Having hired their manager and filled a couple of positions on their coaching staff, the Nationals can begin shifting attention to the biggest task of the offseason: Adjusting their roster.
That process, in many ways, begins later today when one of baseball’s first key offseason deadlines arrives. By 5 p.m. EST, all clubs must decide whether to extend qualifying offers to their free agents. This often amounts to nothing more than a procedural move, but this is a particularly big deal this time around for the Nationals, who have four prominent players now reaching free agency: Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Denard Span and Doug Fister.
A quick primer on how this works…
— Clubs may extend a qualifying offer to any free agent, which amounts to an offer of a 1-year contract worth roughly $15.8 million.
— Players then have one week to either accept the offer (and thus return to their original teams for another season) or decline it (in which case they become free agents and the club is guaranteed to receive draft-pick compensation if and when those players sign elsewhere).
— If a team doesn’t extend a qualifying offer, it doesn’t get any compensation whether that player signs elsewhere.
— This system has been in place the last three years, with 34 MLB players given qualifying offers. None of them has accepted the offer.
Asked Thursday if the Nationals were still figuring out what to do with their four free agents, general manager Mike Rizzo said the club has already made those decisions in each case. (He wouldn’t reveal what those decisions are.) He didn’t, however, rule out a chance of retaining any of the four players in 2016.
“It’s a possibility,” Rizzo said. “It’s something we’ve discussed. At this point, we haven’t made any final decisions about it.”
As we count down the hours to 5 p.m., let’s run through each of the four cases and make a prediction on what will happen…
Though the right-hander is coming off a down year by his standards, he still went 13-10 with a 3.66 ERA over 201 2/3 innings. That’s hardly a bad season. And combined with his longstanding track record of consistent effectiveness (career 3.32 ERA) and durability (he has made at least 32 starts each of the last four seasons) Zimmermann is going to get a nine-figure contract this winter. The Nationals all but gave up trying to re-sign him over the last 12 months, staking their future to Max Scherzer instead. But they’ll want to make sure they get some kind of compensation for losing the best pitcher in club history. Interestingly enough, the Nats were able to draft Zimmermann way back in 2007 with a compensation pick they got for losing Alfonso Soriano to free agency.
Prediction: Yes, they’ll make a qualifying offer to Zimmermann, and he’ll sign a major contract (something in the range of 6 years, $120 million) elsewhere this winter.
Desmond won’t get the nine-figure deal he and the Nationals discussed two years ago, not after a hugely disappointing season that saw him post career-lows in batting average (.233), on-base percentage (.290) and steals (13) while posting a career-high in strikeouts (187) and committing 27 errors (most since he was a rookie in 2010). But he’s still 30-year-old shortstop with three Silver Slugger Awards, three 20-20 seasons and a sterling reputation as a clubhouse leader and stalwart in the community. Desmond could, in theory, decide to gamble by accepting a qualifying offer and then re-establishing his value before becoming a free agent again one year from now. But we saw how he struggled under the pressure of a contract year. And by the final week of the season, his words, actions and emotions certainly conveyed he knows he’ll be playing somewhere else in 2016.
Prediction: Yes, the Nationals will make a qualifying offer to Desmond, and he’ll sign a medium-length contract (something in the range of 4 years, $60 million) elsewhere this winter.
One year ago, there was reason to wonder if the Nationals would be wise to lock up Fister to a long-term deal, banking on his consistency and ability to induce weak contact. But then came a disappointing season for the tall right-hander, one that saw him battle forearm tightness, diminished velocity and a complete lack of consistency. The Nats had no choice but to demote him to their bullpen down the stretch, and though he was more effective in that role, Fister did nothing to re-establish his value. After going 5-7 with a career-high 4.19 ERA and 1.40 WHIP while throwing his fewest innings since 2009 (only 103), he isn’t going to get near the contract everyone figured last year.
Prediction: No, the Nationals won’t make a qualifying offer to Fister. If they did, he’d undoubtedly accept it, leaving the club to pay $15.8 million to a 32-year-old pitcher coming off a disappointing season.
This is by far the toughest decision facing the Nationals. In some respects, they would love to have Span back for one more year, recognizing how important he has been to their lineup and outfield defense. On the other hand, $15.8 million is a lot to guarantee a 32-year-old coming off back, hip and core muscle injuries that required three surgeries. And given the uncertainty surrounding his market in free agency, Span might just be inclined to accept the offer. If he didn’t, other clubs might be discouraged to sign him, not wanting to lose a draft pick in the process. This one truly could go either way.
Prediction: Yes, the Nationals will make a qualifying offer to Span. He’ll think long and hard about accepting it, but ultimately will take his chances on the open market, likely signing an incentive-laden deal with another club, possibly not until spring training has begun.