The Nationals and qualifying offers

Baseball is a game dictated by numbers, and we now know an important one that will help shape the offseason.

Sports Business Journal reported late last week that the qualifying offer for pending free agents this year will be $15.8 million, up from $15.3 million last offseason. The figure is determined by averaging together the top 125 salaries in the major leagues. Teams have until five days after the World Series to extend a qualifying offer to their prospective free agents, and the players have a week to decide whether or not to accept the one-year offer or decline it and continue into free agency.

With several big-name Nationals reaching free agency, the decision on whether to extend a qualifying offer looms large for general manager Mike Rizzo. While there’s little chance a player will accept the offer - to date, not one free agent-to-be has - the Nationals stand to be awarded a draft pick for any player who is extended a qualifying offer and rejects it. That’s the consolation prize for losing a key player, a way for organizations to strengthen themselves, even if it will take a few years to reap the rewards of a drafted and developed player. The club signing a free agent forfeits its highest 2016 draft pick to the team losing a qualified free agent (if the signing club holds one of the first 10 picks in the draft, it keeps that pick and gives up its next-highest pick).

So which pending Nationals free agents are in line to receive qualifying offers?

desmond-looking-out-from-dugout-sidebar.jpgRight-hander Jordan Zimmermann seems a sure bet to get the qualifying offer and shortstop Ian Desmond likely will be extended the offer. Ironically, Zimmermann was drafted in the second round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft with one of the compensatory picks awarded the Nationals for losing outfielder Alfonso Soriano to free agency. The right-hander, the winningest pitcher in Nationals history, will get one of the richest contracts this offseason.

Both Zimmermann and Desmond penned heartfelt farewells to NatsTown via Twitter last week, signifying a likely end to their careers in Washington. Even if they are extended qualifying offers, Zimmermann and Desmond will reject them and enter free agency.

Some observers wondered if Desmond, coming off the worst season of his major league career, might be a candidate to accept the qualifying offer, re-establish himself with a better statistical campaign and go into free agency next offseason for an even bigger payday. But even after struggling at times in the field and hitting a career-worst .233 with the fewest homers (19) in his career and his lowest RBI total (62) since 2011, Desmond ranks as the top free agent shortstop on the market. He’ll get a big-money deal from a team banking he can return to the form that earned him consecutive Silver Sluggers from 2012-14, when he hit .274 with 69 homers and 244 RBIs. Never mind that his error totals have risen from 15 in 2012 to 27 in 2015. A slugging shortstop is always a good buy. And since Desmond reportedly turned down a seven-year, $107 million extension before last season, he’ll probably grab the best offer he can get and hope he can rebound.

That leaves three remaining free agents to ponder: right-hander Doug Fister, center fielder Denard Span and left-handed reliever Matt Thornton.

Fister and Thornton won’t be getting a qualifying offer. Fister followed up a 16-win 2014 season by going 5-7 with a 4.19 ERA in 25 games, including 15 starts. While a right forearm flexor strain landed him on the DL early in the season, he struggled so mightily upon his return that he was relegated to the bullpen in August, not making a start after Aug. 3 as the Nats went with rookie Joe Ross down the stretch until he reached his innings limit. Thornton is 39, and relievers approaching their fourth decade don’t get contracts with that many numbers before the decimal point.

While Thornton could be re-signed - hey, he did post a 2.18 ERA and 1.065 WHIP in 41 1/3 innings covering 60 appearances - Fister’s tenure in D.C. has probably ended. Look for him to return to the American League, likely with a team boasting stellar infield defense to take advantage of the ground balls he induces when he’s on his game. Baltimore and Toronto have been mentioned as possible destinations. As long as he continues to produce solid numbers, Thornton could have value, especially in a bullpen in flux, filled with inexperienced pitchers.

Span is a curious case. Injuries wrecked his 2015 campaign before it even got started, limiting him to 61 games that still produced a .301/.365/.431 slash line with 11 stolen bases. He was missed at the top of the lineup, and the Nationals really don’t have a conventional leadoff hitter to replace him. While Michael A. Taylor played a decent enough center field in Span’s absence and showed some pop with 14 homers and 63 RBIs, the rookie’s .229/.282/.358 slash line and 158 strikeouts left something to be desired. Taylor batted only .201 as a leadoff hitter over 144 plate appearances.

Span made $9 million in 2015, and the qualifying offer, if extended and accepted, would give him a significant salary bump and an opportunity to show he’s healthy in his age-32 season, positioning him for a decent free agent payday next offseason. But there are two factors weighing against that happening: that no pending free agent has ever accepted the qualifying offer and that Span is represented by Scott Boras, a master at creating opportunities for his clients.

If you’re Rizzo, who gets a qualifying offer?

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