Moneyball

Dollar and cents continue to rule baseball and Ian Desmond is paying for it

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There were three seemingly unconnected baseball stories last week. I think they do connect in a convoluted way.

The first story was a column by the Philadelphia Daily News’ Stu Byofsky begging Ryan Howard to retire.

The second was the Pirates signing ace Gerrit Cole.

And the third, the most significant one, was Texas signing All-Star Ian Desmond to a one-year, $8 million deal.

The connection was money. Yes, a lot of people say that there’s way too much money talk in baseball, and I think that’s probably right. But it’s also true that since the dawn of professional baseball, we fans have been utterly fascinated by the money. We are intrigued by the money, disgusted by the money, enthralled by the money. From the Philadelphia Athletics’ famed $100,000 infield of the 1910s (the four players made, at most, $30,000 combined) through Bryce Harper’s likely half-billion-dollar deal to come (it’s coming), the eyes cannot stop following the money.

Byofsky’s column — an open letter to Howard — asks Howard to step away from baseball because he’s not a useful player anymore. “Don’t make us hate you,” Byofsky pleads, which seems a pretty harsh thing to say to someone who, the author concedes, has been both a personal and Philadelphia hero. But the key issue is the money.

Howard is due a $10 million buyout at the end of the year — that was the final piece of the Phillies’ absurd offer to Howard when the man was already in clear decline. Though Byofsky dances around it, he seems to be asking Howard to retire and forego that $10 million. I could be misreading it.

“If you don’t retire, the Phillies will have to pay you $10 million to make you go away next season. If forced to, they will. What happens then? … Please, Ryan, tell the Phillies you will retire at the end of this season. Maybe they’ll give you the $10 million anyway to avoid the anguish about cutting you from the only professional team you’ve played for. Better yet – maybe they’ll send it as a donation to your charity, the Ryan Howard Big Piece Foundation. Wouldn’t that be cool?”

I’m reading “If forced to, they will,” to mean, “Please don’t force the Phillies to pay you that $10 million.” But your mileage may vary.

The second money story last week involved Gerrit Cole. The Pirates decided to pay him exactly what he made last year, even through Cole finished fourth in the Cy Young voting and had the best season for a Pirates pitcher in at least a decade. The Pirates have the right to do this because Cole is not yet arbitration eligible. That means the Pirates can pay him whatever they want as long as it’s more than the Major League minimum of $507,500.

The Pirates are not paying him the minimum. Nope, they’re paying $541,000, which is $33,500 more than the minimum. Cole said they did threaten to pay him the minimum if he did not sign the contract.

Now, hey, we know, $541,000 is a lot of money. But, it’s worth pointing out, that by Fangraphs estimates, Cole was worth $43.5 million to the Pirates last year.

The Cole Affair is a good reminder that baseball owners don’t change much. We like to BELIEVE that things are different now than they were in, say, the Charles Comiskey days, when the guy had Eddie Cicotte benched so he couldn’t win 30 games and cash in his bonus. We like to believe that things are different now than they were when Branch Rickey refused to give Ralph Kiner a raise (though he led the league in homers and was second in RBIs, OPS and Runs Created) because, “We could have finished last without you.”

But what is different now is the system. Owners no longer control players in perpetuity. After a few years, they have to deal with arbitration and then free agency, when the player has a lot of leverage. Would owners be more generous now given the power and control they had for the first 100 or so years of professional baseball? Well, just ask Gerrit Cole.

Finally, we get to our leading man, Ian Desmond. When the 2013 season ended, Desmond’s future seemed bright and assured. He was coming off another good year. He’d won another Silver Slugger Award as the best-hitting shortstop in the league. He cracked 20 homers and stole 20 bases. He set a career with 272 total bases. He played better-than-average defense at shortstop.

More than all of that, he had — through hard work, dedication and basic decency — become the leader and beating heart of the Washington Nationals, one of the best teams in baseball. Everybody loved Ian Desmond. Teammates admired him. Opponents respected him. Fans loved him. He was idolized by the unseen people in the organization, the scouts, the marketing folks, the clubhouse workers. Desmond, on his own, would go to minor-league camp and talk to the younger players just to make them feel more comfortable. He was Mr. Washington National.

“I can’t imagine wearing a different uniform,” he said.

When that season ended, there seemed absolutely no doubt that Desmond would spend the bulk of his career playing for the Washington Nationals. That was what everyone wanted, and the Nationals made their first offer: A seven-year, $107 million deal.

The deal had two components:

— The first two years, they would pay Desmond roughly $17 million in total. That’s because those first two years, Desmond was only arbitration-eligible, meaning the Nationals still have a measure of control. Desmond ended up signing a two-year, $17.5 million deal.

— The last five years were the crux of the deal. The Nationals would pay Desmond $90 million, or $18 million a year. Some of the money, it should be added, was going to be deferred, which makes the deal somewhat less valuable from Desmond’s perspective.

Now, how do you look at this deal? You can look at it in an obvious way: $107 million is a crazy amount of money. Looking at this way: You would have to be certifiable to turn down a $107 million deal to play baseball for the team you want to play with for the rest of your life.

But, from a pure baseball perspective, there were real problems with the Nationals’ offer. In baseball, everything is based on where a player fits in baseball’s huge and ever-changing salary structure. Desmond was a 27-year-old All-Star shortstop and a team leader. By most lights, he was worth CONSIDERABLY MORE than this deal. Look: The Tigers had given a 34-year-old Victor Martinez $17 million per year even though he really couldn’t play a position. One unnamed source told The Washington Post that Desmond would make a LOT more in the open market.

In other words, from a baseball perspective, Desmond would have to be certifiable to ACCEPT a deal that far below market value. And here’s where it gets even trickier: One of those unnamed sources told me that Desmond wanted to sign the deal, but he felt pressure from the Players Association not to take a low offer that might depress the market for other players.

Desmond said this very thing publicly after turning down the deal:

“If you said, ‘Hey Ian, we want you to play here for the rest of your career,’ OK. Yeah. Absolutely. Duh.  Where do I sign up?” he told The Washington Post. “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 … 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.”

And so: Ian Desmond stood up for future shortstops of America. That speaks to his character. The Post reported that Desmond and the Nationals planned to meet a year later to discuss a deal, but either those talks never happened, or nothing came from them. Desmond began to show some signs of decline in 2014. His batting average and on-base percentage went down (though he set career highs in homers and RBIs and WAR).

And then came the Desmond Disaster of 2015. He endured an utterly nightmarish first three months. On July 19, he was hitting .204 and slugging .324. He seemed completely lost in the field, committing eight errors in the team’s first 15 games. At the All-Star break, Desmond was — by virtually every statistic available — the worst everyday player in the league.

He improved quite a bit in the second half — hitting .272 with 12 homers — but by then the concrete around his story had hardened. The Nationals had so many problems with choking (both figuratively and literally) that Desmond’s improved play and leadership no longer seemed to matter. Washington traded for shortstop prospect Trea Turner. Desmond was out.

But there would be one more odd money quirk. When a good player like Desmond becomes a free agent, it is customary for his former team to offer what is called a qualifying offer. The team does this because (assuming the player turns it down — and players almost always turn it down), the offer entitles them to a high draft pick from whichever team finally signs the player.

So the Nationals offered Desmond a one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer. Now, how do you look at this deal? You could look at it in the obvious way: Are you freaking kidding me? Take the money. That’s SIXTEEN MILLION DOLLARS to play baseball.

But, from a pure baseball perspective, Desmond couldn’t take the deal. The Nationals didn’t want him; the Nationals just wanted the draft pick. If Desmond had signed, it would have been a trying and uncomfortable year (to say the least), and it would have sent a terrible message to the other 29 teams. Desmond is still only 30 years old; he wants to play in the big leagues for many more years. The Nationals’ offer was a cynical one, and Desmond cannot afford to be cynical at this point in his career.

So he went home and waited for the offers to come in. They didn’t come in. A few rumors would pop up here and there but, it’s pretty clear, teams were unnerved by his struggles in 2015, and they didn’t want to give up their draft pick.

Texas finally signed Desmond for about half of the qualifying offer, and the Rangers intend to put him in left field. For years, Ian Desmond did everything right. And now his future in the game is cloudy.

So there you go: Three money stories, and what do they add up to say? That’s a matter of opinion, of course, but I would say this to Ryan Howard: Collect that $10 million. You’ve earned it.