In seasons past this was when it started to feel like a drag. It hadn’t gotten to the point where baseball was close to ending and you knew you were going to miss it. Instead it was at a point where you were starting to forget what it felt like to be home on a Sunday afternoon, or what it was like to watch a movie at night. For almost five months baseball, and mostly bad Nationals baseball, had been your life. This season has been much different, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t time to start looking forward to the off-season and what the Nationals should do to remain a contending team.
A lot of the Nationals off-season needs depend on what Adam LaRoche and the Nationals decide to do with his option. If Adam LaRoche is back then the Nationals best move might be to do nothing. To run the line-up they had this season back out there and hope for better health and natural improvements from Harper. If LaRoche does return and the Nationals do still want to move forward with a signing of a centerfield/lead-off type like Michael Bourn then it may be at the expense of trading Morse or moving him to the bench, but that is a type of issue that is dealt with when it emerges. If the Nationals want Michael Bourn then the presence of LaRoche or Morse won’t stop them from making that move and they will deal with the talent overflow when they have it.
As far as the centerfield/lead-off situation goes the Nationals might not want to throw the boatload of money it would take to sign Michael Bourn. Bourn should get a contract somewhere in the range of what Jose Reyes got last season, and with both Zimmerman and Werth signed to $100 million deals it is a question of how much money the Nationals want to have locked up in three players or if they wouldn’t be better to save the money they would spend on Bourn and use it to extend a pitcher like Zimmermann and buy out Ian Desmond’s arb years.
Assuming LaRoche will want to test free agency and try and better the one year $10 million option he has from the Nationals the Nationals will still need another player. The logical move to fill the gap at first is to move Morse there and to look for a centerfielder. If the Nationals don’t want to invest the years and money it would take to sign Bourn then a good option would be Angel Pagan. Pagan is a switch hitter who for his career has hit .281/.333/.420 compared to .274/.339/.370 for Bourn. As far as defense and base running go Bourn is far and away the superior player, but that is why he is going to get the big contract and Pagan isn’t. For his career Pagan is a -1.5 UZR/150 in CF while Bourn is a 10.0, and on the bases Bourn is a much more dangerous threat to steal.
Aside from saving money the Nationals would also be saving years. If the Nationals player development people do believe that Brian Goodwin is the future in centerfield then signing Bourn to the six or seven year deal it would take doesn’t make a lot of sense. Pagan would be able to be signed to a two or three year contract, and because of the lower cost he would be much more tradable if Goodwin is ready in that time.
Many people will look at the idea of the Nats trying to save money on centerfield as being cheap, but that money could be better spent elsewhere. Jordan Zimmermann has had a great season for the Nationals and is just now entering his arb years. It would make a lot of sense for the Nationals to offer him a deal similar to the one they gave Gio this past off-season to try and buy out his arb years and keep him beyond 2015. Then there is the question of how to replace Edwin Jackson’s spot in the rotation.
The best starting pitching free agent on the market this winter is going to be Zack Greinke, and if the Nationals want to invest the money it would take to get him they should, but much like with Michael Bourn there may be cheaper options that would help them to lock up their own players for the future. The best pitcher to fill Edwin Jackson’s spot in the rotation might very well be Edwin Jackson. There are other pitchers close in talent like Anibal Sanchez and Ryan Dempster, but of them the Nationals know what Jackson can do.
Looking at the numbers on Anibal Sanchez and having watched him pitch one thing is very clear. He is inconsistent. Every time he takes the mound there is the chance to see a no-hitter, but also the chance to see a no-outer. Anibal Sanchez is Edwin Jackson from a few years ago. Over the last couple seasons Jackson has matured greatly as a pitcher and the Nationals are now in a great position to take advantage of that maturation. The other option for replacing Edwin Jackson is Ryan Dempster, but outside of this season he has never been that impressive as a starting pitcher and some GM might want to pay him like he is the pitcher we have seen in 2012 instead of the one from all the other season.
The Nationals could surprise everyone and go after and get both Greinke and Bourn, but the best option for this off-season might be to try and keep the roster as close to the same as possible. If LaRoche does decline his option the Nationals could very well stick someone like Pagan in center for a couple of seasons until Goodwin is ready, or they could put Moore at first or left and go with Harper for another season. The Nationals have a lot of leverage with how they construct the roster for next season, and when you get right down to it the key to the Nationals winning next year is the same as it was this year, Strasburg, Gio and Zimmermann.