Five players the Nats would be wise to extend

Posted on February 25, 2014 by Justin Howard

Photo Credit: Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The Atlanta Braves are wisely locking up their young talent to long-term contracts. In the past few weeks, the Braves have signed shortstop Andrelton Simmons, first baseman Freddie Freeman, and pitcher Julio Teheran to new deals. This follows an industry trend where teams buy out a player's remaining arbitration years and, usually, one or two years of free agency.

With a roster full of young players in arbitration or pre-arbitration years, this seems like a smart strategy for the Nationals. Here are five players the Nats would be wise to lock up right now. 

We know Mike Rizzo has already attempted to sign Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond to long-term deals with no success. Their situations are discussed below.

Missing from this list are Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Both are obvious candidates for extensions, but their situations are so complicated, they probably merit their own discussion.

Jordan Zimmermann

$4 years, $85-90 million, 2016-19; mutual option 2020 - $25 million ($5 million buyout) 

Why should the Nats do it? If the Nationals let Zimmermann, 28, get to free agency, he's almost surely gone. After his breakout 2012 season, Zimmermann added another line to his resume in 2013: Workhorse, after pitching 213.1 innings (including four complete games). There is no guarantee the Nationals have another Jordan Zimmermann in their next wave of pitching prospects. If Zimmermann leaves, four WAR per season and a newly-minted innings eater walk out the door with him.

What's the downside? Long-term contracts for pitchers are always risky. A four-year extension for Zimmermann would be in addition to his existing two-year, $24 million year deal, bringing total guaranteed years to six. 

Would the player do it? Probably not. Zimmermann has been pretty clear he wants to test free agency. But Homer Bailey's recent extension at least establishes a framework for what it would take to keep Zimmermann in DC. Zimmermann might have his eyes on Zack Greinke's six-year-$147 million dollar deal signed in 2012. If that's the case, there's no keeping him in Washington since Mike Rizzo isn't ready to make that kind of commitment now. 

Photo Credit: Hunter Martin/Getty Images

Ian Desmond

5 years, $75-80 million; 2016-19

Why should the Nats do it? Desmond is an elite shortstop still in his prime. Most importantly, there is no obvious replacement in the Nats system. The longer they can lock up Desmond, the better. If the Nats have money to spend, this is where they should spend it.

What's the downside? It would take a huge financial commitment at this point to keep Desmond from at least testing free agency which, like Zimmermann, is only two years away. It's doubtful he'd agree to anything less than five additional years, which would be in addition to the two years he already has guaranteed. That's a long period of time for a middle infielder, whose skills depreciate pretty quickly given the physical demands of the position. Desmond is 28.

Would the player do it? Only if the money and years are there. Like Zimmermann, Desmond's last two years of arbitration were bought out by the Nats (Desmond received $17.5 million). After hitting free agency, he can expect a huge payday. Jhonny Peralta, Desmond biggest comparison at this point, received $54 million for four years this offseason. Desmond would get at least one more year because he's younger and he comes without the PED concerns.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post

Doug Fister

4 years, $75-80 million, 2015-18; team option 2019

Why should the Nats do it? If Zimmermann does not agree to an extension, Fister is a more than acceptable Plan B (both are scheduled to become free agents after the 2015 season). While flying under the radar in Seattle and Detroit (under Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander to be more specific), Fister has actually been a top-10 pitcher according to WAR the past few seasons. Even if the Nationals were only allowed to keep one pitcher between Zimmermann and Fister, it's a much closer call than you might think.

What's the downside? Fister has yet to pitch in a Nationals uniform, but that didn't stop Mike Rizzo from locking up Gio Gonzalez long-term immediately after acquiring him before the 2012 season. Fister is also older than Zimmermann, but that risk can be mitigated by giving him fewer years.

Would the player do it? We have no idea. If the money were right, maybe. But there's an equally good chance Fister will want to finish the year in DC before making a decision whether he wants to sign long-term. Unlike Zimmermann, he does not have a guaranteed salary for next season, so an extension before free agency is a little more likely.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Anthony Rendon

6 years, $30 million, 2014-19; team option $12 million

Why should the Nats do it? Rendon demonstrated the plate discipline to succeed at the major league level last season. He even showed versatility by playing well at second base. Still, his future is at third base, and signing Rendon now locks down a possible infield cornerstone for possibly seven years. 

What’s the downside? Too soon? Rendon hasn't even completed a full-year of major league service. Still, there's precedent for this: the Braves locked down Simmons and Teheran after their first full seasons. It's worth noting that Rendon has had injury problems before finishing his rookie season in good health.

Would the player do it? Probably. Rendon would only be sacrificing one year of free agency, after which at age 30, he'd still be in line for a big contract. He's still two years away from big arbitration money, so he'd be smart to jump at guaranteed money now. This contract would be a win-win for the team and player.

Photo Credit: District on Deck

Danny Espinosa

4 years, $16 million, 2014-17; two team options: 2018 - $6 million, 2019 - $10 million

Why should the Nats do it? Despite Espinosa's miserable 2013, there are many reasons to lock up Espinosa for as long as possible. First, the Nats have no quality middle infielders in the minor league pipeline and the cost for quality middle infielders on the open market in getting higher (See Peralta's four-year, $53 million contract). Second, Espinosa plays quality defense at both second base and shortstop, making him a possible replacement should Desmond flee via free agency in two years. Third, his offensive struggles last season can be explained by his undiscovered wrist injury. Espinosa still has 20 HR power. By signing him now, the Nats would be buying low on a player that still possesses All-Star talent.

What's the downside? Very little. Worst case scenario -- Espinosa can't figure it out at the plate -- the Nats have a slightly overpriced defensive replacement at second base and shortstop. The overall money here is low enough the Nats could get out without too much disruption to their payroll. The team options provide further protection.  

Would the player do it? Maybe. After a terrible 2013, Espinosa might be willing to sacrifice big arbitration awards from 2015-17 for a little guaranteed money. It's possible Espinosa would balk at team options in 2018-19 since he wouldn't hit free agency until he is 32 years-old, severely dampening the possibility of landing a lucrative long-term contract. Scott Boras generally takes his players to free agency, but given the right circumstances, it's possible (see Elvis Andrus's contract extension with Texas).

next up:

Forecast: Grapefruit League action kicks off this week

February 24, 2014

How's this for a weather pun: spring training is starting to heat up.


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