Losing free agents can often be a double edged sword. It certainly hurts to see key players that we've watched grow in the Nats farm system for years such as Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann go elsewhere. At the same time, Desmond, Doug Fister, Denard Span, and Jordan Zimmermann earned a combined $47.9 million in the 2015 season. This figure rises even more when you include other free agents to be such as Nate McLouth ($5M) and Matt Thornton ($3.5M). The Nats will have about $55 million* coming off the books heading into the offseason, so it's reasonable to think that they may be players themselves on the free agent market.
*Of course, a handful of players figure to see raises via arbitration as well.
While I was watching Game 1 of the World Series last night, I realized that I didn't really have that much of a vested interest in who won. There's a part of me that naturally roots against the Mets because they're a division rival. Their fans insistence to boo Bryce Harper during the final weekend of the series, even after Harper had congratulated the Mets during a post-game interview and said he hopes they win it all, didn't really sway my feelings the other way. Toss in the insane ascension of Daniel Murphy from a really nice contact hitter into the hybrid version of Babe Ruth, Sadaharu Oh, and Josh Gibson that we've seen this postseason, and it's really difficult for me to pull for this team.
At the same time, the Royals have become a team that I'm starting to love to hate. Being a St. Louisan who (obviously) isn't a fan of the local nine, the St. Louis Cardinals have become my favorite team to hate in baseball. It goes beyond what I perceive to be the obnoxious BFIB, though... I've come to dislike their style, which often seems to be the BABIPy and bloopy goodness that the Nats never seem to benefit quite so much from. The Royals are a team that kind of relies on that themselves. They're the antithesis of a patient club at the plate, and instead love to attack the first pitch as often as possible. They don't hit for a whole lot of power, often living (and occasionally dying) by finding that open patch of grass... that BABIPy goodness alluded to above. They steal a lot, which I'm actually OK with. They bunt frequently, which makes me want to throw things at my television. They pitch well and they play exceptional defense, which is fun. Anyway, to me, the Royals have quickly become the AL's version of the Cardinals.... maybe with slightly less obnoxious fans. It's hard for me to root for them, too.
So, as I watched Game 1 of the World Series (rooting interest or no, I'll take six more games just like that please!), I tried to focus on some of the guys that might be of interest to the Nats this offseason. There are really two standout free agent position players on each team as well as a couple of relievers who could be in play as the Nats try to rebuild their bullpen. We'll take a look at the Royals today and the Mets either tomorrow or Friday.
Gordon is technically not a free agent yet. The three time All Star and four time Gold Glove winning left fielder has a player option for $12.5 million next season. From a purely financial perspective, there's absolutely no way that Gordon should exercise that option. As a free agent, he'll have an outside shot at a $100 million contract (I think he comes in somewhere around 5/$85). Of course, different players have different value systems, and it can be hard to walk away from a team that's gone to the past two World Series, so maybe Gordon surprises everyone and waits a year to become a free agent.
Based on the four (consecutive) Gold Glove awards as well as the 97 DRS that he's been credited with since converting to the outfield in 2010, Gordon's biggest asset is his defense. While this is likely to deteriorate in the next few seasons as he ages, Gordon is certainly no slouch with the bat in his hands either. He boasts a career .269/.348/.435 line, good for a 113 career wRC+. He's finished with a 122 wRC+ in each of the past two seasons, and has maintained a wRC+ of 122 or better in four of the past five seasons. He's got some pop (19+ HR in three of the past five years) and he's got some speed. Unlike most of his teammates, drawing walks is a big part of Gordon's game (9.7% career, 11.6% in 2015). He also hit the game-tying homer in the ninth inning of Game 1.
Where would the Nats play him?
Presumably left field. Gordon would add a left-handed bat with a little bit of pop, as well as adding an elite defensive outfielder to the rotation. With an aging and (based on recent years) slightly injury prone Jayson Werth, adding an outfield bat like Gordon could make sense. Essentially, Werth and Michael A. Taylor could be used in a fairly regular platoon, with Gordon getting spelled on occasion against a tough lefty. Bryce Harper would likely have to play center field a bit more often, but he's handled that fairly well in the past.
We've heard about the Nats interest in Ben Zobrist for much of the past three years, so it would certainly make sense for them to be players now that he's finally going to hit free agency. Zobrist did what so many of the Rays players did over the past decade and signed a long term deal when he was entering his final season before arbitration. This allowed Tampa Bay to buy out his first two years of free agency.
Zobrist's ascension to prominence was something that was really never expected. The Rays acquired him from Houston in 2006 as part of the Aubrey Huff trade. He was expected to be a utility man (which he did turn into, I suppose), but the term utility man usually infers that his ceiling was to be a backup infielder. Like Alex Gordon, Zobrist seems to be miscast a bit on this AL Champion Royals team... in part because drawing walks is a huge part of his game offensively. Zobrist has a 12.0% career walk rate and an on-base percentage that is ninety points higher (.355) than his career batting average (.265). He offers a fair amount of pop (.166 career ISO) for a middle infielder. He's also typically been a threat on the basepaths, though his string of six straight seasons with double digit steals came to an end this season.
The 34-year-old 2b/SS/OF finally showed some signs of decline with the glove this season according to Fangraphs (-11.5 Defensive RAA... He'd been at +7.4 or higher in each season since 2009), but he remains a versatile fielder who could have just had a down year.
Where would the Nats play him?
Ideally, Zobrist would play second base. Particularly as he's nearing his twilight years as a ballplayer (34), there's not a real high likelihood that Zobrist would be more useful at shortstop. The hope is obviously that Trea Turner emerges at some point in the next year to take over the full-time job at shortstop anyway. If the Nats were to go after Zobrist, it would be interesting to see what the fallout could be with Yunel Escobar and Danny Espinosa. One of the two would almost certainly be traded over the offseason, though I suppose there's a possibility that the Nats could enter the year with an infield of Zimmerman/Zobrist/Escobar/Rendon with Espinosa as the utility man and Turner in Syracuse. I want no part of seeing Yunel Escobar (who looked terrible defensively for the most part at third base) return to shortstop, but he'd be the likely stopgap if the Nats signed Zobrist and kept everyone else.
The former Phillies closer has gone from a guy that we had to love to hate (simply because of his team affiliation) to a player that's hard not to root for. Madson left the Phillies to become the Cincinnati Reds closer after the 2011 season, but had Tommy John surgery after tearing his UCL in Spring Training of 2012. The Angels took a chance on him in 2013, thinking that if he could return to form after surgery, he could be a nice under the radar signing. Alas, his rehab progressed well until he got close enough to start throwing at full strength, at which point he'd start feeling pain around his elbow again. After skipping 2014, Madson returned to the big leagues this season with the Royals.
Despite not having thrown in the majors since 2011, Madson didn't appear to miss a beat. He managed a 2.13 ERA (3.09 FIP), a 0.96 WHIP, and a 58:14 strikeout to walk ratio in 63 innings for Kansas City this season. He's struggled in the postseason (4 HR in 6.1 IP... he allowed 5 in the regular season), but the larger sample of the regular season showed that he's ready to resume being a late inning leverage reliever. He won't be nearly as cheap as he was for the Royals this past offseason ($850,000), but it would be surprising to see him get more than Casey Janssen got from the Nats this past offseason. He has experience in the division, experience as a closer (not that the Nats would necessarily use him there, but it's nice to have), and terrific stuff.
Will the Nats make a run at any of these three guys?
I really do think that they make a run at Zobrist, simply because it's seemed like the Nats and Zobrist are a marriage that we've been expecting to happen for a few years now... While I think Gordon (or any legit starting outfielder) would be a decent fit given that Taylor and Werth both seem like guys who might be best served (or forced into via injury, in the case of Werth) as part time players at this point in their careers, I don't think the Nats go after him.... I could see Madson being a guy that the Nats make a push for, though I think that he most likely remains with the Royals. I think that money trumps loyalty when it comes to players who are free agents, but I also think that if Madson had offers that were relatively close between the Royals and any other team, he'd probably sign for a little less with the team that gave him a chance to rehabilitate his career.