The Nationals have little in the way of glaring needs and could seek to defend their NL East crown with relatively few moves. But some big-picture issues are now squarely in focus, and significant change could occur for the first time in several years.
- Ryan Zimmerman, 3B/1B/OF: $76MM through 2019 (including $2MM buyout of 2020 option) + $10MM personal services contract over five years post-playing career
- Jayson Werth, OF: $63MM through 2017
- Gio Gonzalez, SP: $23.5MM through 2016 (including $500K buyout of 2017 option)
- Jordan Zimmermann, SP: $16.5MM through 2015
- Ian Desmond, SS: $11MM through 2015
- Nate McLouth, OF: $5.75MM through 2015 (including $750K buyout of 2016 option)
- Matt Thornton, RP: $3.5MM through 2015
- *Bryce Harper, OF: $1MM plus $1.25MM in prorated bonus through 2015 (Harper signed MLB contract out of 2010 draft that left undecided whether he could opt into arbitration; Harper would qualify as Super Two with 2.159 years of service; matter will be resolved by negotiation or grievance)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses)
- Kevin Frandsen, UT (5.151): $1.2MM
- Tyler Clippard, RP (5.148): $9.3MM
- Jerry Blevins, RP (5.081): $2.2MM
- Doug Fister, SP (5.058): $11.4MM
- Ross Detwiler, RP/SP (5.002): $3.3MM
- Craig Stammen, RP (4.160): $2.1MM
- Drew Storen, RP (4.140): $5.8MM
- Stephen Strasburg, SP (4.118): $8.1MM
- Wilson Ramos, C (4.047): $3.2MM
- Jose Lobaton, C (3.138): $1.2MM
- Danny Espinosa, 2B/SS (3.113): $2.3MM
- *Bryce Harper, OF (2.159): $2.5MM (see above)
- Non-tender candidates: Frandsen
- Adam LaRoche*, 1B: $15MM mutual option ($2MM buyout)
- Rafael Soriano*, RP: $14MM club option(no buyout)
- Denard Span*, OF: $9MM club option ($500K buyout)
- Anthony Rendon, 2B/3B: club option of unknown value (signed MLB contract after 2011 draft)
*The Nationals have officially exercised Span’s option while declining the options on LaRoche and Soriano.
Another NL East crown, another gut-wrenching loss in the NLDS. That scenario pains Nationals fans, but probably does little to dissuade GM Mike Rizzo from his path. After all, most of his recent moves have turned out swimmingly for Washington. Brimming with talent at nearly every position, most of it still in prime years, the Nats would undoubtedly be among the favorites to take the 2015 World Series even if they did not make a single outside addition to the roster.
But as three straight years of disappointment – twice in the playoffs, once in failing to make them – have demonstrated, no assembly of talent is good enough. That alone is motivation for change. More significant, though, is the ticking of the service clocks of several core players who have driven the most successful run of any Washington, DC-based MLB team since the mid-1920s Senators.
As always, payroll is an important factor as well. Owner Mark Lerner said early in 2014 that the club was “beyond tapped out” in terms of player salary, but it is already on track to top last year’s nearly $137MM Opening Day tab. As things stand for 2015, the club has about $94MM in guarantees on the books before adding in the approximately $50MM in arb commitments outlined above. Of course, public statements must be taken with a grain of salt, particularly for a team with an ongoing TV rights fee dispute (the results of which could make a big difference in spending capacity) and many potential extension discussions to be had. But it remains to be seen what kind of flexibility Rizzo will have to work with.
Ultimately, the Nationals could just plug needs while exploring a few extension scenarios. Or the club could pursue bold, opportunistic moves that could serve the present while setting things up down the line. Let’s canvas the roster to identify the areas of opportunity and pressure points.
The outfield is the most straightforward area. Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth are locks for the two corner spots. And center fielder Denard Span’s $9MM option is certain to be exercised after a quality season from the 30-year-old. Youngster Michael Taylor is waiting in the wings up the middle, and the more advanced Steven Souza seems ready to contribute in a corner role, and Nate McLouth is set to return from a disappointing, injury-shortened first season in D.C. That group offers sufficient flexibility that trade possibilities cannot be discounted; the likeliest scenario, perhaps, would involve Souza going as part of a deal to address another area, though there could be some temptation to explore a trade involving Span to take advantage of a weak free agent crop of center fielders. (Of course, there are not necessarily that many teams in position to aggressively pursue new center fielders, either.)
In the infield, Wilson Ramos remains entrenched behind the plate, with Jose Lobaton locked in as the back-up. And Ian Desmond is unquestionably set to play short, though he will be entering his final year of team control. One of several still-youthful veterans who will reach free agency after the coming season, Desmond appears the most likely to ink a long-term extension. (Desmond has said he expects to stay with the team for the long run, though he reportedly turned down a seven-year extension last offseason that would have guaranteed him somewhere in the range of $85MM to $98MM.)
Ryan Zimmerman figures to move from his natural third base across to first, taking over for Adam LaRoche. Zimmerman’s inability to stick at third represents a significant downgrade in his value, though his bat is still solid and he has shown some promise of playing a serviceable corner outfield if need be. As for LaRoche, his $15MM mutual option seemed a reasonable value, but he just did not fit on the roster and will be allowed to walk (unencumbered by a qualifying offer) as a free agent.
The Nats would surely prefer to be weighing their options at first while fielding Zimmerman at third and emerging star Anthony Rendon at second. But that is not to be, and the resulting situation is not without its flexibility. Rendon’s bat is good enough to play anywhere on the diamond, and he showed the ability to add value with his glove at both second and third over the course of 2014. Washington will probably angle to add a player to take over at the keystone, keeping Rendon at his natural third base for the long haul, but could jump on a third baseman if the right opportunity presented itself. (The team was said to have interest in Adrian Beltre at the trade deadline, and I believe it could likewise be interested in an option like Chase Headley if he could be had on a short-term contract, though that seems unlikely.)
If the Nationals go looking for a second baseman, while keeping their eye on third, what are their options? The only internal option – former starter Danny Espinosa — is not reliable in the batter’s box against righties, though he could theoretically form a very good left-handed side of a platoon. His offensive upside, defensive prowess, young age, and relatively low cost makes him a player that the Nationals will not give away in trade, but neither is he a full-time option for a contender.
The free agent market is largely unappealing, being headed by players such as Asdrubal Cabrera (who had a late run with the Nats after the trade deadline) and Jed Lowrie. I do not see Rizzo committing to that kind of player on a lengthy deal, though he could jump on a shorter pact if it becomes an option. (Rizzo was willing, for instance, to give two years to Nate McLouth as a fourth outfielder, and could theoretically add a second baseman who would eventually become more of a utility option.) Bounceback candidate Stephen Drew could make sense, as the righty-masher would pair nicely with Espinosa.
There are more intriguing names that will at least potentially be available on the international scene. Korean star Jung-ho Kang could be posted, while no fewer than three well-regarded Cuban second baggers — Jose Fernandez, Hector Olivera, and Andy Ibanez (links to posts)– have (or may have) left their home island with intentions of ultimately landing MLB contracts. It is hard to know at this point what level of interest the Nationals, or other teams, will have in that group, however, and it remains to be seen precisely which of those players will be ready not only to sign but also to contribute on the MLB level in 2015.
Another possibility, of course, is for the Nationals to explore the trade market. Ben Zobrist of the Rays and Howie Kendrick of the Angels would seem to be fits, if they are made available, while Brandon Phillips is at least a hypothetical possibility if the Reds eat a good bit of salary. Alternatively, the Nationals could look to kill two birds with one stone. The team has indicated it is interested in adding a young shortstop to serve as depth and provide an alternative if a long-term deal cannot be reached with Desmond. While there may be an element of posturing there, the fact is that the system lacks any plausible younger options at the spot. A player such as Brad Miller of the Mariners or Didi Gregorius of the Diamondbacks could slot in at second while also serving as a long-term shortstop option. (Again, it does not hurt that Espinosa constitutes a platoon option to both of those left-handed hitters.)
What could the Nationals deal to bring such a return? Other than Souza — who could be a long-term piece but who does not have a path to a starting job for some time — pitching seems the likeliest area. The Nats could dangle any number of their better young arms, depending upon the return and the team’s overall strategy, and Rizzo has shown a willingness to use his prospects to barter. Among the prospect crop, high-upside Lucas Giolito, top-100 arm A.J. Cole, an emerging (and perhaps underappreciated) Blake Treinen, and several younger hurlers all hold appeal.
Of course, it bears noting that last year’s two most effective starters, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister, are each playing on expiring contracts. If an extension is not to be had, then the possibility of movement must at least be considered. Zimmermann, in particular, spiked his performance level last year after turning down a reported five-year, $85MM extension offer. While it would be tough to deal away the homegrown star, it could make sense if he brought back a useful big league piece with greater control rights. The Mariners (Miller) and Red Sox (Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts) would presumably have both the interest in the arm and the types of chips that would interest the Nats, though it is far from clear that a mutually agreeable swap could be arranged. Chances remain fairly low that any of the Nats’ starters will be dealt, though if a blockbuster did go down, I would expect the Nationals to immediately become a player for a high-upside arm of some kind in free agency.
In all likelihood, last year’s front five will remain in place. In addition to Zimmermann and Fister, Stephen Strasburg could also be approached about an extension, though it’s not clear how much traction can be expected given that he is represented by Scott Boras. Otherwise, the team will probably hope for a rebound from Gio Gonzalez (though his 3.57 ERA was hardly poor, and was backed by a 3.02 FIP) while crossing its fingers that Tanner Roark does not turn into a pumpkin.
Of course, five is never enough pitchers for a full season. A significant free agent addition seems unlikely unless a trade or injury intervenes, though a minor league depth signing would make good sense. First up among internal options may be Treinen, the righty with a huge sinker who impressed in spot duty in 2014. Ross Detwiler is still under club control, though he has occupied an increasingly marginal position and could be trade fodder. Otherwise, Taylor Jordan will look to return from season-ending elbow surgery to remove bone chips and the Nats will continue to filter up a fairly promising set of young arms.
The bullpen, too, could carry forward in much the same form or could see some changes. Rafael Soriano is out at closer, and is all but certain to find a new home. Drew Storen, with Tyler Clippard behind him, remain the likeliest late-inning pairing, though this could theoretically be the year that the rumors come true and one is dealt. (Certainly, they will not be cheap to keep in tandem.) It would also not be surprising to see the Nationals try to add to a strong group; indeed, MLBTR’s Steve Adams suggests the team as a reasonable bidder for top relief arm David Robertson, and I agree that is a possible area that the Nats could look to upgrade — as they did two years ago with Soriano — given its lack of obvious areas for improvement. Otherwise, Craig Stammen and Aaron Barrett should form a solid middle-inning grouping, with Treinen also potentially a factor in the pen. Some combination of Jerry Blevins, Matt Thornton, Detwiler, and Xavier Cedeno will do the left-handed relieving. At least one right-handed addition would make sense, and the club could consider pursuing a solid veteran such as Burke Badenhop or Casey Janssen to add some solid depth.
Once again, 2015 provides ample opportunity for Rizzo to get creative. His sweet spot has been high-value, above-average regulars (Span, Fister, Blevins) and buy-low, high-ceiling prospects (Rendon, Cole, Giolito, Erick Fedde). I expect that he will again go hunting for value, while preparing for unexpected opportunities to arise, as he figures out how to fill the hole at second and deal with the running service clock of some of the team’s best players. But the pressure is on now to win while also keeping the window open for a still-young roster, and Rizzo will need to do it without trusted lieutenant Bryan Minniti. In a way, it’s his greatest challenge yet.