Pitchers and catchers report to Viera on Thursday, which got me thinking about roster turnover, which made me wonder: What if the Nationals hadn’t lost so many players to free agency this offseason?
What would be the 2016 outlook if Jordan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Doug Fister had all accepted extension offers? With each returning after a down season, would the Nationals still be projected to contend for the NL East title?
The roster still has several question marks but it improved in some ways. Capable hitters Daniel Murphy and Ben Revere were added, and the bullpen was tweaked and its depth improved. The lineup is expected to make more contact and strike out less. Would that still be the case if Desmond had accepted a five-year, $89.5-million extension?
The Nationals have spots for Tanner Roark and Joe Ross — in the rotation last season because of injuries and poor performances by others — thanks to the departures of Zimmermann and Fister. Now, the Nationals have younger, fresher arms, and the chance to add more if Lucas Giolito and other prospects push to the majors this year. Would that still be the case if Zimmermann had accepted his five-year, $105-million extension? And how would the rotation look if Fister, after a season in which he was hurt and was pushed into long relief, were still around?
All three are proven major leaguers with track records — Silver Sluggers, no-hitters, sub-3.00 ERA seasons — but declining skills: Zimmermann’s velocity, Desmond’s contact, Fister’s repertoire.
In a sense, the Nationals may have dodged three bullets. At the time of extension offers, the Nationals wanted them. All three took calculated risks by declining the offers, believing they could do better as free agents.
That hasn’t been the case. Zimmermann signed a five-year, $110-million deal with the Tigers, just $5 million more than the Nationals’ final extension offer. Fister inked a one-year, $7-million deal with the Astros, and has the chance to earn $5 million more in incentives. Desmond, who is being weighed down by draft pick compensation, has yet to sign, although the Rockies, Rays and White Sox reportedly remain interested.
The Nationals will have a tough time replacing Desmond’s clubhouse presence and work ethic, Zimmermann’s consistency and grit and Fister’s professionalism. But now, the Nationals are thinking about the future: the development of Trea Turner and Joe Ross, Danny Espinosa’s sure hands at shortstop (and hopefully continued resurgent bat), and Giolito’s major league debut.