Nationals’ championship hopes look shaky after 2015


Over the last three seasons, the Washington Nationals have captured two NL East crowns, and, barring catastrophic injury, they should bring home a third in 2015. It’s likely they’ll enter the season as a favorite to play in the World Series. The near future for the District is bright, and the outlook is almost all positive.

But if you try looking a little further down the road, on the other hand, things look completely different. In fact, in spite of their success, it’s fair to ask if the Nationals’ championship window, which hasn’t been open for long, is already starting to close.

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All of this starts with the free agent situation. The Nationals have done a good job of acquiring young, coachable talent, but their young core is losing arbitration years and getting ready to hit free agency. After 2015, the Nats have a massive list of stars that will be on the open market, including Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Tyler Clippard, and Denard Span.

It’s almost a certainty that Desmond will have more money thrown at him than the Nationals can match. He’s a power hitter with fantastic defensive skills, and over the past three years, he’s been the best shortstop in all of baseball from a WAR standpoint. Teams will gladly take his high strikeout rate to get a player of Desmond’s caliber. All the Nationals can really do is submit an offer and hope that Desmond gives them some sort of “home town” discount.

Zimmermann and Fister will both be hard to resign, too. In the end, the Nationals may have to go all in on one or the other. Zimmermann is the obvious preference since he’s two years younger, but again, other teams with bigger wallets may drive the price out of Washington’s range.

Tyler Clippard and Denard Span are probably the most likely 2015 free agents to be back with the team, but even they are far from locks. A lot of Span’s role will depend on what the team plans to do with Harper. Clippard, on the other hand, could get handed closer money for a team who’s desperate for a strong arm at the back of their bullpen, a trend in recent years.

The salary situation might also force the team into a Sophie’s Choice-like decision regarding their two number one overall picks. Stephen Strasburg will hit the open market after the 2016 season concludes and Bryce Harper will follow after 2018. Darlene Langley wrote here at DoD that the Nationals would be better served by opting for Harper, and it’s very easy to see the Nationals coming to the same conclusion.

Right now, the Nationals still have a lot of salary tied up in Jayson Werth, who is owed $21 million per year through 2017, and third-baseman-turned-outfielder-turned-first-baseman Ryan Zimmerman will make at least $14 million per year all the way through 2020. It’s hard to argue that these two haven’t been instrumental to the team’s success, but those contracts could also leave Rizzo with his hands tied when dealing with his own free agents.

This is all part of the unfairness of baseball that stems from the lack of a salary cap. Teams are allowed to spend as much as they want, so teams in big markets with lucrative television contracts can spend what they want, while teams like the Nationals, who are still locked in a struggle with the Orioles and MASN, are forced to budget tightly and spend wisely on free agents.

The only other way the Nationals can hope to keep their window open is by continuing to successfully develop their own prospects, or hope that they can swap a few players on the last year of their deals to bring in some potential replacements. You can already see some of these plans developing, as the Nats have shipped off Ross Detwiler to Texas and managed to bring in superstar prospect Trea Turner, who hopefully can replace Desmond if (or when) he should bolt.

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That strategy is all well and good, but fans must remember that prospects are only prospects. As good as Mike Rizzo and the scouting team are at their jobs, they’re certain to miss on a few players just like any other talent evaluators. The question really is, then, which players can the Nationals afford to pay, and who will they try to replace through their farm system?

If these young players don’t pan out, and too many of the Nationals’ current stars opt to take a payday bigger than the team can afford, it might be a long while before the team has as good a chance to play for a title as it does right now.