Discussing the Cost of a Potential Ian Desmond Trade

By: Brian P. Mangan (@brianpmangan)

According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, the Mets should trade Daniel Murphy and “a prospect” to acquire Ian Desmond and a lesser prospect from the Nationals. In that scenario, Murphy plays second for the Nationals and Yunel Escobar slides over to shortstop, while Desmond plays shortstop for the Mets and Wilmer Flores slides over to second base. It’s a deal that makes a lot of sense for both sides, so long as the Nationals don’t mind trading within the division.

What is Ian Desmond?

Desmond is a rare commodity: a 29 year old shortstop who can hit for power and who plays above average defense. Over the last three years, Desmond has put up a .275 batting average and 23 home runs per year, has been an above-average baserunner, and has averaged 22 steals per year (at a 78% success rate). He can do it all, and as a result, has averaged 4.3 WAR per season over the last three years. Even in a slightly down year according to his standards in 2014, he still hit .255, slugged 24 home runs, and posted 4.1 WAR.

Desmond

There are reasons to worry about Desmond, of course, as no player is perfect. His strikeout rate was an alarming 28.2% last season, and according to Defensive Runs Saved, Desmond is a slightly below-average defender (as opposed to Ultimate Zone Rating, which thinks he is above average). Due to the disparity between DRS and UZR, Baseball-Reference only sees Desmond as a averaging 3.6 WAR rather than 4.3 WAR over the last three seasons. Nonetheless, we know Desmond is one of the better players at his position in all of baseball, a position which just so happens to be one of the Mets greatest uncertainties.

As a result, this is one of those rare situations where an in-division trade can make sense between two teams with playoff hopes. The Nationals have made it clear with their signing of Max Scherzer that they are “going for it” this year. Their payroll has exploded from $68M to more than $150M over the last four seasons, and they are faced with the pending free agencies of Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, and Desmond. The Nationals have essentially already told us that they are aware they will not be able to retain all three of those players, so by making a swap for Murphy and a prospect, they can shift gears toward the future without sacrificing more than a couple of wins in 2015 — wins they offset by adding Scherzer.

[Read: The Marlins Are Nowhere Near the Nationals]

The Mets, of course, are looking to add some final touches to a roster that they hope can return them to October for the first time in almost a decade. Although the Mets are clearly a notch behind Nationals, they project (in my opinion) to be the second strongest team in the National League East, and remain only a few small moves away from being a legitimate Wild Card contender. This is especially true in light of the dismantling of the Braves and Phillies.

What Will Desmond Cost?

In this case, the identity of the prospect going with Murphy to the Nationals makes all the difference. If I had to guess, based on what I see on Twitter and here on MetsBlog, a majority of fans are not willing to trade Mets’ top prospect Noah Syndergaard for Desmond, who will be a free agent after 2015 and has indicated his preference to go to free agency rather than sign an extension (Desmond reportedly turned down a seven year, $107M offer from the Nationals last season). I don’t blame them the Mets for balking at that deal, especially with the lingering hopes that Troy Tulowitzki may be available if he proves he is healthy in the early going this year.

Desmond is slated to earn only $11 million next season, while we can project him to produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 4.5 WAR. Murphy is slated to earn around $8.5M and return somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.5 WAR. So who would the “mystery prospect” need to be in order to gain ~2 WAR and the opportunity, however slim, to sign Desmond to an extension?

The Mets have a strong and deep farm system, ranked by some observers as one of the top five in the game, and that led the minor leagues in winning percentage (the Mets minor league affiliates had a .568 winning percentage). With the major league team on the cusp of success, it may be time to make a deal from that farm system in favor of the present.

If I was Sandy Alderson, I would not include Syndergaard, who was recently named the #2 RHP Prospect in all of MLB, in a deal for Desmond. We’ve explained before in these pages why Syndergaard and some of the Mets other top prospects are unlike some famous Mets prospect busts in the past.

[Read: 53% of Mets MLB Top 50 Prospects Become All Stars]

However, if the Nationals would be willing to accept a prospect or package of prospects from outside of the Mets Top 5 (generally regarded to be Syndergaard, Matz, Nimmo, Plawecki, and Herrera), the Mets should be hard pressed to say no to seizing the opportunity, especially since they’ve indicated no intention to keep Murphy.

A 2 win upgrade from Desmond to Murphy, plus the benefit of having Flores at second base rather than shortstop, is valuable to the Mets, even if Desmond leaves after 2015 without signing an extension. Nonetheless, I believe in Syndergaard and I believe in the plan, and I wouldn’t trade away six cost-controlled years of an elite prospect for a rental. It will be interesting to see how the Mets handle the opportunity.

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Brian P. Mangan is an attorney who was born in Flushing and still lives in New York City. Follow him on twitter @brianpmangan.

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