The Texas Rangers can declare victory. Not over the AL West, but at least on this past offseason’s most interesting free-agent signing.
Over the winter, the Rangers spent $8 million, and forfeited a first-round pick, to sign shortstop Ian Desmond for one year — despite the fact there were plenty of reasons not to. Desmond produced an 83 wRC+ in 2015, and suffered from periodic, yips-like defensive problems. Elvis Andrus was dug in at shortstop for the Rangers like a frightened prairie dog, and Desmond had played shortstop exclusively since 2011. Meanwhile, Rougned Odor and Adrián Beltré were equally entrenched at second and third — the two most logical destinations for veteran shortstops who move off the position — and infielder Jurickson Profar, once the top prospect in the game before a two-year injury layoff, was waiting in the wings in case any of the three faltered.
Instead, the Rangers wanted to use Desmond in left field, despite having über-prospects Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo mere weeks from major league readiness. It wasn’t an insane signing; for all the grousing about how bad Desmond was last year, he was still more or less a two-win player according to FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball-Reference, and $8 million is a perfectly acceptable price to pay for such a player. But given the team’s roster construction, Texas made for a peculiar landing spot.
It’s been only two months, but Desmond’s already one of the bargains of the past offseason. Batting mostly second and fifth in a lineup that’s been depleted by an injury to Shin-Soo Choo and the decay of Prince Fielder, Desmond’s hit .310/.356/.486 and stolen 11 bases in 12 attempts. He’s cut his strikeout rate (relative to last year) by almost a third, and he’s hitting more line drives this year than any time since 2013. When the Rangers sent Delino DeShields and his 59 wRC+ down to Triple-A, Desmond moved over to center field, where he’s started every game since May 11. And among qualified center fielders, Desmond is seventh in the majors in wRC+ (at 122), one spot ahead of Lorenzo Cain.
Take all that at face value, and the Rangers got a top-10 center fielder for $8 million and a first-round pick. That’s not a bad piece of business at all.
But what happens if Desmond cools off? A 122 wRC+ isn’t unprecedented for him — his career best is 128, back in 2012 — but it’s a big leap from last year. Let’s say he hits his career average — a 101, which about the major league average — for the rest of the year. A league-average hitter in center field is well worth $8 million, and Desmond’s two hot months are already in the bank. As of today, none of the three major WAR measures listed above has Desmond as being worth less than 1.6 wins, so if he woke up tomorrow morning and decided to give up baseball forever to concentrate on heli-skiing, the Rangers would have bought more than $8 million worth of production already.
Then there’s the serendipity of it all. Rangers GM Jon Daniels didn’t worry about fit; he just saw a good player who could be signed for cheap and decided to figure the rest out later. When DeShields got demoted, and Desmond moved over to center field, the deal got even better because something else went wrong.
Most of the time, building a winning baseball team is really hard. Most of the time, it’s more complicated than just throwing money at players who have been good in the past, and letting tomorrow take care of itself. But sometimes it isn’t.