Tapped by many as the preseason favorites to win the World Series, the Nationals have enough depth on both the Major League and minor league level that their window of contention won’t snap shut if they don’t win it all this year. That said, there is certainly a sense that the window may never be quite as open as it is now, given that four of Washington’s top players are scheduled to hit free agency this winter.
Assuming that Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, Denard Span and Jordan Zimmermann all post their usual types of seasons in 2015, all will draw a lot of attention on the open market; MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes ranks Desmond and Zimmerman fourth and sixth, respectively, in his 2016 Free Agent Power Rankings. Between interest from other teams and the Nats’ already-substantial salary commitments (over $84MM committed to just six players on their 2016 roster, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts), we can safely rule out the possibility of the Nationals bringing all four back. Indeed, some of Washington’s offseason moves seem directed at preparing for a future without some of these players, as I’ll explain momentarily.
The question is, however, will the Nationals bring back any of their free agent quartet? Let’s look at the options…
* Desmond. The shortstop reportedly rejected a seven-year, $107MM extension during the 2013-14 offseason, leading the Nats to explore acquiring a young shortstop at last summer’s trade deadline. Washington got that young shortstop in the form of Trea Turner as part of their three-team deal with the Rays and Padres over the winter, so it’s perhaps not surprising that Desmond and the Nats didn’t engage in significant extension talks, or that Desmond’s name surfaced in trade talks with the Mariners and Mets.
With all this in mind, Desmond’s days in Washington seem numbered, even if the Nationals would be letting perhaps the game’s best offensive shortstop leave.
* Zimmermann. The right-hander’s name was also linked to those talks with Seattle, and Boston also engaged the Nationals about Zimmermann’s services. Max Scherzer’s seven-year, $210MM deal essentially could make Zimmermann expendable, as Washington doesn’t want to ink another starter to another deal in the $200MM range, especially when they’ll also have Stephen Strasburg’s free agency to deal with after the 2016 season. (Then again, Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post recently speculated that the Nats may let both Zimmermann and Strasburg go due to concerns that their arms won’t hold up given their Tommy John histories.)
* Fister. Much of what I wrote about Zimmermann also applies to Fister, though obviously Fister’s free agent price tag will be significantly lower than Zimmerman’s next contract. The Nationals reportedly haven’t discussed an extension with Fister in about a year, so one would think they’re prepared to move on from the 31-year-old righty. That said,
* Span. The team already got a look at life without Span when the veteran outfielder began the season on the DL recovering from core muscle surgery. Top prospect Michael Taylor filled in as Washington’s center fielder and hit .271/.314/.500 in 51 plate appearances, though his defense left something to be desired. Still, Taylor performed well enough that the Nats likely feel as if they have a solid replacement on hand if Span isn’t brought back.
* None of them. As you may notice, I’ve listed several more “won’t be back” reasons than I have reasons for why the Nationals may re-sign any of the quartet. It’s quite possible Washington simply lets all four players go in order to save future payroll space for Strasburg and/or Bryce Harper’s future extensions. The Nats would also get a boost to their minor league system, as they’d receive at least three draft picks back as compensation if their players signed elsewhere — Desmond, Zimmermann and Fister are locks to receive qualifying offers, while Span could potentially get one too if he has a big season.
That said, it would also be somewhat surprising to see a team with such clear designs on winning a championship soon let four big pieces walk. While Washington has an enviable amount of starting pitching depth, any rotation would suffer in losing two proven arms like Zimmermann or Fister. Desmond, as noted, would leave a big hole at shortstop, and counting on Taylor to replace Span might be putting a lot of pressure on a youngster. Re-signing even two of the four could be a tall order, though I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Nationals bring back one of the four.
One more wrinkle: MLBTR’s Jeff Todd recently speculated that the Nats could explore trading Zimmermann or Fister this summer in order to fill any other holes on the roster. Theoretically, this would open the door for Washington to add talent at midseason to bolster their postseason hopes, and then also allow them to possibly sign either traded pitcher in the offseason. As Jon Lester and the Red Sox might tell you, however, it’s very rare to see such a scenario play out with the traded ace immediately return to the club that dealt him away.