As Craig Stammen’s agent and the Washington Nationals talked on Wednesday, the pitcher held out hope he would reach a deal to return for his 12th year with the organization that drafted him in the 12th round of the 2005 draft. By some projections, Stammen was perhaps likely to see a modest raise through baseball’s arbitration system from his $2.25 million salary in 2015. But the two sides couldn’t reach a deal following a season in which the right-hander reliever pitched in only five games before needing forearm surgery, so the Nationals non-tendered him before the midnight deadline.
“It’s unfortunate,” Stammen said Thursday afternoon. “I’m definitely disappointed that I’m not going to have a chance to pitch for the Washington Nationals next year. I feel extremely healthy. I’ve been throwing and I’m ready to roll. I’m excited to start a new chapter in my baseball career and get ready to pitch and compete for a championship with another team.”
There are several factors in play. MLBTradeRumors.com’s arbitration projections believed Stammen could make $2.4 million in 2016, which represents a nice chunk of money for a middle-inning reliever coming off a serious injury. Based on rules, an offer couldn’t be less than 80 percent of the previous salary, so the lowest Stammen could make is $1.8 million. The two sides weren’t close in talks.
The other consideration is health. Stammen said he is doing well, feels strong, has already started throwing and is on track to be ready for spring training. But he had surgery in April to repair two nearly completely torn flexor tendons in his right forearm. Some past pitchers didn’t recover well from the injury — Cincinnati’s Homer Bailey eventually needed Tommy John surgery earlier this year when returning from flexor mass tendon surgery — while others did fine — Jonathan Broxton posted a 2.30 ERA in 2014, his first year back from the same procedure.
Stammen said he isn’t sure if health was a factor in being non-tendered. He said the Nationals hadn’t really asked if he was or not since the season ended because the medical staff was replaced.
“I think they were operating in the dark a little bit,” Stammen said. “But I think they decided they can find somebody on the free agent market that is as good if not better than me. That’s kind of the decision that they’ll make. It is what it is. I’m thankful for the opportunity to pitch for the Washington Nationals and to be with one team as long as I have been was truly a special honor. They treated me fairly throughout the whole process. It’s sad to see it end like this. But definitely, on the other end, I’m excited for a new start. I know that everything does happen for a reason.”
The Nationals could still pursue Stammen as a free agent. He doesn’t expect that to happen — “that’s not usually how it works when people get non-tendered” — but he will listen if the Nationals call. He said teams have already contacted him.
“What I’m going to have to do is prove that I’m healthy and prove that I’m the same pitcher I was in 2014 and even at the very start of 2015 before I had the injury, which I don’t feel will be that difficult,” he said. “I’m already feeling as strong as I have ever felt. I know for a fact that I’m in the best shape that I’ve ever been in my life at age 31. I’m ready to go back and compete. I’ve spent a year on the sidelines watching my buddies play. It’s now my time for me to play with them.”
Stammen was fully cleared medically in August but the Nationals’ medical staff decided it was best to simply rest because he would be back just before the end of the regular season. He said he began playing catch two and a half weeks ago. He’ll graduate from 90 to 120 feet next week. He hopes to throw bullpens by mid-January. The plan with the Nationals, Stammen said, was to throw in minor league spring training games to start and then pitch in big league spring training games and “be ready to rock and roll for opening day,”
From 2012 to 2014, former starter Stammen was one of the sturdiest relievers in baseball. He posted a 2.93 ERA in that span, mostly as a long reliever, as a key cog and well-liked teammate in the bullpen. When he landed on the disabled list in April, no reliever had logged more innings since the start of 2012 — and, in the past, the Nationals have been wary of the mileage logged in pursuing pitchers. But the Nationals, in need of good relievers, will likely overhaul their bullpen this winter, with set-up man Darren O’Day as a target. Stammen’s missing presence was felt this season when the team struggled to reliably get the ball from the starters to the back end of the bullpen.
“I think I can leave the organization very proud of what we accomplished from the day we all got drafted to the time we left,” Stammen said. “I’m talking about with Ian [Desmond] and Jordan [Zimmermann] and guys like that who came up through the system with and kinda took our lumps in 2009, ’10 and ’11, and built up to be a division winner in ’12 and ’14. Those are the memories that I have, playing with those guys all the way up and winning the divisions. I can’t say how thankful I am to have gotten the opportunity to pitch in the major leagues. It was truly a privilege to pitch for the Washington Nationals and be in the nation’s capital and be supported by such a good fan base. I’ll definitely miss all that.”