Welcome to the offseason

October 31, 2013

Whether or not the Nationals sign Ian Desmond to a contract extension will be one of many questions the Nationals answer this winter. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

As Koji Uehara jumped into David Ross’s arms and pointed to the sky last night, the Red Sox’ World Series victory marked the end of the season. The next meaningful baseball will arrive five months from now. As much as we’ll miss the games, baseball never really stops.

With the World Series, the Nationals can spring back into action and begin the business of their offseason, answering questions and trying to stomp a path back to the postseason. The machinations of their winter, which will include the integration of a new manager, will start immediately.

First, the Nationals can formally announce the hiring of Matt Williams as manager. That press conference will happen soon, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. With Williams in place, the Nationals can finalize their coaching staff. Will Steve McCatty return? Does Randy Knorr stay on as bench coach, as expected? Coaches’ contracts expire on the final day of October, so the Nationals’ staff will be free to speak with other clubs starting tomorrow.

With their managerial decision settled, the Nationals can move on to shaping their 2014 roster. Teams have until Monday to offer free agents qualifying offers and starting Tuesday free agents may sign with any team. The Nationals have only two free agents in Chad Tracy and Dan Haren. Neither will warrant a qualifying offer, and both figure to find new homes next season.

(There is perhaps a remote chance the Nationals try to get fancy and offer Haren a qualifying offer, hoping he’ll spurn it to pitch on the West Coast, his desired destination. But Haren knows he will not be able to pick and choose his next team after an uneven 2013, and he would probably realize his value would crash if attached to draft compensation. He would essentially be forced to accept the one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer, and the Nationals wouldn’t want that. So, actually, no, there’s no chance they give Haren a qualifying offer. They still should have given Edwin Jackson one last year, but we’ve digressed enough.)

From Nov. 11-13, the GM and owners meetings will take place in Orlando. This isn’t the Winter Meetings, where more action tends to take place. But trades will occasionally materialize. Mostly, teams lay groundwork for the winter by meeting with agents and bouncing ideas off each other. Competitive issues, like replay or the playoff structure, are also discussed.

The next kind of deadline day will comes Dec. 2, the final day for teams to tender contracts to players eligible for arbitration. The Nationals have eight such players: Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos, Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Ross Detwiler and Ross Ohlendorf.

All but Ohlendorf are no-brainers to be tendered contracts, and Ohlendorf would come so cheaply – probably around $1.5 million – that he will likely be brought back, too. Storen and Clippard may be dangled in trades. Will the Nationals use Strasburg’s first arbitration-eligible season as a means to discuss a contract extension? Agent Scott Boras doesn’t go for buying out free agent years, but the Nationals could try to lock themselves into cost-certainty with Strasburg for the next three seasons.

Desmond and Zimmermann are both candidates for contract extensions. Especially with no internal free agents to retain, the Nationals’ main priority should be to lock up one or both of them with long-term deals. Desmond is especially valuable given the scarcity of quality shortstops. If the Nationals lose Desmond when he becomes eligible for free agency after 2014 2015, it will be difficult to replace him.

The Winter Meetings come Dec. 9-12, also in Orlando. The offseason will be in full swing by then. The Nationals can bring back their entire lineup from last season, although they may want to target a right-handed first baseman with Adam LaRoche coming off surgery. The free agent crop at first is exceedingly weak, but Jeff Baker, a veteran who pounds left-handed pitching, would be a good fit.

The Nationals’ main priority figures to be pitching. They’ll have to replace Haren in the rotation. One team official said Ross Detwiler looked fully healthy as he rehabbed in the instructional league, but the Nationals also have to wonder how he will bounce back after he missed the final three months of 2013 with a bulging disc in his back. The Nationals have depth with young arms such as Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan and Nate Karns, plus the possible midseason arrivals of A.J. Cole, Sammy Solis and Matt Purke from the farm system. Too much starting pitching is a fallacy, and the Nationals could use another proven option.

The Nationals could look to add a veteran, back-of-the-rotation starter on a short-term deal, like they did the past two years with Jackson and Haren. Rizzo has also acknowledged the possibility of another big trade for a young, controllable starter in the mold of the deal they swung for Gio Gonzalez two years ago.

The most obvious and costliest target in that category would be Rays lefty David Price, who has seemingly become too expensive for Tampa to keep. Given the number of teams who will vie to land one of the best lefties in baseball, the Nationals may not have the talent and depth in their farm system to land him. Any offer would probably have to start with Anthony Rendon, then get more painful from there.

Would the Cardinals make Shelby Miller available? That idea would have seemed crazy during the season, but Miller didn’t even make the Cardinals’ postseason rotation. The Cardinals may deem Miller expendable, especially if they choose to make Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez into starters. Given his contract status, though, Miller may cost just as much as Price in a trade.

On the final day of October, with opening day five months away, the possibilities seem limitless. Starting now, the Nationals can start to answer all of their questions.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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James Wagner · October 30, 2013

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