Only minutes after the Washington Nationals fell to the San Francisco Giants in the National League Division Series of the 2014 playoffs, their second first-round exit in three years, shortstop Ian Desmond stood at his locker in the visiting clubhouse as teammates around him packed their belongings, soon to head their separate ways for the winter, and captured the harsh reality of their title hopes. “The window isn’t closed, but it’s closing,” he said, the emotion of the disappointing defeat in his voice.
The most important season in the Nationals’ 10-year history begins Monday. Never has a Nationals team had a payroll this big, received this much attention or had hopes this high for a World Series. But as Desmond pointed out on Oct. 7 in San Francisco, the Nationals are on the clock. This team, considered the most talented in baseball, will be together for only one more season. Five players — Desmond, center fielder Denard Span, starters Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister, and reliever Matt Thornton — will be eligible for free agency after the season. Reliever Casey Janssen and outfielder Nate McLouth could join them if the Nationals decline their options.
There is more pressure to win in 2015 than ever, and the accompanying sadness that this group of players might never be together again.
“The excitement of what could be trumps all of that,” Desmond said last week at his locker at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla. “We’re all really focused on putting the best product we can on the field. The only way for us to do that is we have focus on winning today, whether it be a spring training game, cage work, a bullpen session. You’ve got to focus on it to be the best that you can be for that season.”
The Nationals have won a best-in-baseball 280 games over the past three seasons thanks to a group of players that rose to the major leagues and blossomed around the same time. Players were added from outside over the years to help: first baseman Adam LaRoche before 2011, starter Gio Gonzalez before 2012, Span before 2013, Fister before 2014 and, now, starter Max Scherzer. But some of that core unit is gone — Ross Detwiler and Tyler Clippard, both traded this offseason, and LaRoche, allowed to depart via free agency. More will be leaving after 2015.
“I think our window is much broader than what’s being perceived in the industry,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “Maybe it’s because I know what kind of depth and what kind of players that we have coming in the next wave. I feel confident that we have the chance to win this year, and, with the players we have and I look at the roster beyond 2015, I think our window is still open.”
A day after the NLDS defeat, Rizzo was already calculating what to do next. As he does every offseason, he had conference calls set up with Nationals coaches, scouts and front-office officials to dissect what succeeded and failed, and map out the offseason to-do list. His goal was to make the Nationals “better, faster, younger, deeper” throughout the system.
“Sometimes it’s not the optimal way you want to hit on [the to-do list], but we fulfilled what we were trying to do on all of our points,” he said.
Rizzo traded Detwiler, who was one year away from free agency, to Texas for a minor league pitcher and infielder. He made the hard choice to do the same with fan favorite and bullpen stalwart Clippard, also a year from free agency, shipping him to Oakland for veteran infielder Yunel Escobar, who will play third base on opening day but might be manning shortstop next season if Desmond departs via free agency after this season. He shipped Steven Souza Jr., blocked in Washington’s outfield but at the height of his trade value, to Tampa Bay and got back pitching prospect Joe Ross and potential shortstop-of-the-future Trea Turner from San Diego.
The Nationals also signed veteran reliever Janssen to help replace Clippard and Scherzer to stabilize a starting rotation that will change in the coming years. Perhaps the most obvious solution after 2014 would have been to keep Detwiler, Clippard, LaRoche and Souza and sign Desmond, Fister and Zimmermann to extensions, but Rizzo carefully weighed the options and consulted with team ownership.
“It’s a delicate balance,” he said. “You have to be convicted on the plan because you could easily be lured into this go-for-it type of attitude and put all your eggs in one basket and forget about the future. I’ve never had a problem with looking beyond the current season. My job as the caretaker of this franchise is to always be looking on. We want to be good and relevant and competitive for many years to come.”
The Nationals might look noticeably different in 2016. Desmond, Zimmermann, Fister and Span all appear headed to free agency. The Nationals may still be suitors for some but not all. Prospect Michael A. Taylor is seen as the center fielder of the future, and the Nationals have pitching and infield options for the other possible holes. Potential departures mean the Nationals, at a record $165 million payroll in 2015, have only about $83 million committed in 2016 and could be players in free agency.
“I think you’re going to have some different faces in some different places [in 2016],” Rizzo said. “They’re going to be faces that we know, faces that come from within, and people that our coaching staff, front office, scouts are all familiar with and comfortable with. That’s why you have a minor league system to keep bringing players along that help impact you at the big league level, either impact you directly with your club or your trade them away to get players that will impact your club.”
The Nationals also face difficult decisions with their players in 2016. Wilson Ramos, Drew Storen and Stephen Strasburg — “all core players,” Rizzo said — are eligible for free agency after that season.
“They’re all vital to the success of the franchise,” Rizzo said. “You have to pick and choose when you want to extend a player to a long-term contract. But in most of those cases, you have a long-term contract in place when you’re a Super-2 player or a pre-[arbitration].”
The Nationals are at an interesting crossroads, the beginning of a changing of the guard from one set of known players to less-experienced ones. They are not only considered World Series favorites but also have the ninth-best farm system in baseball, according to prospect bible Baseball America. When Turner joins the Nationals this summer, they will have seven of Baseball America’s top 100 prospects, the most of any team. This has been Rizzo’s modus operandi as GM: build the major league team while backfilling the minor leagues.
The Nationals’ next wave of pitchers is headlined by right-hander A.J. Cole, who could be in the majors this season if need arises, followed by top prospect Lucas Giolito, Ross, Erick Fedde and Reynaldo Lopez. Rizzo also pointed to position prospects Taylor, with the major league team now; Wilmer Difo and Matt Skole, both infielders; outfielder Rafael Bautista; and a crop of catching prospects led by Pedro Severino.
“This organization is stacked with talent,” said left fielder Jayson Werth, who has three years remaining on his contract. “The big leagues, the minor leagues — there’s a lot of good players. This has become a destination for free agents.
“Beyond this year, regardless of what happens with all the guys, you can always trade guys, sign guys. I’m not going to look beyond this year. But I would say with this group of guys, this will probably be the last year of this group. The nucleus of this team will continue to move on and grow. I think we’ll have the chance to win as time continues. There’s a chance the team is drastically different next year. That’s reality. That’s not going to change anything for me. I’m going to be here.”
Werth then stopped and pointed to Bryce Harper, who won’t be a free agent until after 2018. “He’s going to be here,” Werth continued. “Max is going to be here.” Then he listed, among other teammates, third base cornerstone Anthony Rendon, who is under team control through 2019.
Having a team with several key players headed toward free agency in an important season can actually be an incentive, Werth said.
“It’s not a deterrent by any means,” he said. “It’s the opposite. I was secretly hoping the whole time that we’re going to have everybody, but that’s the year you want the guy. You want those guys in those situations. That’s usually when guys blossom and perform their best.”
Before Scherzer signed his team-record seven-year, $210 million deal with the Nationals in January, he read up on the team’s roster and the prospects in the system. But, he said, it’s hard to read much into the future. With the Detroit Tigers, he reached the playoffs from 2011 to 2014, each season with noticeably different rosters. The common thread is the commitment to winning.
“The Lerner family wants to win,” he said. “They’re going to provide the team the resources to provide the type of talent that it takes to win, especially if you’re willing to go to the lengths to sign me, and I have confidence in what they’ve done to sign guys in the past. This is an organization now that has transformed and has a chance to continue pumping out teams that are highly talented. Obviously there are guys in the minor leagues that have a chance to contribute big time in the major leagues. I think our organization, as a whole, is set up to compete hopefully over the length of my contract.”