On Friday night, the Washington Nationals tasted, for the first time in franchise history, the bitter defeat of an elimination game, falling 9-7 at home to the Cardinals after opening the game with 6 runs in less than three innings off of the Redbirds' ace, Adam Wainwright. But losses like that one are learning moments, and given how the team has been built, there is every reason to expect that they will be serious contenders for the foreseeable future, even if rival anonymous front offices wish that they weren't. To his credit, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo is steadfast in his belief that the team's process in handling Stephen Strasburg was correct, and has some choice words for the haters out there. Everyone knows that the Nats shut down Strasburg with an eye (or both, depending on your perspective) to the future. What will that immediate future look like?
It looks pretty good. The Nationals are a very young team, with only three regulars (Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, and Michael Morse) and one prospective bench player for next year (Chad Tracy) on the wrong side of 30. And although several key guys are due arbitration raises this winter (more on that in a bit), they have only seven free agents on the 40-man roster (not including the already released Rick Ankiel and Brad Lidge). They are: 1B LaRoche, RHP Edwin Jackson, OF Mark DeRosa, RHP Chien-Ming Wang, LHP Sean Burnett, RHP Mike Gonzalez, and LHP Zach Duke, with the team holding a $10 million option on LaRoche, and a $3.5 million mutual option for Burnett. Other than the two options, none of those players are serious candidates to re-sign. Jackson pitched this year on a one-year contract with an eye toward testing the market this winter, when (depending on options) he will be one of the top ten starting pitchers available, a durable righty with good stuff who makes a good third starter. The team took a flyer on Wang, whose comeback from shoulder surgery has not panned out as hoped. DeRosa is 37 and at the end of the line, posting a .188/.300/.247 line in 100 plate appearances this year. Gonzalez, a middle reliever, is fungible. And Duke is a mediocre lefty starter (a 1.32 WHIP and only 91 strikeouts in 164 innings this year at AAA Syracuse) who, barring a miracle, doesn't really stand a chance of cracking the Nationals' rotation next year. Letting those five guys walk (plus Ankiel and Lidge) trims just under $20 million from next year's payroll, over half of that ($11 million) courtesy of Jackson.
As for the option guys, it seems likely that the Nationals will keep both of them. LaRoche is coming off of a career year at age 32, but even with some regression to the mean he will be a solid presence in the lineup, as well as an excellent defensive first baseman and a good clubhouse guy. Besides, both sides want to make it happen. Given his age and current contract, I would guess that the Nats re-sign LaRoche for something like $33 million over 3 years, a modest increase for someone whom they regard as a pivotal figure. Burnett, meanwhile, is the principal lefty out of the pen, a guy who can pitch in multiple situations and isn't just a LOOGY (lefty one-out guy), and unless the team thinks it can replace him more cheaply on the market or from within, $3.5 million is not a bad price to pay.
Where things get interesting for the Nats is in arbitration, where there are a boatload of players hitting arbitration this winter, and several of them are likely due significant increases in salary. Those players are (with 2012 salary in parentheses): LHP John Lannan ($5 million), LHP Tom Gorzelanny ($3 million), RHP Jordan Zimmermann ($2.3 million), RHP Tyler Clippard ($1.65 million), C Jesus Flores ($850K), OF Brett Carroll ($580K), SS Ian Desmond ($512.5K), OF Roger Bernadina ($493.5K), LHP Ross Detwiler ($485K), and RHP Craig Stammen ($485K). Collectively, those ten players made just under $15.4 million in 2012, a number that will almost surely double (or more) in 2013 if all of those players go through arbitration, principally because of Zimmermann (a budding ace whose hard-luck record of 12-8 and status as Strasburg's and Gio Gonzalez' teammate obscures the fact that he is one of the top ten starting pitchers in the National League) and Desmond (a strong defensive shortstop who hits for power, made the All-Star team this year, and may finish in the top ten of the MVP balloting), and to a lesser extent Clippard and Detwiler. What to do?
For starters, Lannan (who spent much of the year in Syracuse and will likely claim Jackson's rotation spot if the Nationals don't address it through other means) and Gorzelanny (pretty firmly entrenched at this point as a long reliever and spot starter) probably won't see a major bump in their respective salaries and therefore should be affordable; let's say they each see an increase of $1 million. Clippard has been the team's best bullpen arm (in every conceivable role) for four years running now, and a jump to $5 million is neither out of the question nor a prohibitive cost for the value that he provides. The mid-season acquisition of Kurt Suzuki and the imminent return of Wilson Ramos from an ACL tear mean Flores is expendable (particularly as he hit .213/.248/.329 this season), making him a non-tender candidate. The emergence of Tyler Moore (10 home runs and an .840 OPS in just 171 plate appearances) likely does the same for Carroll. Stammen, a middle reliever, should only cost around $600-$700K in his first year of arbitration. Bernadina had a superb year as a fourth outfielder (.291/.372/.405 in 261 PA with good defense) and should probably get something in the $800-$900K range. And Detwiler seemed to turn a corner this year, posting a 3.40 ERA and 1.223 WHIP in 164 innings while also providing the rotation's lone good start against the Cardinals in the Division Series, probably bumping him into Zimmermann's current range between $2 and $2.5 million.
But what about Zimmermann and Desmond? Although the Nationals have become an active player in the draft and the free agent market, the only one of their young players they have signed to a long-term deal that locks them up through their arbitration years and early years of free agency is Ryan Zimmerman. Both Jordan Zimmermann and Desmond, each now 26 years of age, have grown into starring roles with the club and are excellent candidates for such a deal. Ryan Zimmerman got six years and $100 million, but he had a longer track record than either Jordan Zimmermann or Desmond, so it's fair to say that they could lock up both for less than that. In arbitration, given their respective ability levels, they are likely to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $50-$60 million combined over the next three years. So why not offer Zimmermann 5 years/$60 million and Desmond 5 years/$45 million? Spending an average annual amount of $21 million on a likely Cy Young contender and a power bat at a premium position makes sense, and avoids the uncertainty that the annual arbitration process can bring in the years before the two hit free agency.
Assuming all of these moves, the Nationals by this point will have subtracted $20 million from next year's payroll while adding $28.9 million in arbitration and contract extensions, plus Burnett's option and LaRoche's new deal, pushing the 2013 payroll just north of $100 million (which the team, with its well-heeled owners and likely increase in revenue after a successful 2012, can afford) and giving them an Opening Day roster that would look something like this:
LINEUP: RF Werth/CF Harper/3B Zimmerman/1B LaRoche/LF Morse/SS Desmond/2B Espinosa/C Suzuki
BENCH: C Ramos/IF Tracy/OF Bernadina/UT Lombardozzi/UT Moore
ROTATION: RHP Strasburg/LHP Gonzalez/RHP Zimmermann/LHP Detwiler/LHP Lannan
BULLPEN: CL Storen/Clippard/Stammen/Mattheus/Burnett/Gorzelanny/Rodriguez
That's effectively the same team that won the NL East this year, only with Lannan in Jackson's place and (hopefully) a healthy Ramos, who should resume regular catching duties once his knee heals. But there are some chinks in the armor. For one thing, the back half of that lineup is prone to hacking; Espinosa led the league in punchouts with 189, and Morse and Desmond added another 220 between them despite combining to miss 92 games. For another, Lannan is little more than an innings eater, a fringy lefty with a career 1.424 WHIP and 1.39 strikeout/walk ratio. How about finding a trade partner to beef up the rotation?
My suggestion; try to trade Morse to Tampa Bay for one of their many superfluous starters (a group that includes Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Cobb, and even James Shields). It makes sense for both clubs. Morse is a big bat (something the Rays sorely need) with foul line-to-foul line power, and the Nats have an in-house replacement ready in Moore, whose own power extrapolates to somewhere around 35-40 home runs over a full season. Additionally, for the cost-conscious Rays, Morse is only owed $6.75 million in 2013, and will be a free agent after that, and can move to first base to fill in for the departing Carlos Pena. Meanwhile, Tampa is sitting on SEVEN legitimate starters, the five above plus David Price and Matt Moore (the only untouchable one of the bunch). Price will be getting a significant raise in arbitration this winter, probably close to $8 million or more, and the Rays cannot afford to keep him and Shields (who has team options for $9 million and $12 million over the next two years). And every one of those pitchers would be a significant upgrade over Lannan, before you even factor in getting away from the AL East and the designated hitter. Shields, 30, should be the most likely target, as the Rays will need to move him if they want to keep Price (whose cost will be much more prohibitive). Shields is, rather quietly, one of the most effective pitchers in baseball, striking out close to a man an inning this past season (223 K's in 227 2/3 IP) with a 1.168 WHIP, a season pretty well in line with his career numbers. He has thrown 200 innings in each of the past six seasons, and has not missed a start since 2007. He is a valuable commodity, but one that the Rays need to move, and the Nats can offer an even more valuable commodity (from their point of view) in return. And ideally, should the Nats trade Morse and give his spot to Moore (or try to extract a better deal from the Rays by trading the younger, cheaper Moore instead), Anthony Rendon, last year's top draft pick, can fill the "power bat off the bench" role by mid-season. Now the team would look like this:
LINEUP: RF Werth/CF Harper/3B Zimmerman/1B LaRoche/SS Desmond/LF Moore/2B Espinosa/C Ramos
BENCH: OF Bernadina/IF Rendon/UT Lombardozzi/C Suzuki/IF Tracy
ROTATION: RHP Strasburg/RHP Shields/LHP Gonzalez/RHP Zimmermann/LHP Detwiler
BULLPEN: CL Storen/Clippard/Burnett/Gorzelanny/Stammen/Mattheus/Rodriguez
As Mike Rizzo and the team's brain trust have confidently predicted, the Nats are indeed in a good position to contend going forward, and do not yet have to break the bank in order to do so. Apart from taking care of two of their own, they shouldn't even have to make any noise in this winter's free agent market, which has little to offer this team as it is currently constructed (unless they want to replace Jackson with another free agent from the Ryan Dempster/Colby Lewis/Kyle Lohse tier, for example). They have the resources to make a trade if they feel it will improve the club, and as last year's acquisition of Gonzalez shows, they are not afraid to pull the trigger on such a deal. Regardless, Washington should be a factor in the National League for a few years to come, and the favorite in the NL East once again in 2013 (leading to more of this in the future).