While Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo continues his search for a pitcher, a center fielder and some bench help, baseball’s offseason calendar continues to move on. Next up is Monday’s midnight deadline for teams to tender contracts to its arbitration-eligible players, and the Nationals have some decisions to make.
Of the seven players eligible for arbitration, some decisions will be relatively easy. Outfielder/first baseman Michael Morse, left-hander John Lannan, and right-handers Jordan Zimmermann and Tyler Clippard are locks to be tendered new contracts. All but Lannan are considered key building blocks in the Nationals’ core group of players; Lannan has value to a rotation currently filled with pitchers coming off injury problems and is one of the Nationals’ top trade chips should Rizzo be able to consummate a deal.
The other three players eligible for arbitration - catcher Jesus Flores and left-handers Tom Gorzelanny and Doug Slaten - are a little harder to gauge.
The 27-year-old Flores, once considered the Nats’ catcher of the future after being snagged in the Rule 5 draft from the Mets in 2006, missed almost two full seasons recovering from shoulder injuries and returned to the majors last year to appear in 30 games, 22 of them behind the plate. This is his third crack at arbitration - as a Super Two, he gets an extra year - and he’s almost sure to improve upon his $750,000 salary from 2011. What the Nationals must decide is whether Flores is ready to be a full-time backup to Wilson Ramos and how close catching prospect Derek Norris is to the majors. MLBTradeRumors is projecting that Flores is due for an $800,000 through arbitration, and the Nationals could opt for a cheaper alternative as a stopgap until Norris is ready.
Gorzelanny and Slaten are probably more at risk of being non-tendered. Neither has done much to distinguish himself in a Nationals uniform and some think both pitchers’ biggest plus is being left-handed. But that quality only takes you so far, and when you fail to succeed against the top left-handed bats in the National League East, it’s easier to assume ties could be cut.
Washington gave up three minor leaguers, including highly touted outfield prospect Michael Burgess, in a January deal to get the 29-year-old Gorzelanny. While most viewed him as a swingman, the Nationals hoped he would be a solid starting pitcher. Instead he split 30 appearances between the rotation and the bullpen, posting a pedestrian 4-6 record and 4/03 ERA. Gorzelanny has never found the stuff that made him a 14-game winning for the Pirates in 2006, but his 2-0 record, 2.42 ERA and 1.075 WHIP in relief might put him in line for a raise. The lefty, a Super Two in his third year of arbitration eligibility and is projected to get a bump to $2.8 million, a figure the Nats might decide is too high, considering they could promote a young arm or sign someone less expensive.
Slaten, who made $695,000 as a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen, could also be due a raise, despite going 0-2 with a 4.41 ERA during 31 games of a season in which he missed almost three months with a left elbow injury. Before the injury, he posted a 2.19 ERA in 23 games; in eight games after returning from the disabled list, he was battered around for an 11.25 ERA. Slaten’s main job was to get left-handed hitters out, and he failed miserably, allowing them to bat .333 (12-for-36) with two homers and six extra-base hits. His overall numbers might be enough to get him a raise to $900,000, while the Nationals may decide to cut ties and find a cheaper, more effective situational reliever.
What’s in store for the four arbitration-eligible players who should be tendered contracts? MLBTradeRumors estimates that Lannan will receive $4.9 million, Morse $3.9 million, Zimmermann $1.8 million and Clippard $1.7 million. All are coming off their best statistical years to date: the 27-year-old Lannan, who will be entering his second arbitration-eligible year, went 10-13 with a 3.70 ERA in 33 starts; Morse, arbitration-eligible for a second time at 29, will get a significant bump from his $1.05 million salary in 2011 after batting .303 with career highs of 33 homers and 95 RBIs; Zimmermann, a Super Two in his first year of arbitration eligibility after earning $415,000 last season, went 8-11 with a 3.18 ERA in 26 starts in his first full season after Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery and turned 25 in May; and Super Two Clippard emerged as a dominant setup man at the age of 26, earning $443,000 and an All-Star bid while going 3-0 with a 1.83 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 88 1/3 innings over 72 games.