, it felt like they didn’t know what to do with an expensive player who probably never made sense for them in the first place.
If you want to look ahead to the story of Desmond’s 2018 turnaround, it’s easy to do so. First of all, he was limited to just 95 games by two lengthy injuries: a broken hand during Spring Training and then a calf injury this summer. If he stays healthy he will likely be better. Secondly, there is what we will now call the “Gerardo Parra” rule: Desmond will be better next season because it would be very difficult for him to be this bad two years in a row.
A healthier, slightly better Desmond might pass as an everyday player in 2018. But think for a second about what a low bar that is, and then make yourself think about what the Rockies envisioned when they signed Desmond last winter. You don’t sign a free agent to a five-year, $70 million deal because you hope he will be a passable starter or platoon player. You sign him to that kind of deal because you are confident he is going to be an impact player for years to come.
This should have been Desmond’s best season on the Rockies, and even cutting him slack for those injuries and acknowledging his leadership in the clubhouse, it was a disaster. It’s only going to be more difficult as the 32-year-old gets older.
That’s where it’s hard to be hopeful. Saying Desmond will be better next year is easy. Saying he will ever be close to a player worthy of that contract is much more difficult. Nobody knows what the future holds, but the gap between 2017 Desmond and an impact player is already quite the indictment of the contract the Rockies gave him last winter.
Desmond will likely settle in more permanently at first base next season. Reynolds declined enough over the second half that his return seems unlikely. Desmond playing more first base frees up the outfield a little bit for Raimel Tapia, Parra and David Dahl (if he’s healthy).
What about Ryan McMahon? What about the seasons beyond 2018? Good questions, all of them, and they will be important ones as the Rockies shape their rosters in the seasons to come and try to get value out of Desmond’s contract.