The Nationals chose not to tender a 2016 contract to Craig Stammen before Wednesday night’s deadline, a move that makes the popular-but-rehabbing reliever a free agent but doesn’t necessarily preclude him from re-signing with the organization that drafted him a decade ago.
Facing a midnight deadline on six remaining arbitration-eligible players, the Nationals made the easy decisions to tender contracts to Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, Wilson Ramos, Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa.
The decision wasn’t so easy on Stammen, who missed nearly all of the 2015 season following major arm surgery and is something of a question mark entering 2016.
In the end, the Nationals chose not to tender Stammen a contract, unwilling to make the financial commitment that would have required. Stammen, who made $2.25 million this season, likely would have been in line for a modest raise. At worst, he would have been guaranteed 80 percent of his previous salary ($1.8 million) despite his injury-plagued 2015.
The 31-year-old appeared in only five games in April before reporting pain in his throwing arm. An MRI later revealed a torn flexor tendon, which required season-ending surgery.
If Stammen can make a full recovery and recapture his pre-injury form, he could be a key piece to a Nationals bullpen in need of reliable arms. No pitcher in the majors threw more relief innings from 2012-14 than Stammen, who posted a strong 2.94 ERA during that timeframe.
There’s no guarantee he will return to that form, though, so the Nationals chose to let their 12th round pick from their inaugural 2005 draft become a free agent one season before he would have accrued enough service time to qualify.
The Nationals could still re-sign Stammen to a contract with a lower base salary but incentives based on appearances. A source familiar with the decision said the reliever wouldn’t rule out that possibility but doesn’t necessarily expect an offer to be made and is prepared to sign elsewhere this winter.
If this is the end of Stammen’s time in D.C., he’ll be remembered fondly for his conversion after several seasons as a struggling starter into one of baseball’s most effective and durable relievers. He ranks sixth in club history in both appearances (229) and innings pitched (490 2/3), seventh in wins (26) and strikeouts (370).
The five players who were tendered contracts Wednesday aren’t yet signed for 2016. They and the Nationals still must either come to terms on a salary or else file for arbitration next month.
Earlier Wednesday, the Nationals avoided arbitration with Tyler Moore and Jose Lobaton, signing each backup to a 1-year deal.