Are the Yankees eyeing Ian Desmond?

The Yankees need a shortstop for the 2015 season. Long-term or stopgap, the solution will likely be from an external source. The one candidate under contract, Brendan Ryan, is unlikely be tabbed as Derek Jeter‘s replacement. Fortunately for the Yankees, it had appeared this winter’s free agent crop would be lush with capable shortstops. However, after the Orioles locked up J.J. Hardy to a three-year extension, arguably the best target, things look a bit bleaker in free agency.

Sure, there’s the very talented Hanley Ramirez, but is he really a shortstop? I suppose the Yankees could tolerate his defense at the position given the fact that the organization managed with Jeter’s below average glovework, but there’s also the question of Ramirez’ health. After Hanley, the talent drops off precipitously: there’s Asdrubal Cabrera, Jed Lowrie, and Stephen Drew. Furthermore, there’s always the trade route, where perhaps the Yankees could pry, for instance, Starlin Castro from the Cubs. I’m not sure they have the pieces for such a deal, but he might be available. If we want to focus on long-term options, like Ramirez or Castro would be, perhaps the Yankees would actually be better off eyeing next year’s free agent crop, featuring the Nationals’ Ian Desmond.

Waiting on Desmond would certainly be risky, given the fact that Washington still has one more year to try to work out an extension. In fact, they’ve already attempted to: Desmond rejected a six or seven year offer worth $80M to $90M. Instead, he took a two-year deal through his final arbitration season, 2015. Washington could try again, but given his previous rejection and that he’s now just one year away from the open market, it seems like Desmond wants to wait things out.

Hoping that Desmond holds off until next season doesn’t alleviate the 2015  shortstop vacancy, of course. If Desmond is the franchise’s ultimate target, then a stopgap player is in order. Hanley is undoubtedly getting a long-term deal, and chances are Cabrera will too. Acquiring Castro also wouldn’t be for one season. That leaves us with Lowrie and Drew. Both can probably be had on a one-year pact, as they both had down 2014 seasons. In terms of ability, Drew is a better defender while Lowrie is a better hitter. However, Lowrie is a pretty bad fielder, and perhaps should be a second baseman. So, after completely flunking in his stint with the Yankees, could Drew be the most likely opening day shortstop in 2015? I’m starting to think yes.

Why would the Yankees wait for Desmond? He might be the best shortstop in the league not named Troy Tulowitzki. He won’t be 30 until next September, and it’s not as if the Yankees have any up-and-coming prospects to fill the position. He’s solid with the glove, a good baserunner and basestealer (21 or more yearly since 2011), hits for power (69 homers last three seasons), and has overall been well above average with the bat (117 wRC+ since 2012).

The biggest concern is his plate discipline: he doesn’t walk much although it has trended upward the past three seasons, and he strikes out quite frequently. Desmond posted a remarkably high 28.2% strikeout rate in 2014, up from 22.1% in the season prior. His BABIP remained steady, but the fewer balls in play really hurt his wRC+. If he can get back to prior contact levels, I’d expect his wRC+ to move back toward 115 or 120, similar to his performance in 2012 and 2013. Of course, his 108 was great for his position in last year (87 was league average for shortstop), but there’s room to improve.

There’s a chance the Nats shop him this winter, too, with the hope to get something for him before he departs. Jordan Zimmerman will also be a free agent after next season, with Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg not far behind. Those are some hefty financial decisions Washington needs to make, and it very well may mean Desmond gets the short end of the stick. If he is on the block, the Yankees will definitely be after him, hoping to also get the age-29 season they’d miss out on if they waited until free agency. However, like I noted regarding Chicago’s Castro, I wonder if the Yankees would have enough to obtain him. Even so, I’d guess that Desmond might still be reluctant to sign an extension unless he’s dealt to the team he wishes (and gets the money he wants, of course). At the least, Washington will give him a qualifying offer after 2015 unless he completely wets the bed next season.

Everything I just wrote is pure speculation, of course, but there’s certainly some sense behind it. The Yankees need to strengthen their roster up the middle of the diamond, and there are really no sure fire options currently available for the long-run. There’s nothing internal, and everything externally comes with questions of health, defense, or if via trade, the lack of trade chips. That leaves us with the potential of Drew manning the position for 2015, with the Yankees seeking Desmond thereafter.

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