The Colorado Rockies needed a replacement last month at shortstop. Trevor Story was hurt for an extended absence and the team needed to fill that hole. Thankfully for them, they had a plan in place for just that scenario. Having prioritized versatility this offseason, they had a backup option ready to plug that hole, raising the floor of the overall roster so that they didn't miss a beat.
Thank goodness for Ian Desm...I mean, Alexi Amarista?
Ahem. Let me just double check that.
OK, so, thank goodness for Alexi Amarista.
So it is that the Rockies have a role player who has played nine games at shortstop and is batting .338/.348/.515, and that player is not Ian Desmond. More notably, the Rockies also gave starts at shortstop in that time period to Pat Valaika, who made a fun splash but has settled into an unsurprising .230/.266/.508 slash line for the season. They chose both of those options ahead of Ian Desmond, answering the question of whether or not their shiny new toy will play shortstop in a pinch, at least this season.
The Rockies are obviously off to a great start, and Desmond has made a great impression as a veteran and a leader on this team. Those are positive things right now, but the fact that he didn’t play shortstop combined with his slow start at the plate at least gave us occasion to wonder about how things will play out over the team’s long-term commitment to Desmond.
How do the Rockies view Desmond’s versatility? How can things turn around for him, both this season and beyond? Those are just some of the awkward questions that are starting to loom, even if they have been muted thus far by the team’s hot start in 2017.
How much will his leadership matter?
This team isn’t the 2016 Cubs, and Ian Desmond isn't Jason Heyward. But I find myself thinking about the flurry of interviews after game 7 of the World Series, where all those young star players gave Heyward a whole lot of the credit for what he said in the locker room during a rain delay before his team rallied to win a championship. That was Heyward, a player who has a big huge contract who really struggled last season, offering up value about what it means to be good in the clubhouse.
If his numbers don’t turn around, can Desmond have an impact as a leader? He has already shown the leadership qualities that we heard about when the Rockies signed him. We can't say how it will matter or how much, but we can say that it matters for a Rockies team with plenty of youth and inexperience.
Are we actually talking about a "super utility player?"
Nope. Rather than the Ben Zobrist type we dreamed of as we tried to rationalize the $70 million contract Desmond received, we have a first baseman/corner outfielder. That is still valuable, but it's not as rare, and it immediately saps one of the ways that Desmond could have provided value.
What isn’t clear is if there was a different scenario where Desmond would have played short. What is David Dahl was healthy right now? What if Mark Reynolds wasn’t playing like an all-star? Maybe there was a scenario where Desmond would have played short, but as things have happened, it’s hard to imagine the Rockies going there if they haven’t already.
With that in mind, we know the following: Ian Desmond, first baseman/outfielder, needs to hit a bunch to justify being in the lineup everyday, never mind him trying to prove that he's worth a huge free agent deal and a first round pick. That leads to the next awkward question.
Can Desmond be that kind of hitter?
You can justify optimism by looking at Desmond's career in the big picture. Sort of. You can at least see a guy who consistently hits about 20 home runs and steals about 20 bases. The other stats aren't as rosy, especially the mediocre picture painted by his mostly league average or below OPS+ the last number of seasons.
In a lineup full of productive players, the Rockies can get away with Desmond being inconsistent with some pop and some speed. The bigger problem right now is how far away he is from even giving them that.
Will he turn things around?
With a .274/.303/.385 slash line and a woeful 70 OPS+, Desmond might be the worst hitter on the Rockies. The ever-streaky Carlos Gonzalez is the only regular who has been worse at times, currently sitting with a 71 OPS+.
Desmond has just three home runs, all in San Diego and two of them thanks to the inexplicable presence of Jered Weaver on a major-league roster. He has only walked four times in 143 plate appearances against 36 strikeouts. His 60.9 percent groundball rate is the highest among regulars, and his soft contact percentage (24.5%) sits between Ryan Hanigan and Stephen Cardullo on the Rockies. If math isn't your thing (it's not mine), I think we can agree that the eye test bears this out too, because there sure have been a bunch of harmless rollover groundballs.
There's a lot of season left, and Desmond is still catching up from time missed with a broken hand, but he hasn't exactly given us signs that things are going to get better.
Should the Rockies bench Desmond?
Or maybe this is the better way to put it: if every player made the exact same salary, would Desmond be a regular starter? Never mind the question of what happens when (if?) David Dahl comes back—before his injury Tuesday night, Gerardo Parra was a better option.
Yes, that Gerardo Parra. You were being perfectly reasonable if you argued that the Rockies were better off with Parra. That should make you sad. It’s not even immediately clear that Raimel Tapia, if he does exist, shouldn’t take some playing time in left field if you were ignoring other factors and just looking for the best player.
With his track record and his clubhouse presence, it might be that Desmond would still play even if he didn't have that big contract. But he does have that contract, and he keeps playing, and if he doesn't improve soon it's going to be harder and harder to see him starting and batting in the middle of the order for a team that is ready to contend.
Did they really give him five years?
It's not even June of Desmond's first season, and it's clear that things are already getting uncomfortable. The Rockies really need some positive change and they need it soon, because it's already reasonable to wonder if this team would be better off if they hadn't signed Desmond this winter.
It’s not exactly promising that we already feel this way, small sample size be damned, and we’re not even halfway through the first of five years on his contract.
So much can change in the next few weeks, let alone the next few years and over the course of his contract. Desmond might never justify that contract, but he can still become an important piece for this team. That all can happen, but right now it sure feels like a long road to get there right now.