A Disappointing End and the Road Ahead

The corpse of the Nats 2014 season isn’t even cold and it’s time to look ahead to the off-season. I sat and listened to the final game of the Nats season in pitch darkness as the thunder echoed and the storm raged outside my windows. Charlie and Dave’s voices guided me to the bitter bloody end as the Washington Nationals slit their own wrist on the field in San Francisco. Gio Gonzalez botched a comebacker and then faked out Rendon as he first went for and then peeled away from a bunted ball. Matt Williams went to his 8th best reliever in a critical spot after the Nats had tied the game and it all blew up.

The Nats shouldn’t be judged by the playoff series. The 162 games they played before that were far more important than those four. It is hard to deny that Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth’s bats looked old and slow. They Nats may have squeezed the last drops of talent from LaRoche and the dead money years of Werth’s contract may be at hand. Both of them had fine seasons, but two hits between the three and four hitters has a lot to do with the Nats offensive shortcomings in the series against the Giants.

LaRoche will definitely be gone and the Nats will get nothing for him. With the qualifying offer set at $15.3 million LaRoche would be a fool to turn that down if offered. That leaves first open for either Zimmerman or Werth, however the Nats want to play it. It is likely Zimmerman at first with Harper moving to right and Werth in left with Span’s option renewed to patrol center for one more season. However there are options on Denard Span, and one that makes me glad I’m not the GM.

The Nationals farm system is in better shape than it was a season ago. International prospects have risen through the ranks and the Nats have graduated nearly no one. For a team picking late in the draft and expecting to do so again after 2015 refilling the pipeline is important. Span is likely to give the Nats 3.0-4.0 WAR in 2015 and getting that back in prospects is going to be difficult, but with the Nats two best position player prospects both outfielders and Michael Taylor having more upside than Span there is an argument to be made for trading Span.

There is no such thing as a bad one year deal and if Span does struggle in 2015 then it isn’t hard to move him to the bench and see what Michael Taylor or Steven Souza can do as a full time starter. It would be a surprise to see Span moved but teams that win for a long time know when to get rid of a veteran player and turn a position over to a prospect, but look no further than the Red Sox struggles with Jackie Bradley Jr. to see the deep dark downside of guessing wrong on the prospect being ready.

The most likely outcome is that Denard Span stays, Zimmerman moves to first, and the Nats line-up remains mostly unchanged for the 2015 season. Even with that the Nats are going to need a fourth infielder. One that can play either second or third. That could come via free agency with Pablo Sandoval, JJ Hardy, or Hanley Ramirez or via trade for someone like Josh Donaldson, Kyle Seager, Jose Altuve or any other second or third baseman that doesn’t look likely to be traded.

One answer to the middle infield question also answers the future of the shortstop position after Desmond and what to do with Jordan Zimmermann. With AJ Cole and Lucas Giolito as the Nats’ top pitching stars and Jordan Zimmermann approaching free agency the Nats have to decide what to do with him. They could throw a ton of money at him to keep him or they could find a team willing to take one of the best starters in baseball in exchange for a major league ready shortstop that can play second for 2015 and take over for Desmond afterwards. Unfortunately not many of those exist. The only two teams with the player that Nats would need back are the Cubs and Indians and it is unlikely that either of those would be in the market for a one season rental.

When it comes to the starting pitching the best thing to do is look at it for what it is, the backbone of the Washington Nationals. They Nationals have one more go round with this starting five, they were the best starting five in baseball in 2014, and likely to be that again in 2015. Take one last shot with the best and worry about AJ Cole and Lucas Giolito taking over for Fister and Zimmermann in 2016.

The Nats are in need of bullpen and bench pieces but so is every other team in baseball. The good news is Storen, Clippard, Thornton, Blevins, and Stammen are all under contract for 2015. The bad news is Clippard and Storen are both very expensive and with only one as the closer the other could be traded to clear salary space for the new second or third baseman the Nats need.

Not much is needed for the Nats to be good again in 2015. Injuries cost the team in 2014 and they still won 96 games. With the majority of the regulars healthy in the second half they played to a 104 win pace. While that pace can’t be expected for the entire 2015 season it isn’t hard to imagine a healthy Harper and Zimmerman adding something to the offense. Rendon had a career season but with his simple and compact swing he is unlikely to degrade. Desmond and Span should both be worth somewhere in the 3.0 to 4.0 win range, and Werth is a savvy enough player to provide value in some way even if his bat is slowing at the plate and range in the field.

The final big question for the Nationals is if Wilson Ramos is someone they trust to stay healthy. The catcher free agent market is week and Jose Lobaton served his purpose when he had to fill in over long stretches for Ramos making it likely that the Nats ride that situation out as well and hope for the best as they’re already prepared for the worst.

Second base could be a real problem in 2015 if the Nationals can’t fill the position but Mike Rizzo has proven himself a GM that has a plan A, B, and C and sometimes the latter two are better than former. This is going to be the third straight off-season with no major changes and that is a good thing, but it is going to be one with some tough decisions. The Nationals have pieces one year from free agency that could help to restock the pipeline for the future and they have major league ready replacements for some of those pieces. I predict the Nats and Mike Rizzo are going to stick with the WAR in hand instead of betting on another organization’s prospects to provide the same value in the future and most of the difference between the 2015 and 2014 rosters will be cosmetic.

The 2014 Washington Nationals were a good team that had a lot going for it and lost more to the quirky nature of baseball’s postseason than to anything else. The offense went silent at the wrong time, and it is a shame because when it’s all said and done this may have been the best roster Mike Rizzo ever assembles. 2015 should be a good season as well with a healthy Zimmerman and Harper and a new second or third baseman instead of LaRoche, but there is no guarantee that the off-season goes according to plan and Danny Espinosa could be your 2015 second baseman making both the starting lineup and the bench worse than 2014.

There is work to be done and while this looks like an easy off-season for Mike Rizzo tough choices abound, and I’m glad he’s at the helm and not a GM that believes in the myths and legends of October baseball. Many a GM have torn down a good team to construct a team “built for October” only to never see October again.

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