After starting the season with eight errors in the Nationals’ first 15 games, Ian Desmond’s adventurous play at shortstop has mostly leveled off, to the enormous relief of his teammates and the mild disappointment of fans of slapstick comedy. Two months later he’s sitting on 14 errors, all but ending any hope of seeing him stumble and blind-fire his way to a modern record for fielding ineptitude. Ah well.
Unfortunately, finally discovering that he’d been wearing a giant foam number one hand instead of a glove for weeks and weeks hasn’t kept Desmond from torpedoing his team’s aspirations to greatness. Back in April, Desmond was hitting .300/.354/.443 and leading the Nationals in batting average, hits, and doubles, just enough early season production to keep his comedy of errors-ass stationed in the hole every damn game. In the months since, our boy’s line has dropped to .222/.266/.349 and he’s corkscrewed his way to the top five in strikeouts in all of baseball. Meanwhile, the Nationals—strong betting favorites to represent the National League in the World Series—have scuttled their way to a 33-31 record, in no small part due to a lagging offense lacking production from their three-time Silver Slugger at shortstop. Not good! Not very good at all.
Desmond’s already had three four-strikeout games in 2015, and he’s gone just 6-for-54 in June with 21 strikeouts and zero walks. He struck out in 10 of 12 at-bats recently. And? Top middle-infield prospect Trea Turner—acquired in a three-team deal from the Padres in spring training but stuck as “player to be named later” due to MLB administrative nonsense—officially joined the Nationals over the weekend. The writing is on the wall, and Ian Desmond can’t hit the ball within a hundred feet of the wall.
It just keeps getting worse for Desmond, who’d been angling for a monster contract this offseason as he enters his prime years. He turned down a $107 million extension in early 2014 over concerns that it represented below market value for a pre-prime player with his impressive track record. And he was probably right! As Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post reported back in March 2014, Desmond’s stance was the conclusion of a fair and principled (if idealistic and—in hindsight—possibly tragic) assessment of the landscape around him:
“I don’t pretend like I’m some college graduate with a masters in finance,” he said. “I got a high school education. I may or may not have deserved the diploma.” But Desmond is also entrenched in his nuanced stance. He is not greedily demanding more money. He is sacrificing comfort and risking security in the name of players before him and for the sake of those to follow.
“If you said, ‘Hey, Ian, we want you to play here for the rest of your career.’ Okay. Yeah, absolutely. Duh. Where do I sign up?” Desmond said. “At the same time, there have been a lot of people that have come through this game that have sacrificed a lot for us, the players that are coming through now. I don’t want to sign a deal — and this isn’t to say they’ve offered me this — but I don’t want to sign a deal that is so bad that a future shortstop gets screwed because I signed a terrible deal. I’m not going to be that guy, that kink in the chain. I’m going to get a fair deal, or I’m just going to wait.”
The extension he turned down was worth around $90 million over five years, with the two years of his shorter contract (signed in January 2014 to avoid salary arbitration) considered part of the $107 million total. Whichever number you use, though—5 years for $90 million or 7 years for $107 million—Desmond had reason to give the offer the side-eye. In 2011 Jose Reyes signed a 6-year, $106 million (Ed.— I originally had this at six years, $124 million, because I can’t count) free agency contract; the next year, Desmond’s teammate, Ryan Zimmerman, signed a 6-year extension worth $100 million. He had good reason to think he was worth at least as much.
So Desmond balked at the offer and agreed to a two-year contract that would allow him to hit free agency entering his age-30 season, then went out and had a terrific 2014. It was his third consecutive 20-20 season, with career highs in walks, RBI, and WAR on a 96-win Nationals team, all for a measly $6.5 million—a massive discount for the kind of production that had, by then, become his norm. At that point he was one season away from a payday on par with, say, Jacoby Ellsbury’s seven-year, $153 million deal, signed in 2013.
The Nationals, looking at the same math as everyone else, and looking down the line at future mega-deals for Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon, traded a promising young outfielder (Steven Souza Jr.) in a three-team deal with the Rays and Padres and snagged Turner, a top shortstop prospect—all the leverage they’d need to hold relatively firm on their offer to Desmond. And that, of course, came before Desmond woke up on opening day 2015 with Mickey Mouse hands. Cold.
From a distance it’s possible to see this sequence—guy plays well; guy is offered lots of money; guy turns down lots of money, demands tons of money; guy’s career veers into a shit-filled ditch; guy loses out on lots of money and tons of money—as a sort of karmic backlash for what could easily be interpreted as greed. But these sorts of negotiations flip an otherwise reasonable notion of greed a little bit on its head. Baseball players, unlike their peers in other popular American stick-and-ball sports, receive a fair share of the revenues generated by their labor. Part of the reason they do is that they have a strong union that’s cultivated a strong sense in players of how what they do affects their peers. Desmond’s reasonable demand that his contract reflect fair market value therefore works to the benefit of all MLB players. If Elvis Andrus’s 2013 extension (eight years, $120 million) gave the Rangers a per-year discount on his services, it dragged the value of players in his range of productivity backward, and Desmond had articulated his goal to pull them back in the right direction. It was the right move, but hindsight is doing unflattering things to it.
In that way, Desmond’s gambit for fair value and subsequent catastrophic drop-off in play isn’t so far removed from DeMarre Carroll’s bullshit knee injury or Wes Matthews’s goddamn torn Achilles tendon—unfortunate instances of players right on the cusp of finally cashing in on the value of what they’d already done suddenly staring down the possibility of settling for cheaper deals and never once recouping the value of the discount they’d already given for years of underpaid labor.
O irony of ironies—Desmond was worried about some shortstop getting screwed by his deal down the line. Oof.