Six arb-eligible Nationals face a Friday night deadline to be offered contracts by midnight tonight: Shawn Hill, Scott Olsen, Tim Redding, Willie Harris, Josh Willingham, and Ryan Zimmerman. If we don't offer them contracts, they become free agents. If we do, they will all go into a binding arbitration process to negotiate a one-year deal.
Willingham and Olsen are no-brainers. The whole point of trading for them is that they were due for big raises in their first years of arbitration-eligibility. So they'll be tendered.
Zimmerman is also a no-brainer, obviously. Word is that we're planning to talk long-term deal with him now that the Winter Meetings are done, but certainly he'll get an offer today. (Now is a good time to remind everyone that if the Nationals had left Zim in the minors until the last week of May 2006 that he wouldn't be arb-eligible till next year, and free agency would still be four years away, making these long-term negotiations easier for the team and giving us one more full year of age-27 team control all in exchange for about 200 meaningless age-21 at bats on terrible teams).
To get a sense of what these guys will cost, scroll through this list of arb-eligibles from 2008. You'll need to consider service time as well as the quality of the player. Guys listed here with around 3 years of service time are the guys getting arb for the first time, so that's who you should compare this group to. Without thinking too much about it, I would guess that Olsen would get something pretty comparable to the $2.8 million that Daniel Cabrera got, maybe a little more. Willingham should get more, maybe something between $3-4m (Brad Hawpe's probably the most comparable guy on last year's list, and he got $3.9m). Zimmerman is a harder case to judge given his injury last year and backwards numbers trajectory, but I would guess that he'd get something in the low $4 millions in the end.
The decisions are Harris, Hill, and Redding. I hope they tender contracts to all of them.
First Willie Harris. By any defensive metric Harris was a magnificent player in the field last season, and he had his best year by rate stats at the plate. There is a very strong case to be made that he should have been starting all of last season, and that even that he’d belong in the top three next year. I plan to look into this more thoroughly, but if he could maintain his 2008 rates for a full season (a huge if, BTW) he’d be more valuable offensively and defensively than anyone but Dukes, assuming Elijah performs up to his higher-end projections. There’s at minimum a case to be made that he’d be more valuable than Willingham or Milledge. Bottom line he should be brought back at least a super-sub, and I think he should be given a chance to compete for a starting job at second or in the outfield.
Redding is being discussed as a non-tender candidate, but I really can’t see why. He'll see a bit of a jump from the $1 million he earned in 2008, but not more than a half-million at the most I wouldn't think. If the Nationals had some surplus of very good young pitching coming up, then maybe they’d be in a position to non-tender a solid vet like Redding. That’s not the situation they’re in. As far as solid options for the rotation, they have John Lannan, some would say Scott Olsen (I expect people to be very disappointed, as you know), and that's it. Balester hasn't shown he can do it. I'm optimistic about Mock, but he still needs to prove he can do it. Bergmann is still an option. Martis has shown that he's clearly not ready. Jordan Zimmermann looks to get a shot at some point next year, but if he's in the rotation on Opening Day he'll be facing a dangerous innings jump. And while there's talk of acquiring pitchers via trade, we don't have obvious chips to give up, so don't expect a silver bullet there. And the team has made clear that they have no intention of signing any major league free agents.
We're simply not in a position to be casting aside adequate, reasonably cheap veteran arms like Redding, and if you're breaking in young arms without any veterans to take pressure off, you're setting yourself up for a wave of injuries like what the Marlins got when they tried to break in Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco, and Scott Olsen all at once.
Finally, Shawn Hill is and should be the most likely to get non-tendered. He earned $402,000 last year, and can expect to get around a million in arbitration. Given his injury history, I can understand why the team might think throwing a million at Shawn Hill is a waste. But I wouldn't. Call me a fool, but I see Hill's sinker, still the best pitch on our staff, and see upside that's worth the risk. A year ago at this time the team was talking about him as an ace in the making, and now you'd think he's the second coming of Levale Speigner to hear some people tell it. He's supposed to be 'healthy' for spring training, and when he pitched in '08 his peripherals were still ok, despite pitching through soreness.
So while I wouldn't count on Shawn Hill for our rotation, I still think that if you have a guy with potential #2-3 starter stuff that a million bucks is worth the gamble. But if the team can non-tender him and bring him back for less, that's ok with me too.