Nationals’ present as important as their future

The next 24 hours will be busy ones for the six Nationals who are eligible for arbitration: right-handers Tyler Clippard and Jordan Zimmermann; left-handers Tom Gorzelanny and John Lannan; outfielder/first baseman Michael Morse; and catcher Jesus Flores. They need to exchange arbitration figures with the team by noon Eastern time Tuesday, though their representatives will also be working on deals to avoid the arbitration process. Those deals can be signed right up until an independent arbitrator decides whether the player or team salary figure is warranted, and both sides want to avoid the hearing process if at all possible.

Yesterday’s signing of lefty Gio Gonzalez to a five-year, $42 million extension through 2016 - which includes team options for 2017 and 2018 that could push the value of the deal to $65 million - shows the Nationals are willing to make the financial sacrifice to lock up their key players to long-term deals. It’s the same model used by then-general manager John Hart, who signed young Indians like Sandy Alomar Jr., Charles Nagy and Carlos Baerga to long-term deals in the early 1990s, then watched the burgeoning stars form the nucleus of a club that went to two World Series and won five division titles before the decade ended. More recently, the Tampa Bay Rays have used an identical script, coming to terms on multi-year contracts with James Shields, Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist and Wade Davis, and competing in the tough American League East against the deeper-pocketed Red Sox and Yankees.

With Gonzalez in the fold through at least 2016, the Nationals now have three-fifths of their starting rotation - Stephen Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez - under contract through 2015. Zimmermann’s first free agent season would be 2016, but it’s a good bet that the Nationals lock him up long-term before that. Having the bulk of your rotation penciled in for five years is something that would make most clubs envious. And that doesn’t even factor in the arrival of pitching prospects from the minors in the coming couple of seasons, or the possibility that general manager Mike Rizzo might pull off a trade to add to an obvious strength.

Jayson Werth still has six more years on the free agent deal he signed on the eve of the 2010 Winter Meetings. Bryce Harper is in the pipeline and could arrive as soon as this season. Rizzo turned closer Matt Capps into future franchise catcher Wilson Ramos at the trade deadline two seasons ago. Closer Drew Storen seems entrenched at the back end of the bullpen for years to come. The Nationals will eventually begin working to extend third baseman Ryan Zimmerman past the 2013 end of his current five-year, $45 million deal.

That’s a pretty impressive nucleus, the kind that gets noticed.

At least a couple from the list of arbitration-eligible Nationals may be in line for multi-year deals, with Morse, Clippard and Zimmermann the most likely candidates. Yes, it’s a balancing act and the money due players adds up, but if the long-term signings translate into wins, division titles and pennants, more money finds its ways into ownership’s pockets, making the cost easier to bear.

It makes you wonder whether Prince Fielder is paying attention to what’s happening in NatsTown, or whether agent Scott Boras has the slugger singularly focused on the dollars and cents in whatever deal his signs. How Rizzo and the Lerner family are approaching the business of baseball will dictate the Nationals’ future . But the present is just as important, and Rizzo’s machinations and ownership’s willingness to make a commitment to its core players shoudln’t go unnoticed, either.

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