Ian Desmond and The Pillow Contract

I wasn't crazy-thrilled on February 28th when the Rangers signed Ian Desmond to play left field. The investment was minor, just one year and $8 million, but it also caused Texas to forfeit a first round pick to Washington as compensation.

The draft pick is how Desmond, who slashed .275/.326/.462 (116 wRC+) and was worth +13.4 fWAR from 2012-2014, ended up unsigned for so long. Since the Nationals tendered Ian a qualifying offer -- on the heels of a disappointing .233/.290/.384 (83 wRC+) 2015 campaign -- it meant whatever team that signed him had to surrender its first pick in the upcoming amateur draft.

I assume most of you understand the way this process works. And how, in cases like Ian Desmond's, the player can really get screwed. Because acquiring talent is so hard in 2016, particularly due to international spending caps and penalties, the slot values of higher draft picks mean more free revenue for the individual club. Basically, draft picks have never been worth more, so teams would rather not give them away for anything less than an impact player.

Ian Desmond didn't qualify as one of those. So it was easy to feel underwhelmed when Texas picked him up. Especially confronted by the fact he was coming off a down year, and that he was about to play in a new league, in a new ballpark, playing an entirely new position. What could possibly go wrong.

Then something funny happened. Desmond played in his first 14 baseball games for the Rangers, and totally sucked. Through 50 plate appearance he was hitting .109/.180/.109 (good for a -30 wRC+) with zero extra-base hits and a 4/15 BB/K ratio. Ian was quickly turning into the early-season scapegoat for why the offense was struggling so much, even at a time when more critical hitters like Rougned Odor, Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland started slowly out of the gate.

There I was, a fan neither of the signing nor the player, feeling frustrated at some of the unreasonably immediate backlash I was reading against the new guy. It wasn't fair. That's when I decided to go against the grain and do something radical: Actually cheer for him. 

Above all, I submit the Rangers know more than I do. So if they thought it would be wise to pay Desmond $8 million and give up a draft pick -- which they are historically stingy at -- then why not trust their judgement further than 14 games? I gave in.

Let's not forget, Ian isn't simply a piece to help the Rangers win in 2016. He has a ton at stake this year, personally. A few years ago as one of the top shortstops in baseball, Desmond probably envisioned signing something in the neighborhood of $100 million once his free agency came up. His stock fell so low after 2015 that he ended up on Texas's lap for just one year and seven figures.

Different players, sure, but something similar happened to Adrian Beltre in 2010. After a disappointing five-year stint with the Mariners, Adrian signed a one-year, $9 million "pillow" contract with Boston to reestablish his market for a bigger contract in the future. Like Desmond is now, Beltre was 30 at the time. 

No longer a shortstop, Ian is now playing on his own pillow contract. And in spite of his slow start, he has lately been out proving why the Rangers wanted him. Over his last 7 games he's slashing .400/.516/.840 (277 wRC+) with 3 HRs, 2 2B's and a strong 6/4 BB/K ratio -- he's now up to .211/.309/.366 (88 wRC+) on the season. Oh, how we do love the small samples.

My own intuition has yet to become a viable Sabermetric, but as a general rule I don't like to bet against players who are in a free agency year. That argument can be thrown in my face vis a vis Ian Desmond, himself, who was godawful last year heading into free agency. But he can't escape that he is one big year away from a significant contract, and another down year from being paid like a platoon player.

Smart baseball writers have always told me there is no such thing as a bad one-year deal. Rangers fans might counter with Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman as examples to the contrary, but even then there wasn't a Fielder-esque trail of seasons to go from there. They played, they were bad, and the Rangers moved on. 

I'm confident Ian Desmond will only play one year with the Rangers, but that's less to do with the (high) hopes I have for him in the lineup, and more to do with the fact that Texas just has too many outfielders coming up from the minor leagues. He will play, and the Rangers will move on.

But what happens in the meantime remains important to both parties. Depending how Prince recovers from his awful start, and if Nomar Mazara continues being strong out of the 2-hole, Ian Desmond has a chance of being one of the 3- or 4-best hitters in Texas's lineup in 2016. That's not something I would have bet on when he signed with the Rangers, and certainly not after his abnormally slow start.