Exactly one month from Monday, the Washington Nationals will hold their first full-squad spring training workout in Viera, Florida, beginning a seven-month journey that they hope will lead to another playoff appearance.
Here’s a look at what they’ve accomplished so far this offseason, and five questions that remain before spring training.
• Was the Max Scherzer signing a precursor to another move?
When the Nationals signed Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract last week, it was assumed that the move would lead to the departure of another starter. Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister are each slated to become free agents after this season, while Stephen Strasburg will hit the market in 2016. Each will garner a lucrative contract. Yet general manager Mike Rizzo said Scherzer’s arrival doesn’t alter the team’s financial approach.
“Nothing has changed in regards to any other player on the roster,” Rizzo said. “We make good baseball decisions based on baseball evaluations, and money does not come into play.”
Money aside, Scherzer certainly changes things for the Nationals. The addition of an ace with a long-term contract takes negotiating power out of the hands of Zimmermann and Strasburg. Whether intentional or not, it also sends a clear message to those homegrown players: If you stay in Washington, you won’t be the unquestioned ace of the staff, and you probably won’t get the massive contract that comes with it. In other words, it’s not simply a question of whether the Nationals want to keep Zimmermann and Strasburg; it’s also whether they truly want to stay. A “no” in either case could lead to a deal in exchange for a haul of prospects, either now or later this season.
• Will the Nationals try to lock up Ian Desmond before the season starts?
According to multiple media reports, talks have stalled between Desmond and the Nationals this offseason. The team is confident that it has made a strong market-value offer to its longest-tenured player, but Desmond clearly doesn’t agree. The timing of continued negotiations, if they occur, will be important. Desmond likely will not want to focus on his contract situation during the season, and if he has not re-signed by the end of the year, the Nationals would then have to bid for him on the open market, where his value will be at its highest. It would be in the best interest of both sides to complete a deal in the next two months. Whether that will happen, however, is as unclear as it’s ever been.
• Will Rizzo add another bullpen arm?
Despite the departures of Ross Detwiler, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano, the Nationals’ bullpen is nearly set. As the roster is currently constructed, Tanner Roark would probably shift into a long-relief role. Craig Stammen, Drew Storen, Jerry Blevins, Aaron Barrett and Matt Thornton are all expected to return. Blake Treinen, who filled in as a starter last season, has been mentioned repeatedly by Rizzo as someone who could move to the bullpen and have an immediate impact. That would give the Nationals seven relievers, which is the number they carried for most of last season. With a few other veterans already invited to spring training, including Heath Bell and Evan Meek, it seems unlikely that Rizzo would pay top dollar for a reliever on the open market. That said, seemingly unlikely moves are Rizzo’s specialty.
• Who has the inside track on the last bench spot(s)?
With Kevin Frandsen, Danny Espinosa, Jose Lobaton and Nate McLouth already under contract, the Nationals will probably arrive in Viera with one or, at most, two bench spots up for grabs. The front-runner for one of those spots is Tyler Moore, who would bring a powerful right-handed bat off the bench and could spell Ryan Zimmerman at first base when needed. Moore is also out of minor league options. Should the Nationals decide to go with another in-house player, they could opt for speedy outfielder Michael Taylor or second baseman Jeff Kobernus. They could also still decide to bring back Nate Schierholtz, a veteran left-handed hitter who provided a few big hits late last season and is still a free agent.
• Are any of the younger players ready to step into a big-league role?
Treinen certainly has the best shot. The 26-year-old was relatively effective in seven starts last season and is expected to shift to a bullpen role, potentially seizing a spot in spring training. Hard-throwing right-hander A.J. Cole could make his major-league debut this season, either as a reliever or spot starter, as could left-hander Matt Grace. Taylor showed his defensive prowess in the final month of last season, but he needs to be more patient at the plate and is probably still a year away from being a factor. Second baseman Wilmer Difo, who was placed on the 40-man roster this offseason, is in a similar situation. Though he could possibly make an appearance on the big league club this season, his time in Washington would likely be brief.