Thought Experiment: What If the Nationals Sell?

The Washington Nationals, FanGraphs staff unanimous picks to be NL East champions, are off to a rough 7-12 start. Whether those struggles will continue is a matter for another post.

We are not here to talk about what ails the Nationals, or how to fix it. We’re here for a curious hypothetical: what if the Nats’ collapse continues? What if they are below .500 at the All-Star break and become trade deadline sellers?

We’re going to examine four questions. Who would the Nationals sell, how much would the team’s core change, how much money does this save them in 2016, and when would the team contend?

1. Who would the Nationals sell?

Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Ian Desmond, and Denard Span are impending free agents. Those are four very big names. The Nationals would be poised to offer two of the most valuable starting pitchers on the summer market; Zimmermann and Fister might be rentals, but they also don’t come with Cole Hamels’ massive contract. I think the team could also deal two players who will be free agents after 2016: Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen.

The potential return here is, obviously, massive. We’re talking about trading away three members of a pitching rotation some analysts thought would be historically great. Strasburg clocked in at #23 on Dave Cameron’s offseason trade value rankings, just behind now-injured Yu Darvish. Although it would be frivolous to speculate on trading partners, given that our scenario is already far-fetched to start with, Ian Desmond and a starting pitcher could go a long way toward solving the Padres’ roster issues.

There are probably only two or three teams in the league that could meet an asking price for Strasburg. Maybe one of them gets desperate. If so, the Nationals probably gain at least one long-term core player. It won’t be Mookie Betts, but then, most good major league regulars aren’t Mookie Betts.

2. How much would the team’s core change?

They would still have Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, and Ryan Zimmerman batting, and Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, and Max Scherzer on the mound. You can do worse. 2016-17 will bring Michael Taylor to the outfield, Trea Turner to shortstop, and a number of pitchers into the majors, perhaps including Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Joe Ross, and/or A.J. Cole.

That does not a championship 2016 roster make, but GM Mike Rizzo can demand near-league-ready talent in exchange for half his rotation, his center fielder, his shortstop, and his closer. That’s a lot of bargaining chips, and Rizzo is historically good at extracting trade value. (Wilson Ramos, Tanner Roark, and Doug Fister were acquired for players who contributed a combined -1.6 WAR to their new teams. I am not making that up. Negative 1.6. This excludes Steve Lombardozzi, who never played for Detroit, but posted -0.3 WAR for Baltimore.)

Funnily enough, if this is an imaginary July 2015 where the Nationals are already struggling to reach .500, I don’t think trading everyone away would make the team much worse. The infield can limp to the offseason with Danny Espinosa and Dan Uggla; Michael Taylor can return to center field; and Tanner Roark would step back into the rotation. It’s clearly a less talented roster with less awe-inspiring pitching, but they won’t fall to the cellar, either.

3. How much money does this save in 2016?

Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen are both entering arbitration, after earning a combined $13.1M in 2015. With Zimmermann, Fister, Desmond, and Span coming off the books, the team doesn’t exactly need to worry about money. Those six players represent $61M of the 2015 payroll. They can also buy out Nate McLouth.

Remember, though, that Rendon enters arbitration in 2016, and Harper a year later.

The only long, potentially burdensome contracts on the club belong to Scherzer (not yet a problem), Ryan Zimmerman (a few years of on-field value remain), and Jayson Werth (ditto). That could be a lot worse. The team does not have an albatross yet.

4. When would the team contend?

With the new wild-card game, the imaginary blown-up Nationals would be contending again in 2016. You still have the core talents of Scherzer, Harper, and Rendon; Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark eating innings; and several useful prospects for the outfield and rotation. Surround them with a raft of young talent acquired at the deadline, cross your fingers Lucas Giolito doesn’t blow out his shoulder, and the team would have playoff upside in 2016, with a chance at a division title in 2017.

Conclusion

The Nationals should be fine for 2015. This is still the best and most talented club in the NL East.

But if the Nationals implode? They have a real chance to rebuild very quickly indeed. The Red Sox just went worst-to-first, then back to worst, and now they’re bidding for first again. The “to first” part of that trajectory will be the Nats’ inspiration. If 2015 does become a nightmare in D.C., the Washington front office can use speedy recognition, honest self-assessment, and savvy trading to rebuild a new contending team, and quickly.



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Brian Reinhart is the Dallas Observer's food critic. You may also know him from FanGraphs as the "Well-Beered Englishman." Follow him on Twitter @bgreinhart.

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vslyke
Member

Interesting idea. Of course, if the Nats are bad enough to sell, it is unlikely that Zimmermann and Fister have recovered their lost velocity or that Desmond has fixed his problems at SS.

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest

You’re absolutely right – especially after another poor outing from Fister last night. This probably increases the odds that a hypothetical Nats fire sale would include Strasburg and Storen.

hscer
Member

Oh, and if it gets that bad…don’t forget to can the manager. Would he ever manage at MLB again after blowing a team of this supposed caliber?

Christian
Guest

Yes, but in 5 years, and not before a reality show on SPIKE.

maxe6
Member

Nice piece – I’m a little curious as to why you haven’t included Gonzalez as a possible trade candidate. He’s arguably the 4th-best pitcher on the staff and his contract also expires after 2016 (pending club option with a $500k buyout). He’s slightly younger than Fister and currently makes a smaller salary, which I’d imagine would make him quite an attractive option for any team looking to deal prospects for quality SP talent. Would you not rather hang on to Zimmermann instead? Or in the very worst case sell everyone save for Stras (or just everyone outright)?

You also note that although it would probably be early to designate trade partners, the Padres might be a good fit for Desmond and a SP – I would potentially add Milwaukee, San Francisco, or any of the AL East teams to that list. Again it’s all mostly baseless speculation but it’s all in good fun, I suppose. As a fan of another pre-season favorite currently finding itself in some early trouble (Seattle), I don’t suppose there’s too much cause for worry but I also shudder to imagine having to blow the whole thing up and starting again. I’d imagine that Washington are a bit better off in that regard, as the Mariners can’t really match the young core of Rendon/Harper/Strasburg (should you choose to keep him).

Again, nice work – I’m currently at U of London as well and enjoyed the read.

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest

I do think Boston is one of the 2-3 teams that can acquire Strasburg. The AL East is definitely fertile ground for trading partners.

Enjoy your time at UL! I was at QMUL in Mile End.

hscer
Member

Zimmermann is FA after this year, so he’d definitely get traded in this scenario.

Gonzalez has a 2017 team option and a 2018 vesting option (if he posts 180+ IP in 2017). Makes him a definite keep, I would say.

vslyke
Member

I imagine Milwaukee is going to be a seller and not a buyer. Same is quite possible for the Giants.

Christian
Guest

“That does not a championship 2016 roster make,”

I see you watch Last Man On Earth, too.

Matt P
Guest
Matt P

Harper has already entered arbitration. He signed a two year deal covering his first two arbitration years (out of four).

Even if the Nationals do poorly this year I’m still not sure they’re in a rebuilding situation. As you’ve stated, they still have plenty of talent that won’t become free agents. Trading Strasburg would be bold but wouldn’t be such a surprise.

The one thing I’d worry about is cash. I’m just not sure that the Nationals can afford to spend $164M each year with their attendance ranking #12 in MLB. I think they need at least 3 million fans a year to pull that off and so far that’s not happening. I question whether the Lerners are really going to be willing to spend much in FA even if they let a lot of guys leave this year.

tz
Guest
tz

Side note – Dan Uggla came into this season with a 5 consecutive years of decline in both his batting average and wOBA.

Considering his 2014 BA and wOBA were .149 and .209 respectively, who would have taken a bet that he would extend that streak in 2015?

http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=3442&position=2B

tz
Guest
tz

*As of April 28 AM, Uggla had a .135 BA and a .201 wOBA. 24 hours later, he now has a .190 BA and a .281 wOBA.

Looks like a great bet to end that streak.