The Nationals Should Consider Trading Jordan Zimmermann by Drew Fairservice November 13, 2014 The Washington Nationals are in an enviable position. The team won 96 games for the second time in three years before bowing out in the division series. They are a talented group, well-built with one of the best rotations in baseball plus a high-octane offense to match. They are certainly a World Series favorite for 2015 with the talent on-hand. They’re also a team coming to a crossroads. They are in the enviable position of choosing between living for today or planning for the future. Or, most likely of all, they’ll take care of one without tossing the other aside. As the hot stove season heats up, a number of high-profile Nats names will pop up with regularity. Among their core talent, they have four very good players heading towards free agency at the end of the 2015 season. Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, and Denard Span all figure to attract their share of attention as the Nats cannot retain all four players at market prices – to say nothing of workhorse reliever Tyler Clippard. So what options might general manager Mike Rizzo explore? A rumor connecting Zimmermann and the Chicago Cubs was quickly shot down, but the logical match of the two clubs demonstrates the world at the feet of the Nats front office. They have multiple options in front of them, the best of which requires trading the man who threw a no-hitter in his final regular season start of 2014. The Nats don’t need to do anything. If the Nationals simply play some golf and take phone calls for the next four weeks, they still return one of the best teams in baseball. After their ugly exits from the playoffs in 2012 and 2014, the franchise can keep their focus on winning the World Series – job one after those disappointing seasons. The problem with standing pat is the huge hole it leaves the team in for 2016 and beyond. Even if they win the World Series next season, they’re then forced to fill a great number of roster holes either with unproven prospects or by spending money (of which they’ll have plenty) inefficiently on the free agent market. The Nationals farm system is ready to feed more talent to the big leagues and they still have the presumed peak of Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper on the horizon. Dealing a franchise mainstay like Desmond or Zimmermann for a youthful position player might make sense for the Nats business but it remains a tough sell to a majority of the fanbase, not to mention an appreciable impact on the 2015 product on the field. The Nationals could also choose to extend one or more of these players, ride out the 2015 season and then open their wallet as they retool for 2016, netting a host of draft picks (as many as four and no less than two, by my math) in the process. The questions they’re asking themselves — about the value of winning 95 games one year and 85 the next compared to putting out a 90-win talent team two years in a row — are not easily answered. Zimmermann surely carries more trade value than any other walk-year National, given his dominant 2014 season. Those around the team suggest it might take “three big league-ready prospects” to pry Zimmermann away from DC, but his paycheck (owed $16.5 million for 2015) and walk-year status might bring that price down to a more reasonable level. His relatively high value that might make him the most likely to go, as a big return on one trade negates the need to make another. If a potential replacement for one of the other trade chips comes back in a big deal like this, then the Nationals might be less inclined to re-sign their own pricey free agents. We return, again, to the main issue at hand: do the Nats make their 2015 roster weaker in exchange for a better, and more cost-effective, club in 2016 and beyond? This is surely the debate raging inside their front office, as they determine the future of their franchise. Doug Fister is nearly as good — Fister’s early projections have him producing a tidy FIP in the neighborhood of 3.50-3.75, good for 2 or 3 WAR depending on health — and not quite as expensive (he figures to earn more than $11 million in his final year of arbitration) as Zimmermann. Add in his track record of being traded for oddly light packages, and maybe the Nats can absorb the slight downtick in quality between the two in exchange for secure footing beyond this year? The emergence of Tanner Roark coupled with prospects A.J. Cole and Taylor Jordan waiting in the wings suggests the rotational drop-off won’t be too great. The Nats might also consider trading Ian Desmond. Given the paucity of viable offensive shortstops in the big leagues right now, there is a good chance dumping Desmond has the greatest impact on the Nats chances in 2015. Even if he only produces the +3 WAR that Steamer forecasts, could the Nats find even a replacement level shortstop to take his place? Just how good is Desmond, anyway? Probably very good? Extremely quite good? Not all that superstarish? I’m honestly at a loss. Here’s a list of shortstops to put up 14 WAR or more between 26 and 28 since 1920. There are 20 names on that list. Twenty. Ian Desmond’s name is on that list. Somebody is going to pay Desmond a whole heck of a lot of money to be their shortstop at the end of next season. It might be the Nats, it might be somebody else. His offense, after a breakout 2012, trends back towards the ordinary. His Steamer projections suggest further decline in his age-29 season presently valuable as he might be. When the Cubs rumors started on Tuesday night, it became natural to assume one of Chicago’s plentiful shortstop prospects would come east for Jordan Zimmermann. Replacing Desmond won’t be easy, but having an understudy in the wings could keep the Nats from paying Desmond for what he did in Washington over the last three years rather than buying his production in the future. An insurance policy against themselves, in other words. While Desmond, Fister, and Zimmermann are the Nats most valuable pending free agents, both Denard Span and Tyler Clippard can walk after 2015. The might not fetch the same sort of package as their higher valued teammates, but they’re both good players without immediate replacements available (with all due apologies to Michael Taylor.) These players won’t net the same type of return but will weaken the existing club. The payroll savings aren’t worth the real-world implications of moving on without them, unless they’re packaged together or in another, larger trade. There are so many angles of attack for a team eager to put two playoff disappointments behind. Trading Zimmermann now, when his value is highest and his loss is most easily absorbed, is probably the best course of action for the franchise. If they netted a middle infielder, one who might fill-in at second base for this season while also serving as Desmond’s replacement at shortstop, is the best case scenario. Luckily, a baseball team with five potential free agents isn’t the same recipe for disaster one might see in the NBA. Other than the implied performance stress on the players themselves, there is little reason to believe going into a season without so many question marks will have a major impact on their fortunes. The expectations are high enough as it is, worrying about future paydays won’t worsen that. The Nats are going to wrestle with this decision all winter. It isn’t often a team can legitimately claim to be the best in baseball. How do they back off now and face their fans? It will take real courage to make the difficult to decision – to slightly weaken next year’s team in exchange for financial freedom and an opportunity to continue the cycle of success. Trading Jordan Zimmermann won’t do that all on its own, but it’s the kind of bold stroke that could make a strong franchise even stronger.