Tough decisions lie ahead in future offseasons

If it seems like it’s been a long time since the Nationals have made an addition to their 40-man roster, well, it’s because it’s been a long time since the Nationals have made an addition to their 40-man roster.

Simple enough reason, I guess.

The Nats acquired left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins in a trade with the Athletics on Dec. 11, then officially signed outfielder Nate McLouth to a two-year contract on Dec. 12.

Since then, it’s pretty much been three weeks of silence out of the Nats’ offices, with the exception of a Corey Brown trade to the A’s and a couple signings of players to minor league deals with invitations to big league spring training.

The Nats made their major moves early in the offseason window, but overall, they really didn’t have a whole lot they needed to accomplish this winter. There are a couple reasons for that: despite a disappointing 2013 season, general manager Mike Rizzo felt comfortable sticking with the core group that he had on the roster; and there were very few Nats players who hit the free agent market this offseason.

Only two Nationals, in fact, became free agents this winter - Dan Haren and Chad Tracy. Neither was viewed as a must-have piece when the Nats mapped out their offseason maneuverings.

The Nats won’t be so lucky in upcoming seasons, however. Over the next three years, many of the Nationals’ core players will be in line for a trip to the free agent market, and if the Nats want to keep the vast majority of the roster in place in subsequent years, they’ll need to pay - and likely pay pretty big - to make it happen.

Here’s a look at the decisions that Rizzo and the members of the Nats front office will need to deal with in the next three years, based on the contracts that are currently in place:

Players whose contracts expire after the 2014 season
Adam LaRoche (with $15 million mutual option for 2015)
Rafael Soriano (with $14 million club option for 2015)
Denard Span (with $9 million club option for 2015)
Scott Hairston
Ross Ohlendorf

Players whose contracts expire after the 2015 season
Jordan Zimmermann
Ian Desmond
Doug Fister
Tyler Clippard
Ross Detwiler
Nate McLouth (with $6.5 million club option for 2016)
Jerry Blevins

Players whose contracts expire after the 2016 season
Stephen Strasburg
Gio Gonzalez (with $12 million club option for 2017 and $12 million player option for 2018 which vests with 180 IP in 2017)
Drew Storen
Craig Stammen
Wilson Ramos

Winters where it’s just an aging back-of-the-rotation starter and a bench bat hitting the open market will seem like cake in the coming years.

A few of the Nats’ roster decisions next winter, of course, could be made easier if LaRoche doesn’t bounce back from a disappointing 2013, Span reverts to the way he performed in the first half of the season last year and Soriano has a bunch more failed-untuck moments.

If that’s how things play out, the Nats could easily choose to decline the options on those three players and then look to fill those holes via free agency, trades or internal moves.

The winters of 2015 and 2016 loom as ones that could require some really tough decisions. Contract extensions for Zimmermann and/or Desmond would make Rizzo’s to-do list a good bit shorter after the 2015 campaign comes to a close. But as you can see in the list above, a number of key pitchers are coming up on free agency in the next few years, even if we can exclude Zimmermann from the discussion should an extension get finalized.

Rizzo doesn’t need to worry about all or even most of this now, of course. But as Davey Johnson always said, baseball is played today with an eye on tomorrow. And while the Nats could easily and cheaply choose not to have much roster turnover this offseason, that might not be a choice they’ll be able to make in the next few years.

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