NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The Colorado Rockies signed free-agent outfielder Ian Desmond to a five-year, $70 million contract on Wednesday, a move that could create a ripple effect impacting several different teams and playoff races.
From 2012 through 2014, Desmond established himself as one of the most productive shortstops in baseball, posting three straight 20-20 seasons. But after turning down a multi-year contract extension offer from the Nationals, Desmond's numbers fell off a cliff in 2015. That drop-off, combined with teams being reluctant to sacrifice a draft pick after Washington gave him a qualifying offer, cratered the market for Desmond's services last winter.
When the dust settled, the Rangers swooped in and grabbed Desmond on a one-year, $8 million deal. Given the windfall he just got from the Rockies, that Texas stopover appeared to do wonders. By batting .285/.335/.446 with another 20-20 effort (22 homers, 21 steals, along with 107 runs scored and a clean bill of health), Desmond jump-started his market value and got his megadeal.
What's less clear is what the Rockies are getting for their money. From Opening Day through the end of July, Desmond batted .303/.355/.519, cranking 20 homers and 25 doubles in 104 games. But over the final two months of the season, those numbers nosedived, with a closing-kick line of just .249/.297/.305, and just seven extra-base hits in 52 games.
There's also the matter of Desmond's defense. A career shortstop, Desmond became a regular outfielder in the big leagues for the first time last season. His results were ... underwhelming. In 130 games patrolling center field, Desmond graded out as six runs worse than average, according to Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved. Moving to Coors Field's gigantically spacious outfield, where chasing down shots into the gap are the norm and doubles and triples fall like rain, won't make life any easier.
The worst fallout from this signing is that the Rockies will sacrifice the 11th overall pick in the 2017 draft to get Desmond. The team hasn't lured a significant free-agent pitcher to Denver since the Mike Hampton/Denny Neagle fiasco. That helps explain why the Rockies took their available resources and spent them on yet another outfielder instead. But blocking the path for intriguing prospect Raimel Tapia, and at least muddling the picture for 2016 rookie sensation David Dahl, isn't an ideal use of resources. Moreover, Colorado's inability to coax pitchers to come throw at altitude makes the draft all that much more important when it comes to acquiring arms. Giving up the no. 11 pick thus becomes a strange decision.
Going forward, it's not clear where Desmond will play in Colorado. The three highest-paid players on the Rockies' roster are now all outfielders, and it's hard to know how many of those three will be Rockies come Opening Day, or how they'll slide into the lineup if they stay. Colorado owes right fielder Carlos Gonzalez $20.4 million in his final year before free agency, and outfielder/first baseman Gerardo Parra might not have a starting job after struggling badly in the first season of his three-year, $27.5 million contract. Add Desmond to the mix, and you've got a mile-high playing-time crunch.
That's where a trade could come in and the dominoes could begin to fall.
Both Gonzalez and Charlie Blackmon have, for a while, come up in trade rumors. Gonzalez's bat and expiring deal would normally make him an attractive acquisition candidate for well-heeled teams, but clubs like the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers have luxury-tax penalties to worry about, likely negating any hunger for a $20.4 million addition.
That would make Blackmon the most likely Rockie to go. The lefty-swinging center fielder enjoyed a career year in 2016, batting a terrific .324/.381/.552. Even after adjusting for the offense-inflating bonanza that is Coors Field, that was still the third-best mark for any center fielder in the majors, trailing only Mike Trout and Yoenis Cespedes.
At first glance, trading a player who can handle the tough task of playing center field in Colorado capably while hitting that well would seem like a puzzling idea. But Blackmon is already 30 years old, with two years left until free agency. For the Rockies, that creates an opportunity to sell Blackmon while his value is still high. For potential suitors, it's a chance to land a true two-way talent without shelling out the GDP of an island nation on the open market. Armed with the best collection of young pitching talent in franchise history and a lineup that could be both dangerous and deep if Desmond and Dahl hold their own, the Rockies could make themselves into darkhorse contenders if they can parlay Blackmon into a solid collection of talent. Nabbing an impact relief pitcher in trade (Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman aren't coming) would help a lot.
The Cardinals would be a logical candidate for Blackmon's services. The St. Louis brass has spoken openly about their desire to move Randal Grichuk to a corner-outfield spot, opening up center field for a newcomer. The Cards' greatest surplus lies in the infield, where Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, Jedd Gyorko, Aledmys Diaz, Jhonny Peralta, and Matt Adams are on board and only four starting jobs are available. Carpenter moving to first base next season frees up Adams for a trade, and the Rockies could use a first baseman -- but Adams didn't distinguish himself with the Cardinals, and he wouldn't be nearly enough to fetch Blackmon in a trade. If the Rockies ask for younger talent and bullpen help, though, the two teams might be able to find a match ... assuming the Cards don't pounce on Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, or one of the other available center-field choices.
The final ripple effect could occur in Toronto. The early three-year, $33 million signing of Kendrys Morales was a terrible misread of the market, one that now has Edwin Encarnacion scrambling to land anything close to a big deal, and a litany of other 30-something sluggers still looking for jobs. But the the Jays could still salvage their offseason if they're able to land free-agent outfielder Dexter Fowler. The 30-year-old Fowler enjoyed his best season on a rate basis in 2016, batting a robust .276/.393/.447. He would bring several skillsets that the Jays crave, including a high-on-base guy at the top of the order, speed, a switch-hitting bat, and solid outfield defense.
Losing Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, and Michael Saunders would make the Jays a less homer-happy team in 2017 and beyond. But playing Fowler alongside elite fly-chaser Kevin Pillar would be a big upgrade over the clunky defensive escapades of Bautista and Saunders, giving the lineup a more athletic look than it had in 2016. The Cardinals falling out of the picture if they acquire Blackmon could facilitate Fowler heading north of the border.
The end result of the Ian Desmond merry-go-round could be multiple teams benefiting, and the Rockies -- down a high draft pick, still seeking relief help, and carrying a talented but uneven roster -- faring worst of all. Just another bout of weirdness at the always kooky winter meetings.