Ian Desmond deal presents more questions than answers for Rockies

Big League Stew
The Rockies signed <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/8589/" data-ylk="slk:Ian Desmond">Ian Desmond</a> to a huge deal Wednesday. (Getty Images/Scott Halleran)
The Rockies signed Ian Desmond to a huge deal Wednesday. (Getty Images/Scott Halleran)

Imagine being a Colorado Rockies fan Wednesday morning. As you sit at work hoping your team does something this offseason, your phone buzzes. It’s a Rockies alert. You slowly start to read the words.

“Rockies agree,” it begins, and you start to get excited. The Rockies signed someone. That’s great.

The next words read, “to $70 million deal.” OK, now you’re losing your mind. Seventy million is a lot of money. It looks like the Rockies just signed an elite player. Maybe it was Edwin Encarnacion. He seems like a fit.

The message finishes, “with Ian Desmond.” You stare at your phone for what feels like an hour, unable to gather your thoughts. Something finally comes to your mind and you blurt it out immediately. It’s just one word.

“What?”

That’s an apt response. Desmond signing with the Rockies presents far more questions than it does answers. Since this is a deal that can’t simply be summed up as “good” or “bad” on the surface, it’s worth exploring all the questions and seeing if we can figure out exactly what the Rockies are thinking.

ARE THE ROCKIES GOING FOR IT NOW?
It looks like it. You don’t go out and sign Ian Desmond for $70 million over five years if you’re planning to win 70 games. More importantly, you don’t give up the 11th pick in the upcoming draft unless you think you’re pretty close to making the playoffs. This is the type of move made by a team that believes it’s a contender.

OK, BUT CAN THE ROCKIES ACTUALLY CONTEND?
Maybe? OK, that’s not a great answer, but Colorado is probably closer than you think. The team sat on the fringes of the National League wild card race in early August. On Aug. 4, the Rockies were 54-54, and just three games out of a playoff spot. They couldn’t keep that up, and finished with 75 wins.

Despite the fading second half, there’s talent here. Just look at that offense. If the team can find a way to get everyone in the lineup (we’ll get to that), their projected top-7 in the batting order looks like this:

You could get the vapors just looking at that lineup. Even if LeMahieu and Dahl don’t fully produce at the same level they showed last year, that’s an incredible batting order. Remember, all those guys get to play half their games at Coors Field. Could the Rockies score a million runs? No, that’s crazy. Could they score a lot of runs. Yes, easily.

Jon Gray posted strong peripherals in 2016. (Getty Images/Lisa Blumenfeld)
Jon Gray posted strong peripherals in 2016. (Getty Images/Lisa Blumenfeld)

YEAH, BUT AREN’T THE ROCKIES ALWAYS SUNK BY PITCHING?
Yes. That’s true. Pitching in Coors Field is a terrible fate that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemies. With that said, the Rockies boast more talent in the rotation than normal heading into 2017. Jon Gray’s 4.61 ERA was pretty average, but he posted strong peripherals and put together some really exceptional starts. Tyler Anderson put up some pretty encouraging numbers during his rookie season, posting a 3.54 ERA over 114 1/3 innings. Even Tyler Chatwood was usable. That’s neat. The team also broke in hard-throwing righty Jeff Hoffman at the end of the season. His numbers in the majors weren’t great, but he’s 23 and has a prospect pedigree. There are still questions here, but also more talent than you would normally expect from the Rockies’ pitching staff.

WHAT ABOUT THE DEFENSE? IS THERE A NEW RULE SAYING TEAMS HAVE TO START FOUR OUTFIELDERS?
There is not a new rule and that makes this whole signing … complicated. Desmond played center field last year for the Texas Rangers. Prior to that, he was a shortstop with the Washington Nationals. The Rockies, as you already know, have a really strong outfield and will play Trevor Story at short. So, where does that leave Desmond?

Early reports seem to indicate he’s going to play first base, and that seems like a bad idea. It’s not that Desmond can’t play the position, he’s clearly athletic. But it seems like a waste of resources to sign a guy with Desmond’s versatility and then stick him at first base.

Of course, it’s possible the Rockies are just saying that now because they don’t want to let teams know they are planning to deal one of their outfielders to make room for Desmond. If the team opens up an outfield spot, the Desmond signing seems a bit more logical.

OK, SO WHO’S GETTING TRADED
Probably Blackmon. His name already started to crop up in trade rumors shortly after Desmond was signed. Considering Dexter Fowler is the only other legitimate center fielder on the market, a number of teams could jump at Blackmon if the miss out, or don’t want to spend the money on Fowler.

IF THE ROCKIES MOVE DESMOND AWAY FROM FIRST, WHO PLAYS THERE?
Ready for some wild speculation? If the Rockies are going for it with Desmond, why not continue to go nuts. Both Encarnacion and Mark Trumbo are still on the market, and it would be awfully fun to watch either of them mash dingers in Coors Field. While Trumbo seems to be holding out for a lot of money, Encarnacion’s market is in flux right now. Maybe he can be had for less than expected?

If the Rockies have reached their spending limit, the team could also try to swing a deal for Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu. The two have already been linked this offseason, and the White Sox seem willing to sell off anyone of value after trading Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday.

Can <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/8589/" data-ylk="slk:Ian Desmond">Ian Desmond</a> live up to his massive contract. (Getty Images/Rick Yeatts)
Can Ian Desmond live up to his massive contract. (Getty Images/Rick Yeatts)

IS THIS A GOOD SIGNING?
Fine, if you’re going to put us on the spot, we’ll say probably not. Desmond’s success in 2016 was based on an exceptional first half, in which he hit .322/.375/.524. He was pretty awful in the second half, hitting .237/.283/.347. Put all that together with his depressed lines from 2014 and 2015, and his 2016 first half numbers stick out as a huge fluke.

It’s also unclear whether he should play center field. Desmond has range, and is athletic, but is still inexperienced and raw out there. For every excellent play he made, he also misread balls and made simple mistakes. It’s a big ask to make him play center in Coors Field, which boasts one of the biggest outfields in baseball.

IT’S NOT ALL NEGATIVE, RIGHT?
Nope. Coors Field tends to cure a lot of hitting woes, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Desmond replicate his 2016 slash line. And though he might have trouble living up to his five-year, $70 million deal, his contract will be paid out in a unique way. Desmond will make $8 million in 2017, but then $22 million in 2018. That figure drops to $15 million for 2019 and 2020, and then falls back to $8 million in 2021.

His price tag is incredibly small this year, meaning maybe the Rockies can sign another big-time player to make a playoff push. While Desmond will make $22 million in 2018, there’s still a chance he’ll be producing strong offensive numbers at that point. He might be worth it.

While his age and approach (lots of strikeouts, few walks), make him a tough bet to be productive in his mid-to-late 30s, at least he won’t be making as much at that point.

WHAT’S YOUR FINAL VERDICT?
The magic of Coors Field will probably make Desmond a useful enough hitter to live up to that contract in the early years. And if the Rockies are truly going for it now, Desmond helps them win games and gets them closer to the playoffs. He can’t do it alone, though, and you would expect the Rockies to go out and make another move if they really want to contend.

The defense is going to be an issue. Either Desmond is wasted at first or he’s stretched in center. You shouldn’t expect a ton of value on that end.

Finally, Desmond doesn’t project as a player who will age well. Aside from his 2016 first half explosion, he’s already shown decline at the plate. He’s always had an undisciplined approach, and that’s not likely to improve now. Once his bat slows and his contact rate drops, he’s in big trouble. The instant that happens, this contract becomes a problem. And it will happen. Father Time comes for all of us.

DID YOU JUST WRITE 1,400 WORDS ON THE ROCKIES SIGNING IAN DESMOND?
Yes. But you know what, that’s the fun thing about this. With the move, the Rockies have at least made themselves interesting and worth writing about. They already have the look of a dark-horse, sleeper playoff team for 2017, and that offense is going to be a lot of fun to watch. They might even have one or two pitchers you won’t hate.

For the first time in a while, the Rockies are getting some buzz. Even if the Desmond signing doesn’t work out, that has to feel good for the fans.

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Chris Cwik is a writer for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at christophercwik@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Chris_Cwik

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