Which arbitration-eligible National is most deserving of an extension?

The offseason is chugging along and we’ll soon be talking about guys arriving at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla. The next step for the Nationals is to come to contract terms with their six arbitration-eligible players: right-handers Tyler Clippard and Jordan Zimmermann, left-handers Tom Gorzelanny and John Lannan, outfielder/first baseman Michael Morse and catcher Jesus Flores.

Clippard and Zimmermann are first-timers in the arbitration process, while Lannan and Morse are getting their second crack, and Gorzelanny and Flores are in their third go-around. Signing a player prevents him from going to arbitration, where a team and the player state their cases before an independent arbitrator, who then chooses either the figure submitted by the player or that proffered by the team. It can be a contentious process, with teams often skewering their players and pointing out every flaw in their games, which is why both sides like to avoid it like the plague.

Some players get a one-year deal and are destined to repeat the process again. Others are signed to long-term extensions, with teams buying out their arbitration years, locking them up at reasonable costs rather than worrying that the market will price them out of budgets. But teams are cautious with multi-year deals, since they sometimes make it more difficult to trade a player down the road.

Of the half-dozen Nationals who are eligible for arbitration, Flores and Gorzelanny are probably destined for one-year deals. But the other four players could all be worthy of multi-year extensions, though there are interesting reasons - pro and con - in every case. The Nationals, of course, have to weigh the risk of signing extensions with those players against the fact that they’ll have to eventually pony up some big bucks to keep them in the fold (and the knowledge that they’ll need funds to take care of Ryan Zimmerman in the short term and guys like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper down the road).

Zimmermann made $415,000 in 2011, when he came back from Tommy John surgery to go 8-11 with a 3.16 ERA in 26 starts. MLBTradeRumors.com estimates that he’ll earn a raise to $1.8 million for next season through arbitration. A couple more stellar campaigns that cement him as a No. 2 starter and the right-hander will start adding spaces to the left of the decimal point in his salary figure. It’s a case of pay him now or pay him later, but I expect the Nationals to take their usual conservative approach and demand Zimmermann put up the kind of numbers that will force their hand, salary-wise. He’ll get his big payday; it just won’t be now. But a long-term deal is in the offing.

Morse had a similar breakthrough last year, and fans are clamoring for the Nationals to lock him up long-term after he hit .303 with team highs of 31 homers and 95 RBIs. He was a bargain at $1.05 million in 2011 and is projected to get a bump to $3.9 million through arbitration - and who among us wouldn’t like to have their salary practically tripled? Morse, whose versatility makes him doubly valuable, may be a classic late bloomer - he turns 30 in March - but the Nationals probably want to see another season of similar production in order to make a long-term financial commitment. Think of it this way: If Morse delivers, he makes the Nationals consider a multi-year deal; if he doesn’t, the Nationals don’t make the kind of outlay that teams sometimes regret (see: Dmitri Young). In this case, the ball’s in Morse’s court. Because the Nationals control his rights through 2013, they can take more time to decide.

Clippard has emerged as one of the most reliable set-up men in baseball over the past two seasons, and therein lies the biggest factor weighing against him. He works in a role that is often overlooked because teams figure they can always find a cheaper, shorter-term alternative than a guy that probably deserves a long-term deal. Well, most teams - there always seems to be a free-spender or two to whom money is no object. After going 19-11 with a 2.59 ERA, 1.084 WHIP and 291 strikeouts in 250 innings over 193 games (all but two of them out of the bullpen), Clippard has little left to prove. Moving him to a relief role was a stroke of genius and all he cost was Jonathan Albaladejo in a December 2007 trade the Yankees probably would prefer to forget. Are the Nationals willing to commit long-term to Clippard now? He was a bargain at $443,000 in 2011 and is projected to receive $1.7 million through arbitration. He’s a rare find - a guy who doesn’t mind the non-glorious yet critical role he’s performed, instead working diligently to master his craft. He might not get a multi-year deal now, but is in line for one soon. The Nationals will take advantage of his first-time eligibility - as they should - to keep their financial house in order. But they also signed lefty Sean Burnett to a two-year, $3.95 extension through 2012 with a mutual option for 2013, so that may bode well for Clippard. Burnett lost his arbitration case in 2010, then got his two-year deal, avoiding a repeat before 2011.

Lannan may be the most interesting case of the four. Despite developing into a reliable starting pitcher - he’s 38-51 with a 4,00 ERA in 128 career starts and was 10-13 with a 3.70 ERA in 2011, when he had a career high in wins and a career-best ERA - his role for 2012 is undefined. He’s lumped in with Chien-Ming Wang and Ross Detwiler in competition for the final two spots in the starting five (but it’s probably really Lannan and Detwiler battling for the No. 5 spot). Lannan made $2.75 million last season and is projected to get a raise to $4.9 million in 2012. That’s still a pretty reasonable rate for a starting pitcher, and that’s why the Nationals may have interest in a reasonable multi-year deal. Keeping Lannan and locking him up gives general manager Mike Rizzo the best of both worlds - a fairly priced pitcher who doesn’t inflate his budget and a player who might be a coveted, relatively inexpensive piece in a trade. It’s not that the Nats don’t want Lannan, but at 27, he’s entering his prime earning years and keeping him at a reasonable salary makes him all that more attractive.

For the record, Flores is expected to get $800,000 in 2012 after making $750,000 last year, a modest raise for an oft-injured backup catcher who has worked hard in rehabilitation. Gorzelanny made $2.1 million last year, when he went 4-6 with a 4.03 ERA and ended up as a swingman. There were expectations that the Nationals might non-tender Gorzelanny and some were surprised when they offered him arbitration. But manager Davey Johnson wants a lefty in the bullpen to be a long man and Gorzelanny did well in that role last season. At very least, he’s earned a long look in spring camp.

Whaddaya think?: If it was your call, who would you extend? For how much and for how long?

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