Thoughts on Ian Desmond and Jonah Keri’s Trade Value Column

Washington Nationals at Baltimore Orioles May ...
Washington Nationals at Baltimore Orioles May 22, 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jonah Keri today posted the second and final part of his annual Trade Value column on Grantland.  Four Nationals were ranked: Bryce Harper (3rd); Stephen Strasburg (15th); Gio Gonzalez (41st); and Ian Desmond (42nd).

Last month, I created a Nats-only Trade Value column (it is posted here on Red Porch Report).  The full column is worth a read, but my top seven looked like this:

1. Bryce Harper

2. Ian Desmond

3. Stephen Strasburg

4. Gio Gonzalez

5. Jordan Zimmerman

6. Lucas Giolito

7. Anthony Rendon

Minor leaguers were ineligible for Keri’s list, disqualifying Giolito.  In addition, while Jordan Zimmermann wasn’t ranked, Keri mentions Zimm “didn’t miss by much.”  Additionally, Keri told me via Twitter that Rendon was a “REALLY tough omission.”  It’s safe to say Keri’s top six looks like this:

1. Harper

2. Strasburg

3. Gio

4. Desmond

5. Zimmermann

6. Rendon

Among the Nationals’ top six players, Keri and I disagree on one player: Desmond.  Either I overvalued him or Keri undervalued him.  Let’s examine.

Here’s what Keri had to say:

He has just two years of controllable service time left. Still, if the Nationals made Desmond — a five-win shortstop in his prime who boasts power, speed, and defensive skill — available for trade, 20 teams would text Mike Rizzo within 10 seconds.

Here’s what I had to say:

Hardly anyone noticed that Ian Desmond has been the most productive shortstop in baseball over the last two seasons. Desmond doesn’t have Troy Tulowitski’s skill set, but he comes without the health concerns and crippling contract. With two more full years before he hits free agency, Desmond is probably at his career peak trade value right now. Any team trading for Desmond gets two affordable years of all-star level shortstop and — almost as important — an exclusive negotiating window for an extension. Elite shortstops don’t hit the free agent market often, and when they do, they usually get paid.

Keri appropriately discounts Desmond because he has only two years of club control before he hits free agency.  Strasburg and Gio, who Keri ranks above Desmond, have at least three years of club control before free agency.  Perhaps Keri’s rankings were more accurate; service time/contract length is generally the biggest factor when teams are making trades.

But I ranked Desmond higher than all of the Nats pitchers because of his position, shortstop.  Comparing shortstops to pitchers is inherently an apples to oranges exercise.  But my gut tells me, all things being equal, a 4 or 5 WAR shortstop is more valuable than a 4 or 5 WAR pitcher.

All teams need pitching, yet pitchers always seem to be available.  James Shields (3.9 WAR in ’11) was traded last offseason with two years left on his contract (albeit for a truckload of top prospects).  This season, David Price, Jeff Samardzija, and Max Scherzer were are on the market for the right price (the Tigers ended up trading Doug Fister to the Nats instead).  In any event, the price for a top tier pitcher with service time remaining is set: somewhere below the Shields to Kansas City ripoff for the Rays and above the Fister to Washington ripoff for the Nats.

Similar data doesn’t exist for shortstops, largely because fewer top tier shortstops exist and because top tier shortstops usually don’t get traded.  But that’s exactly my point.  Four to Five WAR shortstops are like Apple stock.  You don’t sell.  The Rangers locked up Elvis Andrus (4.0 WAR in ’12) last season long-term despite having an in-house replacement, mega-prospect Jurickson Profar.  After his 5.9 WAR season in 2010 , the Rockies famously signed Troy Tulowitzki until–and I’ll have to check this–the year 2646.

This leads me to my primary justification for ranking Desmond so high.  Having Desmond under contract not only entitles a team to his playing services, it guarantees a two-year exclusive negotiating window.  Despite being 30 when he will hit free agency, Desmond is the type of player I’d consider a “safe investment” for a long-term contract.  His career progression shows steady improvement from year to year, both defensively and offensively.  He shows little injury risk or other red flags.  He has embraced the role as team leader, whatever value, if any, that brings to a team.

Pitchers by contrast are inherently volatile.  Strasburg, for instance, hasn’t even pitched 200 innings in a season yet.  Last year he had a variety of minor ailments, leading to surgery this offseason. Even considering his limitless talent and potential, few teams would be willing to make a Verlander-sized financial commitment right now.  For his part, Strasburg and his agent Scott Boras are likely to test free agency at the first available opportunity.  Players like Strasburg and Desmond would demand a truckload of free agents if they were traded.  Accordingly, any team receiving them would want assurances of production and probably the possibility of a contract extension.  It’s in this context we begin to see Desmond’s enhanced value.

I agree with Keri’s point: if Rizzo put Desmond on the trade block, 20 different General Managers would probably pull a muscle running to their phones.  But that won’t happen of course, because Desmond won’t be traded.  Premier shortstops in their prime rarely are.

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Ian Desmond and Jonah Keri’s Trade Value Column”

  1. Great points. Top Shortstops are definitely more rare than quality pitchers. The Nats didn’t extend Zim until halfway thru Spring Training – let’s hope they don’t make us wait that long for Ian.

  2. The jury is still out whether it’s a good idea to extend someone a full years before they hit free agency. The rule book says it’s only a good idea if the player is willing to accept less money to do so.

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