Desmond embraces new position, new club in Colorado
Slugger has never played first base, but is excited about opportunity to join Rockies
DENVER -- During last month's General Managers Meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich's meeting with representatives of free agent Ian Desmond was part brainstorming and part destiny.
The conversation worked its way around to the Rockies' opening at first base. Weeks of talks led to Tuesday, when the Rockies and Desmond made official a five-year, $70 million contract.
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It turned out Desmond, in talks with agent Brodie Van Wagenen of CAA, was a step ahead and let it be known he wasn't afraid of moving to first base. When told of the Rockies' need, Desmond said he was willing to handle first -- a position he not only has never played in the Majors or pro ball, but one he doesn't recall ever playing -- to be a part of the rising club.
"They're close," said Desmond, 31, an All-Star in center field with the Rangers this past season after playing shortstop for the Nationals 2009-15. "That's an industry-wide consensus. Ownership and management are committed to turning that corner. I'm right there with them on board."
Desmond arrives with a reputation as a leader, having been on three division champions in the past five seasons. Bridich said people in the industry have sung Desmond's praises "without much prodding or intervention." But Desmond, who joins right fielder Carlos González and left fielder Gerardo Parra as the only position players to have appeared in the postseason, said his philosophy is to "get in where you fit in, and over time we'll see how that goes."
After batting .285 with 22 home runs and 86 RBIs in 156 games for the Rangers in 2016, Desmond will play his home games at Coors Field -- where he is a .379 career hitter with a 1.016 OPS, three home runs and 18 RBIs in 23 games.
Desmond's right-handed bat helps balance a lineup that already has Nolan Arenado, who has tied for the National League lead in home runs the past two seasons; shortstop Trevor Story, who homered 27 times in 91 games as a rookie in 2016; and DJ LeMahieu, the defending NL batting champion. There is lefty production from center fielder Charlie Blackmon, who led Major League leadoff hitters in home runs with 29 and NL leadoff hitters in OPS at .935, and Gonzalez, who has hit 65 home runs over the last two seasons.
Desmond won three NL Louisville Silver Slugger Awards at shortstop for the Nationals from 2012-14. Although he is not the traditional corner infield power bat, the Rockies receive above-average power and run production at other spots. Also, Desmond's athletic ability could be a defensive boon.
Because of the strain Coors Field games puts on the Rockies' bullpen, Colorado often carries one more reliever than most clubs. It increases the need for versatility, which is why Story played third and second in the Minors, Parra was introduced to first base during last season and Gonzalez began experimenting at the spot last spring. Catcher Tony Wolters was drafted as a middle infielder and played there in a pinch this past season.
While Desmond is playing first, it's possible over the life of the contract to see him in the middle infield or the outfield. Bridich noted that the game is headed in that direction, and the Rockies need to be proactive.
"A couple of years ago, we started talking about versatility and athleticism becoming a priority for this organization, along with getting veterans of character," Bridich said. "[Desmond] represents all of that, and that is the exciting thing."
News of the agreement brought rumors the Rockies could trade Blackmon, pursue a first baseman through trade or free agency and put Desmond in center. But Bridich said that would be a departure from the way he envisions the roster.
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"We're focused right now on we signed Ian to be our first baseman, and there's been way too much conversation, there's been way too much talking and planning for us to say otherwise right now," said Bridich, who said the key focus after signing Desmond is to improve a bullpen that struggled in 2016.
A free agent for the first time last offseason, Desmond ended up signing a one-year, $8 million contract with the Rangers, under other representation, after Spring Training had begun. He learned left field, then switched to center during the season.
The ability to handle the middle of the infield and the experience in center makes Desmond a potentially athletic first baseman who could give new manager Bud Black freedom in defensive position for a team that, under Bridich, believes in extreme shifts. But that's down the road.
At home in Florida, Desmond has been practicing first base with Rockies Minor Leaguer Corelle Prime -- a player Desmond took under his wing in the past. Desmond said he has to learn the position before being counted on to revolutionize it.
"I'm not going to come out claiming I'm going to be Don Mattingly," Desmond said with a smile. "I'm going to work hard. That's going to be my goal. We'll see how it goes."