4 Changes the Washington Nationals Should Make Before Spring Training
Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Viera, Florida, Feb. 19 with position players arriving five days later on Feb. 24. To put it in more dramatic terms, the preseason is less than two months away.
After a silent first two months this offseason, Washington is starting to pick up steam. Most notably, the Nationals have executed trades that sent reliever Ross Detwiler to the Texas Rangers and outfielder Steven Souza Jr. to the Tampa Bay Rays.
But Washington still has yet to answer its biggest offseason questions.
Will any or all of the Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Doug Fister trio be signed to extensions before becoming free agents after 2015? Who will be the everyday second baseman this season?
The Nationals don't technically have to make any more moves this winter, but general manager Mike Rizzo is smart enough to know that they should.
With two short months before the team reconvenes, here are some changes Washington should lock in before the rubber meets the road on the way to spring training.
Work out a Contract Extension for Ian Desmond
Earlier this month, The Washington Post's Chelsea Janes reported that Ian Desmond and the Nationals have made no progress in extension talks.
With the shortstop's contract set to expire after the upcoming season, that needs to change.
Desmond proved over the course of the 2014 campaign he's one of the most valuable players on Washington's roster at a position that is arguably the most difficult to adequately fill.
The 29-year-old was one of the sturdiest shortstops in the National League last season, and his production at the plate earned him a third-consecutive Silver Slugger award. Desmond's 154 games played was the second best of any shortstop in the NL, and he led the position across MLB in runs batted in with 91.
Desmond has made it clear he won't be offering a hometown discount to the Nats. The Washington Post's Adam Kilgore reported in November that the shortstop turned down a seven-year, $107 million extension last winter.
But Desmond has shown interest in remaining a National.
"I've got family in this organization," he said earlier this month at the team's annual fan fest. "I've got guys that I consider Dad in this organization. I've got guys that are just like my brothers that I've been with."
While it's not ideal, Washington could survive the loss of a starting pitcher like Zimmermann or Fister.
But in order for this championship-caliber roster to remain near the driver's seat in the NL, the Nationals must lock down their shortstop.
Decide the Fates of Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister
It's a hard conversation to have about two of the strongest pitchers in baseball, but it's time to start talking trade possibilities for Zimmermann and Fister.
The Nationals simply don't have the funds to pay Zimmermann, Fister and Desmond. You could probably count on one hand the number of teams that do.
Therefore, there has to be at least one odd man out. And it should be one of the pitchers.
Zimmermann is the only member of the trio who has actually begun extension talks, according to a report from Janes. But the discussions haven't offered any more clarity yet.
"If it’s a fair value, like I have said all along, I would gladly sign," Zimmermann said. "But at the end of the day, it’s gotta be something that’s fair and if it’s not, then I’ll be moving on."
In a vacuum, the Nationals would take Zimmermann over Fister 10 times out of 10 if they had to choose. But the lower price tag of the latter could allow Washington to keep Desmond as well as one of the two hurlers.
According to a November report from the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cubs were in talks with Washington over a potential trade for Zimmermann. But Chicago has since signed ace Jon Lester, making it highly unlikely the Cubs would be willing to give up what the Nationals want for Zimmermann's services.
If principal owner Mark Lerner wants to open up the checkbook and pay Desmond, Zimmermann and Fister, Washington's win/loss record would thank him.
But the more likely and prudent move would be a trade that exchanged one of Washington's soon-to-be free agent pitchers for young infield talent.
Open Up the Position Battle at Second Base
The names on the Nationals Opening Day lineup card should look very similar to last year's, but positions will be shuffled considerably.
The Washington Post's James Wagner reported Bryce Harper will switch from left to right field in 2015, with Jayson Werth making the opposite move from right to left.
We've known for a while Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon will occupy different everyday positions than they did at the start of last season. Due to the departure of Adam LaRoche, Zimmerman moves from his usual left infield location to first base with Rendon taking over at third.
With Wilson Ramos holding steady at catcher, Denard Span still in center field and Desmond at shortstop barring a trade, that just leaves second base up in the air.
The hot stove is beginning to cool off at the position. Potential free-agent target Jed Lowrie already latched on with the Astros, and former Angel Howie Kendrick joined the Dodgers in a trade. However, Washington could still end up with its second baseman of the future if it deals one of its pitchers.
But in the meantime, they need to look at in-house options.
After an abysmal 2013, Danny Espinosa played in 144 games last year. The majority of his plate appearances (290) came as a second baseman, and he upped his batting average from .158 in 2013 to .219 last season.
"There's a second-base job that's open and I want to win that," the 32-year-old told Ladson. "That's the way I go with it. I don't know why you can't. That's why I go out early [on the field] and do stuff. No one is saying no. If that opportunity arises, I'll take it."
Sort out the Trea Turner Situation
Washington dealt outfielder Souza Jr. and minor league pitcher Travis Ott to the Rays. In return, the Nats received Padres pitching prospect Joe Ross and a player to be named later that is widely recognized as shortstop Trea Turner.
But a rule that was minted in the 1980s is forcing Turner to remain a Padre, at least in the technical sense, until June, one full year after he was drafted.
San Diego selected Turner with the 13th pick in the 2014 first-year player draft. And according to Wagner's report following the trade, the Nationals aren't permitted any contact with their new prospect until June 13, 2015. Washington will simply have to rely on a scout to keep tabs on Turner's development.
The dynamic part of the story is Turner's agent's involvement in the situation.
According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, Turner's agent, Jeff Berry of CAA, could file a grievance in an attempt to free his client from San Diego's control.
It's likely Turner will have to serve out the rest of a full year as a Padre before joining the Nationals, but his fate should be decided one way or the other by the onset of spring training.