Projecting a Desmond Extension

Heading into this offseason, one of the main priorities for the Washington Nationals has been agreeing to extensions with two core players set to be free agents in 2015: Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond.

Zimmermann seems the less likely of the two to stay with the Nats. He and the Nationals came to a 2-year, $24M deal that simply set the salaries for his next two years of arbitration. In light of the agreement, the two sides’ failure to come to an extension is surprising. The second year of this deal pays Zimmermann $16.5M, a figure that would make him the 13th-highest paid pitcher based on average annual value in 2014. If he seeks more money than that, he is not long for Washington.

The Nationals came to a similar deal with Desmond, buying out his two remaining years of arbitration for a total of $17.5M. Again, one should not be happy that the team and player did not agree on a longer deal, but Desmond’s case is much more encouraging.

The biggest sign pointing towards a long-term deal for Desmond is his new contract. Like Zimmermann’s, his deal is backloaded, but unlike Zimm’s, it’s at a reasonable price. The second year pays him $11M, as much as the sixth-highest paid shortstop in 2014. As an aside, there are roughly five times as many starting pitchers as shortstops in baseball. If Desmond agreed to give up his last year of arbitration for $11M, his demands for a long-term deal just might be reasonable enough for something to get done.

Beyond whether a deal will happen, we need to consider what that deal might look like, based on Desmond’s value and peers. The two most pertinent examples are long-term deals for two other shortstops: Elvis Andrus of the Texas Rangers, and Troy Tulowitzki of the Colorado Rockies.

First, let’s look at Andrus’ deal. He signed an eight-year, $120 million pact with the Rangers at the beginning of the 2013 season, when he had two years of team control left. The deal actually pays him $118M over those eight years, but also includes a club option for a ninth year that has a $2M buyout, bringing the total guarantee to $120M. In the two previous years, he had posted 3.7 and 4.3 WAR, similar to Desmond’s 3.4 and 3.7 in 2012 and 2013. Andrus provides a good chunk of his value with defense, while Desmond’s is mainly derived from his bat, but both are pretty close in overall contribution. The reason Desmond doesn’t deserve the same contract as Andrus is because Desmond is four years older than Andrus was when he got his extension.

Andrus’ deal values his age 26-33 years at an average of $15M/year, with some of that expected value pushed towards the front of the deal. The Nats already control Desmond through age 29, so assuming Desmond and Andrus produce at the same level from ages 30-33, a comparable deal would be four years/$60M to control Desmond through age 33. This seems cheap, and rightfully so: we can assume that Andrus is taking a bit of an annual pay cut in exchange for getting an eight-year deal, so a more appropriate average annual value (AAV) might be $16-17M. Additionally, four years seems like too short an extension for Desmond, so a reasonable deal with Andrus as the main comp might be around 5/$85M or 6/$96M.

The second example, Tulowitzki, is not nearly as close a comparison, but is still worth examining. Tulo had three years of control when he signed his extension, and had posted 6.5 and 6.7 WAR in the two years before it – superstar numbers, especially for a player in his age 24 and 25 seasons like he was. His first contract extension had a club option for 2014, but it was overwritten when he signed a 7-year, $134M deal that paid for his ages 29-35 seasons. The deal’s AAV is a bit lower than what a player of Tulo’s pure talent might deserve, but it accounts for his health issues, which showed up in 2008 before the deal was signed and torpedoed his 2012 season. Desmond has played 150+ games in four of the past five seasons, and has had no significant injuries other than missing a few weeks with an oblique injury in 2012.

As with Andrus, let’s look at what the deal pays Tulo for Desmond’s free agent years. He will make $16M for his age-29 season, a year for which the Nats control Desmond for $5M fewer. He is owed $20M for ages 30-34, and $14M for 35 with $6M in incentives and a $4M buyout on a $14M age-36 option. It seems fair to lop off $3-4M/year from this deal based on the expected production gap between Tulowitzki and Desmond, which brings you to the same 6/$90-96M deal if you exclude options. The value of one win above replacement is over $7M, and a healthy Tulo would likely outpace Desmond by more than that per season, but the difference between the two is lessened by the greater health risk inherent in Tulowitzki.

These comparisons give an expected deal: five or six years at $16-17M, perhaps with a team option at the end. Extensions aren’t our only tool to help value Desmond, though. We can also look at recent free-agent deals signed by shortstops, the two most relevant of which were inked by Jhonny Peralta this offseason and Jose Reyes two years ago. Owing to its auction-style format, free agency tends to inflate players’ contracts, so an extension based on these will likely be cheaper than these contracts would suggest.

Reyes signed a 6-year, $106M deal with the Marlins after putting up seasons of 2.3 and 4.7 WAR in 2010 and 2011, respectively. The deal includes a $22M team option at the end with a $4M buyout. His injury issues were well documented before the deal, so the $17M AAV accounts for some of that risk, but also rewards him for the potential that he flashed when posting 5.8 WAR as a 23-year-old in 2006.

Peralta, like Reyes and Tulo, has some risk, due to both inconsistent play and the fear that his play might drop off after he was busted for PEDs in the Biogenesis scandal last season. He put up 1.2 and 3.3 wins in his last two seasons in Detroit, and is also older than Desmond, about to enter his age-31 season. He signed a 4-year, $53M deal with the Cardinals, a shorter and cheaper deal than Desmond is likely to get due to his riskiness and age.

There are a lot of ways to determine what a fair extension for Desmond might be. One could project the rest of his career, figure out what value he can be expected to contribute, and use the market value of a win to see what he brings. But looking simply at contracts signed by comparable players, one can get a pretty good idea of what a deal might look like.

I don’t know whether Desmond will sign an extension, no more than anyone else does, but if he does, I think it’ll be something like this: 5 years, $85 million, with a $16M team option for 2021 with a $2M buyout.

About Andrew Flax

Writer for The Nats Blog