By Manny Randhawa
DENVER -- "I can't ever remember playing first."
By "can't ever remember," Ian Desmond was referring to his entire baseball life -- tee-ball, Little League, everything.
Naturally, there's been a lot of curiosity surrounding the Rockies' decision to sign the 31-year-old shortstop-turned-outfielder to a five-year, $70 million contract to play first base in 2017. And when the club introduced him at Coors Field on Tuesday, the first base subject dominated the press conference.
Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich said versatility, athleticism and character were major factors in the decision to invest in Desmond, who was without a job last February before signing a one-year, $8 million contract with the Rangers.
Desmond demonstrated that versatility and athleticism when he played in the outfield for Texas, entering the season having started one game in his Major League career at any position other than shortstop or second base (he started in right field in a 2009 game).
Not only did Desmond play 29 games in left field and 130 in center, but he hit .285/.335/.446 with 22 home runs and 86 RBIs in an All-Star campaign. The season prior, his last with the Nationals, Desmond posted the second-lowest OPS of his career (.674).
But still, first base? For a guy that's never played there before at any level? What are the Rockies thinking here?
Consider: In 2016, Colorado's first basemen were 26th in the Majors in defensive runs above average according to Fangraphs, at -17.7 in 1429 1/3 innings. Only the Pirates, Reds, Royals and Brewers were worse at the position.
The combination of Mark Reynolds, Ben Paulsen, Gerardo Parra, Daniel Descalso and Stephen Cardullo didn't exactly shine defensively, especially after Reynolds was injured and two players with little experience at the position -- Parra and Descalso -- began seeing playing time there.
Desmond's defensive runs above average statistic in 2016 was -3.0 in 1109 innings in center field.
It's impossible to know how Desmond will fare at first base next season. But can it really be much worse than what the Rockies had there in 2016, given Desmond's career defensive performance at two critical positions up the middle?
Turning to the offensive side of things, Rockies first basemen had a weighted runs created-plus stat, measuring offensive value adjusted for park effects (and we've all heard about those Coors Field park effects), of 83 -- well below the league average of 100. Desmond, meanwhile, produced a 106 wRC+ last season, 28 percent higher than what Colorado got from first base in 2016.
So assuming Desmond's athleticism gets him by, and that he continues to produce offensively like he did in 2016, that's a legitimate upgrade.
The other factor is this: What were the odds entering the Winter Meetings that the Rockies were going to land one of the two big fish in the free agent first baseman pool, sluggers Mark Trumbo and Edwin Encarnacion? Interestingly enough, Desmond's fWAR stacks up favorably among the trio, at 3.3, falling between Encarnacion's 3.9 and Trumbo's 2.2.
And then there's Desmond's long-standing desire to play for the Rockies. How often do you have the chance to sign a free agent who has wanted to play for your organization for years?
"The reason I've always played well here [.379/.406/.611 in 23 career games at Coors Field] is because I like coming here," Desmond said. "I've always enjoyed this city. … This was an opportunity that I wanted to seize. This was my No. 1 choice."
Desmond appeared confident Tuesday that he'll be able to make a smooth transition to first base. But he's not overlooking the challenge.
"I respect every position on the field," Desmond said. "I don't think there's like an easy position where you can go hide somebody. I don't think that exists in baseball. Last year, the outfield had its own intricacies and demands its own respect. I'm going into this like first base is the hardest position."
The Rockies are betting Desmond will be better at first base than what they had in 2016, and will give an already formidable lineup even more punch. It appears there's a method to Bridich and Co.'s madness, and it could pay dividends for a Rockies club that is looking very intriguing heading into 2017.
Manny Randhawa is a reporter for MLB.com and a contributor to Sports on Earth. Follow him on Twitter @MannyRsports.