From here on until pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, the only rumors fans will hear about the Washington Nationals will most likely be about what players they may sign to extensions.
The team was lucky this offseason as their only two free agents – Dan Haren and Chad Tracy – were not key players that GM Mike Rizzo needed to make a priority of keeping. Of course, the fact that the two had down years certainly helped the decision for Washington, but it is pretty safe to say that they were never going to return unless they knocked Rizzo’s socks off with their play.
Talks will begin to heat up over what players Washington needs to sign long term, and which ones they can let go as their young core of players begin to approach free agency. After 2014, Washington could lose both Adam LaRoche and Denard Span, two starters looking to prove themselves as viable offensive players in 2014.
Span started very slow in 2013 after coming over in a trade, and LaRoche is looking to prove that his career is not on the downswing and that 2013 was an anomaly. Following 2015, things do not get much better as Washington will see Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, Tyler Clippard and Ross Detwiler all hit the open market. As you can see, free agency snowballs over the next couple of years for the Nationals.
2016 is when things get very interesting, especially if things in 2015 do not go as planned. Stephen Strasburg will be set to hit free agency after the 2016 season, and he just signed a one-year, $3.975 million deal to avoid arbitration. Of course, this deal really means nothing as Strasburg is still under team control, and the deal simply promises that the team and Strasburg would not go to an arbitration hearing over his 2014 salary.
Some of the more slightly delusional Nationals fans thought Washington should have locked up Strasburg for years to come, which you know was not going to happen if you are an informed fan and you know how Rizzo does business. In fact, there could be a chance Strasburg never signs a long-term deal in Washington.
Think about it: the Nationals have three aces in their rotation right now with Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Strasburg. Heck, the argument could even be made for Doug Fister as a fourth ace. If Washington locks up Zimmermann long-term, what incentive is there to do the same for Strasburg, especially with all of the young pitching Washington has in its pipeline?
Zimmermann has returned from Tommy John surgery and has not looked back, not missing a start and steadily increasing his workload since his 2011 innings limit. Strasburg had surgery this offseason to remove bone chips from his pitching elbow, which really is not that big of a deal, but he did miss some starts this past season and his overall perfectionist attitude could seriously get him into some tenuous situations on the mound.
Zimmermann is the polar opposite: always stoic, throwing strikes and unafraid of allowing some hits or a run or two. Strasburg’s obvious want to go out and not allow anything could seriously backfire on him.
What also needs to be pointed out is that Strasburg is represented by Scott Boras and Zimmermann is not. This almost automatically makes Zimmermann easier to keep because Boras is notorious for sending his players to open market to get the best possible deal for his client. As we know, one cannot predict a player’s production for the next few seasons, but it could be a pretty easy decision for Washington when it comes to which starter to keep and which to let walk away.