The Washington Post

The other side of the Nationals standing pat

Jonathan Newton/WP

In this morning’s Post, three people who know an awful lot about how to build a baseball team were in agreement. General Manager Mike Rizzo, Manager Davey Johnson and Boz all expressed the belief the Nationals ought to use caution and largely stand pat this winter.

Their basic argument was sound: The Nationals won 98 games in 2012, they have no glaring needs and they have a strong minor league pipeline. Given those three premises, the Nationals should not shell out money in the short term to risk the future or to upset the present. “Sometimes,” Rizzo told Boz, “you’re better with known commodities.”

But is now one of those times? There is a flipside to the stand pat approach, the one that says the Nationals should go all out to win now, while their window appears wide open. The fickle nature of baseball’s postseason makes placing all of a team’s eggs in a one-season basket foolish. And yet, now may be the time for the Nationals to push their payroll and, while balancing both, make the present a priority over the future. The Nationals don’t have to blow up their plan to focus on winning now.

Boz’s argument was sensible, but there is another side to it. The counter-argument would go something like this:

The Nationals’ four young, power arms – Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler – are all under contract together through the 2015 season. At that point, Detwiler and Zimmermann can become free agents. Strasburg is free to leave the following year.

The Nationals plan on trying to keep them all, but there is no guarantee. And even if they can secure them, the Nationals know that in 2013, those four dominant starters are all entering the season healthy and at full strength. There is no guarantee that will happen again, either. The Nationals prevented Strasburg from pitching in the 2012 postseason to ensure his future health – and that future starts in 2013.

Jayson Werth’s contract means he will be a fixture in the outfield through the year 2017, by which point he will be 38. Assuming he follows the typical career arc, Werth’s best seasons with the Nationals are the ones closest to this moment. When healthy in 2012, Werth was one of the toughest outs in the majors. Unless he is the rare player who can buck the trend of declining once he reaches his mid-30s, that won’t be the case for much longer.

The Nationals should try to capitalize while their elite rotation is definitely healthy and Werth is still likely to have one of his better seasons. The more seasons that pass, the less likely both scenarios become.

The Nationals would not have to spend wildly this offseason to maximize their shot to win in 2013, either. Essentially, they could do so by re-signing Adam LaRoche to the kind of three-year deal he should find on the open market and by attracting a top-shelf starter to replace Edwin Jackson.

As Boz noted in his column, the Nationals are shying away from giving LaRoche more than two years because they may want to move Ryan Zimmerman to first and because it may clog their infield as top prospect Anthony Rendon nears the majors.

In 2012, though, LaRoche gives the Nationals their best chance. They cannot replace both his defense at first base and his left-handed presence in the middle of their lineup with one player who is currently available. They have viable options in Michael Morse and Tyler Moore, but neither fit perfectly into the Nationals’ lineup like LaRoche.

As for the issues presented by a third year for LaRoche, the Nationals can deal with them when that third year arrives. Zimmerman, despite his throwing struggles, remains an elite defensive third baseman for now. Rendon is a fabulous prospect, one who just raked his way through the Arizona Fall League, and he may well start knocking down the door to the majors as soon as the middle of the 2013 season. But at the moment he has played less than 50 regular season minor league games, and he has dealt with major injuries for three straight years going back to his college days at Rice. Odds are Rendon will be very good, or even great. But no prospect is a sure thing.

As Boz wrote, the Nationals and Johnson feel good about giving Christian Garcia a chance to be their fifth starter. Garcia dominated in late-inning relief as a September call-up. Early in Garcia’s career, starting only led to severe arm trouble, including two Tommy John surgeries. The Nationals, as a full-fledged contender, are not in a position to be handing one of their starting spots to a pitcher carrying those risks.  

The Nationals may not be in a financial situation to sign Zack Greinke, who looks like he could find himself in the middle of a bidding war with the Dodgers and Angels. But adding one significant contract to the starting rotation — perhaps Anibal Sanchez or Kyle Lohse — shouldn’t handicap them when it comes time to sign their own young players. They are a big market team with one of the richest ownerships in baseball, and if the MASN negotiations break their way (assuming those talks ever get completed), payroll will not be an issue going forward.

No matter what track the Nationals take this winter, they should field a contender. In baseball, year-to-year consistency often matters more than gearing up for one big season. But the Nationals should take full advantage of their best chance to win a World Series. There is plenty of distance between prioritizing the present and mortgaging the future.

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.



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Adam Kilgore · November 26, 2012