Baseball organizations and baseball players make countless decisions that impact their short-term and long-term success. Many have no real significant bearing on a franchise's ultimate fortunes, but some really do wind up having major implications that affect not only the player involved but several others either already on the roster or perhaps arriving in the future.
You never know which of these decisions are going to have lasting repercussions and which ones won't. It often takes years to come to that kind of realization. But it can be fun to look back and wonder how things might have been different had a club or a player made a different decision at the time.
We're going to play this game here in the coming weeks as part of a "What If?" series on the Nationals. And we'll start today with one of the great "What If's" in franchise history: What if Jordan Zimmermann had re-signed with the Nats after the 2014 season?
This one had major ramifications, as you'll see. It may have shaped the Nationals of 2015-21 more than any other decision that preceded that era of success.
The backstory, for those who don't remember:
Zimmermann was one of the Nationals' second-round picks in the 2007 draft, an unknown right-hander from Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a compensation pick they received from the Cubs after Alfonso Soriano signed an eight-year, $136 million contract following his 40-40 season in D.C. in 2006. Within two years, Zimmermann was making his major-league debut, and though the initial results were erratic he immediately offered signs of the bulldog pitcher he would eventually become.
Tommy John surgery cut short his rookie season and sidelined him until September 2010, his return coming only days after Stephen Strasburg learned his rookie season was being cut short because he needed Tommy John surgery. By 2011, a healthy Zimmermann proved to be one of the most reliably effective pitchers in the National League.
Over the next four seasons, Zimmermann went 53-33 with a 3.00 ERA, posting a 1.117 WHIP. He made 26 starts in 2011 - the Nats elected to shut him down in September since he was just returning from his surgery, a decision that drew little attention at the time but became the talk of baseball one year later when they did the same with Strasburg - and then made 32 starts every season from 2012-14.
Zimmermann famously peaked right at the end of the 2014 season, tossing the first no-hitter in Nationals history in Game 162, then carrying a three-hit shutout into the ninth inning of Game 2 of the National League Division Series against the Giants before manager Matt Williams pulled him following a two-out walk. (Drew Storen would give up the game-tying double to Pablo Sandoval a few minutes later, and the Nats would end up losing an agonizing 18-inning marathon about three hours later.)
Zimmermann would be heading into his free agent year in 2015, so the Nationals knew they were running out of time to try to lock him up before he could hit the open market. They made an attempt to start talks after the 2013 season, but those never picked up any steam. So early in the winter after the 2014 season, they offered him a five-year, $105 million extension, a record offer for a pitcher who previously had Tommy John surgery.
Zimmermann, though, believed he could do better. He particularly was dismayed the Nats wouldn't include a no-trade clause in their offer. So he declined, then set out to put up another big season in 2015 and hit paydirt as a free agent.
The Nationals could've waited it out and tried again to re-sign Zimmermann after the season, but they didn't want to put all their eggs in that basket only to have him depart. So they surprisingly turned their sights to a different right-hander who already was a free agent after the 2014 season and made him an offer twice as large as the one they proposed to Zimmermann.
In January 2015, the Nationals signed Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract, the largest ever given to a free agent pitcher. Everyone in the baseball world believed Scherzer was an outstanding pitcher, but plenty questioned why the Nats would pay him $210 million when they could've just kept Zimmermann for far less, believing there wasn't that much disparity between the two.
How wrong those people were. Scherzer, of course, went on to win two Cy Young Awards in D.C., throw two no-hitters in 2015, strike out 20 batters in a 2016 start against the Tigers and ultimately join Strasburg and Patrick Corbin in leading the Nationals to their first World Series title in 2019.
Zimmermann, meanwhile, would have a mediocre (by his lofty standards) 2015, finishing 13-10 with a 3.66 ERA and 1.205 WHIP. He became a free agent and did not find the market to be quite as robust as he hoped it would be a year earlier. There were good offers, and in late November he accepted one from the Tigers: five years for $110 million. It was only $5 million more than the Nats offered the previous winter, but Detroit did include the no-trade clause Zimmermann desired all along.
So, how did it work out? Not well for Zimmermann or the Tigers. His five years in Detroit were filled with injuries, diminished velocity and diminished results. He averaged only 19 starts per season, and finished 25-41 with a 5.63 ERA and 1.441 WHIP, bottoming out in 2019 with a 1-13 record and 6.91 ERA.
His contract finally up, Zimmermann gave it one more shot this spring with the Brewers, hoping he could resurrect his career in his home state. But after two rough relief outings, he knew it was over. He announced his retirement at 35, a sad end to what had looked like such a promising career not that long before.
"I just wish I would've stayed healthy," he said before breaking down in tears during his May 12 retirement announcement.
So it is that we're left wondering what might have happened had Zimmermann accepted the Nationals' offer back in December 2014, or had the Nats increased the dollar amount and included the no-trade clause he wanted.
Would they still have signed Scherzer a month later? It seems doubtful they would've committed that much money to two starters, especially with Strasburg due to become a free agent himself after the 2016 season. (Though it should be noted they eventually gave even more to Corbin prior to the 2019 season, leaving them with as expensive a pitching trio as there was in the sport.)
Would Zimmermann's career have derailed the same way had he stayed in D.C.? Maybe not. But odds are, he wouldn't have remained the durable workhorse he was from 2011-15, and the Nationals would've suffered as a result.
We'll never know. But has there been a more consequential decision in club history than this one, especially one that legitimately felt like it could've been a mistake at the time?
As tough as it was to watch Zimmermann devolve into a shell of the pitcher he was after he left town, the sight of Scherzer doing his thing on the mound for nearly seven years, and of course the sight of him hoisting the Commissioner's Trophy down Constitution Avenue one glorious November morning, easily validated the Nationals' decision from years earlier.