The Washington Nationals are at an impasse. After the 2015 season, they are in danger of losing two of the biggest pieces of their recent run of success — Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann. Over the last two years, Desmond has been the Nationals’ most-valuable position player by fWAR, Zimmermann the most-valuable pitcher. Both are entering their age-28 seasons, and could be due contracts that reach or exceed $100 million. So the Nationals have a decision to make; do they extend one or both, or can they afford to walk away?
Desmond, over the past two years, has developed into a top-flight offensive player at a position that has seen very few develop in recent years. Since the heyday of offensive shortstops midway through the last decade, the position’s offensive production relative to the league has diminished significantly; in 2007, shortstops slugged .402, 35 points better than they did in 2013. The relative paucity of offensive shortstops makes Desmond’s performance stand out even more; since his breakout in 2012, Desmond is tops in the majors in home runs by a shortstop, and ranks among the league leaders in slugging percentage, wOBA, and wRC+. Additionally, Desmond runs the bases well (a team-high 42 stolen bases in the two years), and according to UZR, is well above-average defensively (DRS, however, is much less impressed). All this, plus Desmond’s durability (he missed just 4 games last year) makes Desmond among the most-valuable players in baseball; his 10.0 fWAR from 2012 to 2013 was not only the highest by a shortstop, it was the 13th highest by any position player.
Moreover, the Nationals, who will presumably look to contend after 2015, lack any sort of replacement for Desmond in the near future. Of the top-20 prospects in the Nationals system (as rated by MLB.com), only one is a shortstop — Zach Walters. But Walters, despite impressive power numbers, is nobody’s definition of a suitable replacement for Desmond’s production — he had a .286 OBP last year at AAA, and made a league-high 31 errors. And the lack of replacements for Desmond extends to the free agent market — with the possible exception of Hanley Ramirez, few all-star caliber shortstops are due to hit free agency in the next two years, and none better than Desmond. It seems unlikely that the Nationals will find anything better than Desmond. Barring the unforeseen, extending him seems like the most sensible course of action, regardless of cost.
Jordan Zimmermann is a different story. It isn’t that Zimmermann is without value. He has been one of the most consistent starters in the major leagues — over the last three years, only ten pitchers have a better ERA than Zimmermann’s 3.12. He’s coming off his first 200 inning season, first all-star selection, and first season receiving Cy Young votes. Zimmermann has been an integral part of the Nationals’ rise from the basement. But with the Nationals having to free up payroll to retain Stephen Strasburg and eventually, Bryce Harper, the team has some tough decisions to make. And as hard as it will be, Zimmermann can be replaced. In fact, the Nationals might have an internal replacement for Zimmermann in the form of highly-touted prospect Lucas Giolito. Giolito, with a fastball that can reach triple digits and a very sharp curveball, has drawn favorable comparisons to Pirates starter Gerrit Cole and, of course, Strasburg. And by 2016, Giolito will be 21 — the same age as Strasburg was when he made his major league debut.
And even if the Nationals feel uncomfortable giving a spot in the rotation to an unproven prospect, they have many options on the free agent market. In the next offseason, James Shields, Max Scherzer, and Clayton Kershaw are due for free agency. While the Dodgers seem highly unlikely to let Kershaw slip away, the Nationals will still have several viable options they can choose from if they decide to replace Zimmermann via free agency. If they sign Shields or Scherzer, they could trade Zimmermann away for a solid return, a year before he was due to leave without the team receiving compensation.
Both Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond have made invaluable contributions towards turning an 100-loss team into a bona fide contender. But it seems the Nationals could create a viable contingency plan if they lose Zimmermann; losing Desmond would leave a hole that would be much harder to fill.