From the moment he reported to Viera, Fla., for spring training, Ian Desmond has made it a point to give his thanks. Before he took his first grounders at shortstop in February, he gave hugs to groundskeepers he has known for years. At dinner at a popular Italian restaurant in Viera in his final week of spring training, he thanked the manager for all the kind service over the years. Before Saturday’s exhibition game, the final tuneup before the season, he hugged the security guards who keep watch near the dugout during games.
For Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann, two homegrown stars drafted and developed by the Nationals, this could be their final season in Washington. Despite efforts, the Nationals haven’t been able to sign either to contract extensions and neither player wants to negotiate during the regular season. It’s hard to say goodbye — and Desmond isn’t sure what is going to happen after the 2015 season — but he is covering all his bases.
“I’m really focused on making sure I don’t take anything for granted as far as relationships, whether it be with the groundskeepers or people that work here on the minor league side,” he said last week in Viera. “Just old friends. I want to make sure that I let them know that I appreciate them and I wouldn’t be here without them, whoever they are. I’m just trying to enjoy it, not necessarily thinking that I’ll be here or won’t be here, but I want to make sure everyone knows how I feel about what they’ve done for me. I think I’ve done as good as I can about letting everybody know that I’m thankful.”
A chunk of the Nationals’ key players are hitting free agency around the same time, including Denard Span and Doug Fister. This season of World Series hopes is likely the final year this group has together.
“It’s exciting,” said Zimmermann, who makes his first start of the season Wednesday. “Nothing to be sad about. I’m still a National until something happens. As of right now, I’m a National, I’m excited for the season and ready to get going.”
Both Desmond, 29, and Zimmermann, 28, grew up in the organization.
“I love both of them as people, as players, and great representatives of the Nationals,’ General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “I love the two guys. They’re two of my favorite players on the club. They’ve been great for us throughout their Nationals careers. They’ve represented the city of Washington and Mike Rizzo’s Nationals to the utmost.”
The Nationals have discussed a long-term deal with Desmond, a 2004 second-round pick by the Expos, since his breakout 2012 season when he batted .292 with 25 home runs and a .845 OPS, earning his first all-star selection. But the offer then was relative to Desmond’s small body of work.
Since, Desmond has posted two more seasons of 20 homers and 20 stolen bases, last year becoming the fourth shortstop in history to have at least three seasons of such production. Desmond may strike out a fair amount — an average of 147 over the past three seasons — but he offers power, speed and durability, a rare combination for the position he plays. He hit .255 with 24 home runs and a .743 OPS in 2014, along with solid defense.
Desmond turned down an offer of $107 million over seven years after the 2013 season. By some indications, the monetary gap to bridge then wasn’t much. The Nationals haven’t negotiated with Desmond since.
Desmond, a team leader and heavily involved with the Nationals’ Urban Youth Academy in Southeast, has maintained he would like to spend his entire career with one team, although he said he is “at peace” with everything that has transpired with the Nationals.
“I know I’ve left it all out there for 12 years in the organizations, and five full seasons in the big leagues, that I’ve got no regrets,” he said. “I feel like I’ve done everything for the organization that they asked. For the fans, I’ve played hard every single day. I’ve kinda worn my heart on my sleeve. What they see if what they get on a daily basis. . . . It doesn’t bring any sadness or frustration. It’s the business. That’s just part of it.”
After the 2012 season, the Nationals also talked about a long-term deal with Zimmermann, whom they drafted in the second round in 2007. Both sides talked again after Zimmerman’s all-star 2013 campaign but could only agree on a two-year deal for the right-hander’s final arbitration seasons.
Since, Zimmermann posted his finest season yet in 2014: a 2.66 ERA over 1992 /3 innings, including a second all-star selection, a no-hitter and a near shutout in the playoffs. The Nationals, while weighing trades for Zimmermann and Desmond this offseason, approached Zimmermann’s agent over the winter to negotiate but were unable to strike a deal.
“I’ve considered this place some place I want to stay but it’s got to be right,” Zimmermann said this week. “. . . I’ve learned a lot [about this process]. I understand it’s a business and anything can happen. Whatever happens is going to happen for a reason.”
Making the call when to continue negotiating and when to pursue other options is “very difficult,” Rizzo said.
“We all have personal relationships with these guys,” he added. “We’ve all gone through a lot of things together in the years that we’ve been here. Those are very difficult decisions to make. But, as the caretaker of the organization and the franchise, the Lerners are relying on me to do what’s right for the ballclub to keep us good, competitive and relevant for years to come.”
Despite failed attempts at negotiations, all sides publicly said there are no issues with each other. Rizzo said he only talks money with the agents, never with the players. “We keep it professional and business-like,” Rizzo said.
Even though both players have said they don’t want to negotiate during the season, that wouldn’t stop Rizzo from calling either’s agent and offering a lucrative contract should circumstances change.
“We never close doors,” Rizzo said. “We never shut off talks, discussions and conversations. If it doesn’t happen throughout the season, then they’ll become free agents and we’ll have a shot at them as a free agent. You never say never. You never close the door because you never know what’ll happen in this game. Suffice it to say, they’re near and dear to my heart and they’re guys that have been great to the organization.”
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