At midnight, all major league clubs must decide which of their arbitration-eligible players to tender contracts to, and which to let go. The Nationals have eight players who fall under that salary-structure category (Josh Willingham, Scott Olsen, Jesus Flores, Mike MacDougal, Sean Burnett, Jason Bergmann, Brian Bruney and Wil Nieves).
There’s been no formal announcement yet, but from what I’ve been told by a variety of sources both inside and outside the Nats organization, Olsen and Nieves are likely to be non-tendered. (That doesn’t, however, mean both players couldn’t return to the club in 2010. More on that in a moment.)
In Olsen’s case, the Nats simply aren’t willing to pay him the minimum $2.24 million he’d be guaranteed through arbitration, not given the labrum injury he suffered this year. Even though Olsen has completed his rehabilitation program and has been cleared to prepare for spring training just like any other pitcher, there’s just no way to know for sure how he’ll hold up until he actually starts facing live batters in March.
That said, a source familiar with Olsen’s situation said he expects the Nats to make a strong effort to re-sign the 25-year-old lefty to a lesser deal and invite him to spring training. If all goes well, he could still wind up in Washington’s Opening Day rotation. If things don’t go well, he wouldn’t cost the club nearly as much to release.
Nieves also could be back on a minor-league deal, but there’s little chance of him being tendered a contract and thus guaranteeing a sizeable raise from his $445,000 salary in 2009. This week’s addition of Ivan Rodriguez leaves no room on the big-league roster for Wil, who did an admirable job in 72 games this year, hitting .259 with 26 RBI. However, with Flores’ status coming back from his own shoulder surgery very much in the air, the Nats need to have a backup plan at catcher. Josh Bard has already declared free agency and is looking elsewhere, so Nieves would be a logical choice to bring to spring training on a minor-league deal.
The only other real question mark among the eight arbitration-eligible players is MacDougal, who told me a little while ago he hasn’t heard anything from the club yet today. On the surface, there’s little reason for the Nats not to bring him back after he converted 20 of 22 saves and became a surprise stabilizing force in a bullpen that was a disaster in April and May. MacDougal, though, would make some serious money if he goes to arbitration. He made $2.65 million last year in an old contract with the White Sox (who released him in late April. The Nats then signed him to a minor-league deal.) and would get a raise based on his resurgent performance in 2009.
That said, I would be surprised if the Nats don’t bring MacDougal back. While no one really sees him as a long-term closing option, the only other choices on the current roster are Bruney and Drew Storen (who may not even make the club out of spring training). MacDougal’s the best option to close on Opening Day, and even if he loses the job at some point this season, he’d remain a valuable arm to keep in Washington’s bullpen.