The Washington Nationals have now seen their advances shot down by two free agent targets this offseason. Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward said thanks but no thanks to the possibility of joining Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer in the nation’s capital. Jordan Zimmermann has already moved onto the Detroit Tigers, Yunel Escobar was traded to the Los Angeles Angels, and Stephen Strasburg could be on the block as well.
Following a down year, many felt the Nationals would take a step back and briefly re-tool. Apparently that is not the case. Despite already having three outfielders, Harper, Jayson Werth, and Michael Taylor, the front office green-lit an aggressive pursuit of the 26-year-old Heyward. Whether he filled an immediate need or not, the Gold Glover would have been a great acquisition for the Nationals. The right fielder could have allowed the team to flip Taylor, coming off a somewhat promising rookie season, for a player like Todd Frazier. The Nats may still pursue Yoenis Cespedes, but his defense is a definite question mark in center field, and there is no chance Harper slides back over to captain the outfield.
Washington passed on Jordan Zimmermann, but has been linked in reports to Mike Leake. The rotation does have a hole, as prospect Lucas Giolito is likely a full year away. Pursuing Leake, however, who may cost close to $18 million per year, begs the question as to why the front office would not just spend the $22 million per year for Zimmermann, a far better pitcher. Doug Fister could be brought back on a one- or two-year deal to fill out the rotation, but his performance declined in 2015 as he battled injuries. The tall fly-ball pitcher is a better fit for a team with a pitcher-friendly stadium. Really, any of the mid-tier arms worth pursuing will not be that much cheaper than Zimmermann, and will represent a significant downgrade. Washington could go for Johnny Cueto if his value falls low enough, but he comes with just as many, if not more risks than Zimmermann.
There is also the messy bullpen to fix up. Can the Nationals really expect to go into next year with both Jonathan Papelbon and Drew Storen on the roster? The team will have to eat all of Papelbon’s salary to move him, and may have to do the same with Storen. Pursue a trade for Aroldis Chapman and his possible disciplinary issues at your own risk.
Judging by the hasty pursuit of Heyward and the decision to pass on Zimmermann but shortly thereafter pivot and pursue a mid-tier arm, it does not appear the approach to the 2015-16 offseason was fully baked in Washington. Jumping in on Zobrist makes sense, but why try and spend big on an outfielder when the position is not necessarily an area of need. You have an aging player in left field already signed to a massive contract, a young center fielder who could break out in 2016, and an MVP right fielder who will soon become the most expensive player in baseball history. Signing Heyward would have been a definite reach, a move to try and win now before the starting rotation and core of the lineup begins to break up. Ian Desmond and Denard Span are unlikely to return, and Ryan Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos are not getting any younger. What’s more, why dangle your second-best starting pitcher if you are confident enough in the team’s ability to contend?
Over the years, the Nationals have taken a very patient approach, allowing prospects like Zimmermann, Zimmerman, Harper, Desmond, Ramos, Strasburg, and Espinosa to develop into big leaguers. That approach has begun to take a back seat, however, as the farm system has begun drying up when it comes to producing hitters. That’s left the Nationals with an aging core of ex-All-Stars and a group of prospects just not quite ready to star on a contending team. As the 2015 season ended in disappointment, there seemed to be the feeling that the front office had realized this and would sit the winter out.
Apparently not. Now, having failed in their pursuit of another big name, the Washington Nationals must decide if the best course of action is to push their chips to the center of the table on another set of free agents. If the New York Mets are not spending money, why not shove your own money down their throat? That is seemingly the approach being taken by Washington at the moment. This offseason has the makings of a watershed moment for the franchise, and what direction they take will help shape the future. Nearly two months clear of the season’s final game, that direction is still up in the air.