VIERA, Fla. – The facts of the matter, in February 2015, are perhaps best summed up by Bryce Harper: “We got a great team right now. I think worrying about what we need to do this year is where we need to be, not about if we’re going to sign a guy long-term or this and that.”
No argument here, and just walking through the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse for a couple days, that vibe is visceral. Manager Matt Williams preceded the first full-squad workout Thursday by typing, at the top of the schedule tacked to the bulletin board at the back of the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium, one message: “The road to the World Series begins today.”
“We’re here to get to that ultimate goal,” Williams said. Haughty? Maybe. But coming off 96 victories and a division title, with the prize of the free agent pitching market strengthening what was already a strength, it’s realistic, too.
So 2015 will teach us more about how the Nationals handle themselves with the ultimate goal as what’s perceived to be the only acceptable outcome. But beyond that, we’ll learn something about how they intend to build themselves in the future, too.
Before the Nationals signed right-hander Max Scherzer for a jaw-dropping seven years and $210 million, the story of their offseason was undoubtedly the impending free agency of shortstop Ian Desmond and right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, and to a lesser extent right-hander Doug Fister and center fielder Denard Span (not to mention reliever Tyler Clippard, who was traded away with only 2015 remaining on his contract). The Nationals were in that position – potentially dealing core, homegrown products – for one reason only: because they were not able to lock up those core, homegrown products to long-term deals before the siren’s song of free agency arrived.
It is a philosophy that has worked for some teams: Draft and develop to the best of your ability, identify the players you want going forward, then try to sign them to deals that buy out their three years of arbitration eligibility (potentially a boon for the player) and perhaps a year or two or three of free agency (potentially a boon for the team).
San Francisco, which currently has Madison Bumgarner on a six-year, $35.6-million contract with two club options at $12 million apiece – at this point in time a bargain for a World Series hero – has successfully negotiated these waters. Philadelphia, which is currently wearing Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125-million deal for what could be two more miserable seasons, has not. There are examples of pros and cons all over both leagues.
The pertinence with the Nationals: By and large, they haven’t eliminated the uncertainty around their own players with long-term deals that delay free agency. Business-wise, that could be good. Fan experience-wise, it’s unsettling.
“We try to do those,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “We try and pick the guys that you think are core guys that fit your definition of core guys. We certainly have tried to, with several players on several occasions. We’ve offered contract extensions well before the two-year and one-year periods.”
That was true with Zimmermann, going back years, and the two sides could never reach an accord. To a lesser extent, it was true with Desmond, who wasn’t approached about an extension until the offseason leading up to 2014, when he had two seasons to go before free agency. Both declined legitimate offers. Now, both are in spring training, pledging to contribute to the only team they have ever known. Yes, extensions could still happen, but they’re not expected. So the backdrop of their impending departure is difficult to obscure.
“I care about their mentality,” Williams said. “We’ve had the discussion. And their response is: ‘We are Washington Nationals. We’re proud of that, and we are ready to do what we can to help our team win.’ I don’t think either one of them are thinking about it at this point.”
Given the make-up of the two players in question, that’s completely believable. But will that always be the case?
The Nationals have two successful negotiations in this arena: third baseman-turned-first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, first buying out arbitration years and two years of free agency, then the six-year, $100-million deal that carries him through 2019; and lefty Gio Gonzalez, who they have at $12 million for next year, which would be his first year of free agency, and $12 million as a team option in 2017 as well – a bargain, even if Gonzalez never approaches his 21-8, 2.89 ERA of 2012.
By now, for whatever reason – and it’s important to remember this is a two-way street – they have not signed Desmond or Zimmermann. They tried and failed to extend Fister when he arrived in a trade with Detroit last offseason. Players have to be willing, too. These impasses happen. Who thought Jon Lester, cancer survivor and World Series hero in Boston, would move on?
For the Nationals, the next crop of would-be core players is coming up, and it will shape the future – Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen following 2016, Bryce Harper after 2018, Anthony Rendon two years after that.
None of these are particularly pressing here in the spring of 2015, particularly given the goals stated above over the next eight months. But as the Nationals have evolved into something of a draft-and-develop machine – these aren’t the Red Sox or the Yankees, because Scherzer and Jayson Werth are the only major free agents on the roster – there is a reasonable question about whether they will become a draft-and-develop-and-keep-their-own operation.
This is delicate work. Strasburg, Harper and Rendon all employ Scott Boras as their agent, and Boras most often prefers to take his clients to free agency, where 30 teams can vie for their services and drive up the price. (It worked, for example, for Scherzer.) But pitcher Jered Weaver (with the Angels) and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez (with the Rockies) are examples of Boras clients who have signed extensions with their original clubs before free agency hit. It’s not impossible.
And there are injury histories to consider, too. Zimmermann and Strasburg both underwent Tommy John surgery. When might their elbows give out again? Rendon, perhaps the Nationals’ best position player in 2014, is still under club control for five more seasons, and we don’t yet know if the ankle injuries he has suffered in the past were flukes or not.
The point of this is not 2015, which could well be a joy ride. The point is that the business of the game of baseball is inescapable even for fans who don’t care much about collective bargaining agreements and the intricacies of the salary system. Whatever the finances, fans invest time and emotions in particular players. Franchises need not make business or baseball decisions on the whims of fans, but it would be a shame if the Nationals – who are poised to be so good for so long – can’t draft and develop and then keep the best of their own players.
A front-burner issue for 2015? Not likely, not with what’s ahead of this current group, so happy to get into workouts on Thursday. But beyond? It’s worth watching. Front offices can understand the realities of the business. Fans, though, have their emotions toyed with, even if they have confidence in those very same front offices who are toying with them.