Ian Desmond has to wear the mental burden of better performance to justify his big league worth beyond 2021. The younger Raimel Tapia and Sam Hilliard breathe down his neck for outfield opportunity, and the 11-year veteran bears the weight of proving himself at 34.
Much of the Rockies’ payroll opens up in the next two years—Desmond’s contract ends after 2021 and contributes to that. Colorado has more roster freedom from there, and Desmond will then have freedom to sign a new contract.
Only that’s not the news he wants to hear: Desmond may find himself transitioning into the twilight of his career.
The Denver Post quotes Desmond as saying that he came to Denver as a “culture-shifter,” to help a winning team. He goes on to say his top priority this year is to be a better teammate and to help younger players, passing his knowledge to them. He came up through the Expos/Nationals system and can speak on a different path than homegrown Rockies players. He’s a two-time All-Star. Veteran leadership is invaluable.
It’s commendable for Desmond to do so, but it’s an expensive price to pay for veteran leadership.
We’ll never know the extent of the mental pressure Desmond feels going into this season. Hopefully an approach toward guidance and mentorship eases any potential stresses he may feel. His culture-shifting approach could enhance his own performance as a byproduct.
Colorado’s two-year financial waiting game is far more than a game for some. Desmond has to fight for his career, along with Wade Davis, Jake McGee, Bryan Shaw, Daniel Murphy, a whole cast of higher-paid veterans. All have seen huge successes at the big league level, enough to get them the money they currently make. All are at, or nearing, their mid-to-late-30’s. All need to perform with continued successes in order for their future contracts to bear any resemblance to their current ones.
If Nolan Arenado is uneasy about the team not winning, these guys feel the weight. It definitely isn’t the way any of them would like to go out.
For their sake, and for the sake of winning baseball, we can hope for their successes. We can hope they can perform closer to their peak, and their career longevity can increase because of it. We can hope the mental burden of performing better doesn’t overshadow their ability to make things happen. We can hope it’s a fight for them to stay out of the twilight of their careers, rather than witnessing it with our own eyes.
Maybe that’s enough for Desmond to sign a contract extension in the big leagues after 2021, regardless of team. Maybe it’s enough for the highest paid Rockies relievers to go out more on their own terms, rather than entering an earlier retirement. Maybe it’s all enough to win a little bit more in 2020 and 2021.
Maybe that would be enough for Nolan Arenado to stick around.
ESPN’s Pedro Gomez tried to pry answers out of Arenado in a Monday interview. Gomez didn’t get much in return, but we do see some accompanying body language at the very least. What we do know is that Arenado ‘thinks’ he will be in a Rockies uniform come Opening Day.
It’s unjust to interpret facial expressions alone as an indicator of truth, especially when Arenado was likely avoiding these interviews. He was hitting at Arizona State last week in front of minimal media coverage, instead of answering to a hotbed of reporters at Salt River Fields like he is now.
ESPN brings out their heavy hitter Pedro Gomez to meet at his locker. The interview doesn’t add much, but hearing it from Arenado’s mouth makes it a little more real.
Statcast put Hilliard’s ‘sprint speed’ in the top seven percent of the league last year. Raimel Tapia is no slouch when it comes to quickness; he actually had a higher recorded speed than Hilliard three years ago. Last year, Tapia was in the 85th percentile for sprint speed. Desmond was in the 65th.
A large Coors Field outfield with a burner like Hilliard could be why FanGraphs ZiPS projections put him in center field; David Dahl ran in the 76th percentile. If Charlie Blackmon moved out of center to preserve his longevity, the same could potentially happen to Dahl. If Hilliard can already prove to track down fly balls quicker, the wear-and-tear of center field could be less demanding for him than it would be for Dahl and Blackmon.
(Dahl and Hilliard are also the same age, so the wear-and-tear discussion can get a little weird there)
Media indications still forecast either Desmond, Hilliard or Tapia will be in left field. Desmond bats right. Hilliard and Tapia bat left. That simple detail suggests a left/right platoon could be the deciding factor, at least to start the year.