The 2011 offseason will gain another layer tonight when teams decide which of their players they’re going to officially tender contracts to for the 2012 season.
For the majority of players, there’s not much stress around this date. Ryan Zimmerman’s not worried if he’ll be a National in the morning, I can tell you that much, and neither, for example, is Danny Espinosa. It’s the arbitration-eligible players for whom the non-tender deadline can bring some uncertainty — those players with more than three years of major league service time and fewer than six. They haven’t yet agreed with the Nationals on a salary for 2012 so the Nationals have the opportunity to figure out what it might cost them, if the player’s performance warrants it and whether or not they’d like to use that money to have that particular player.
In a lot of cases, the reasons for a team to non-tender a player are one of two things: 1. Because of arbitration eligibility, a player prices themselves out of a desirable salary range for the role they’ll serve a team in the following season; or 2. because of offseason acquisitions and a lack of trading partners, a player can become both unnecessary on their own team and undesirable on the trade market.
The non-tender deadline is an intriguing period. It’s always interesting for teams to see which other players hit the open market and become free agents at this point in the offseason. For example, the Nationals had some interest in former New York Mets center fielder Angel Pagan but there’s been talk for some time that the Mets might non-tender Pagan, in which case Washington could try and woo him as a free agent and not give up any prospect depth to get him. Sometimes teams will shop their players first and if they can’t find a taker, then they’ll cut bait. In this case, though, the Mets shopped Pagan and the San Francisco Giants gave up Andres Torres and Ramon Ramirez for him — and another possible Nationals stop-gap center fielder was off the board.
The deadline, which is at midnight, shouldn’t concern too many Nationals. They don’t have a long list of possible non-tender candidates. Of their arbitration eligible players — Tyler Clippard, Jesus Flores, Tom Gorzelanny, John Lannan, Michael Morse, Doug Slaten, Jordan Zimmermann — there aren’t too many names up for discussion. You can be assured that Clippard, Lannan, More and Zimmermann will be getting contracts for the 2012 season shortly.
With some, though, there’s some ambiguity.
Doug Slaten is almost sure to be non-tendered after a forgettable season. The lanky left-hander broke camp with the Nationals as the designated lefty specialist but struggled in his first 23 games — opponents hit .346 off him and he allowed 50 percent of inherited runners to score, a terrible mark. After a June 3 outing in Arizona in which Slaten faced one batter, inherited three runners and allowed them all to score, Slaten went on the disabled list with left elbow ulnar neuritis and he spent until the Sept. 1 roster expansion working through rehab and a minor league assignment.
Slaten is arbitration eligible for the second year, and after making $695,000 in 2011, he would not be getting a pay cut in arbitration so there’s probably not a whole lot of sense behind paying a poorly-performing lefty close to $1 million. Plus, quite simply, the Nationals don’t need him. Slaten’s role was filled in 2011 mostly by Sean Burnett but if the Nationals are lacking for left-handers in the bullpen they’ve got Tom Gorzelanny, Tommy Milone and Ross Detwiler all as possible fits. Rizzo has always been fond of Slaten, though, their ties going back to Rizzo’s days with the Diamondbacks. Slaten could agree with the team to be non-tendered and they’d work out a new, cheaper deal for him for 2012, but that’s purely speculative on my part.
Speaking of Gorzelanny, there’s been some buzz that he could find himself on the non-tender list as well. A starter for much of his career, Gorzelanny made 15 starts in 2011. He was converted to a long reliever in July and thrived in that role, even if it wasn’t one he was thrilled about being in.
Gorzelanny made it very clear that his preference would be to start — however, in a conversation in September, Gorzelanny tweaked that stance a little. It wasn’t the bullpen that he didn’t like, it was the lack of definition in his role. If he was a reliever, he’d like to work from Day 1 of spring training toward being a reliever. If he was a starter, then he’d do it as a starter.
From the way Nationals manager Davey Johnson was talking last week in Dallas, he views Gorzelanny as his left-handed long reliever — a guy who can go multiple innings, throw multiple times a week and, if need be, serve as an emergency starter. The Nationals will have to pay upwards of $2.5 million for his services but as a lefty who proved last season, to some extent, he can be versatile, it might just be worth the price.
That’s the same question the Nationals will have to ask themselves about Jesus Flores — though the Nationals have given every indication that Flores is a part of their plans next season. The 2011 season for Jesus Flores was about proving he was healthy, and getting him back into the grind after two full years away due to injury. He did that, showing some improvement after a second call-up in early July. He’s also been lighting up the Venezuelan Winter League with a .349 average, seven homers, 13 doubles and 33 RBI in 44 games. He’s got a .381 on-base percentage and a .550 slugging percentage and is well on his way to the 200-250 at-bats he was looking for in the winter league with 169 to date.
It seems highly unlikely that the Nationals would decide to non-tender Flores, who adds to their depth at the catcher position behind Wilson Ramos and with Jhonatan Solano and Derek Norris both also on the 40-man roster. He’ll also only cost them around $1 million — even after going to arbitration — so he’s an inexpensive addition and one who carries value, both to the Nationals and possibly to a trade partner in the future.
The deadline to tender contracts to players is just a few hours away now, so we’ll have our answers soon — as well as a new list of potential free agent additions that might intrigue the Nationals when other teams decide on their own non-tenders.