I was taken to task in the comments and realized pretty quickly that I was wrong there. As NTP Nate asked, "You don't trade a right-handed reliever for a 27-year old with a .366 career OBP and plus defense in CF who's on a reasonable (5 yr/$16.5M) contract through 2014? Where are these type of guys growing on trees?"
In part, my error was that I hadn't really paid that much attention to Span this year. I remembered his down year in 2010 and assumed he wasn't doing much better this year given how the Twins are doing as a team. But he's actually having a nice bounce-back year, and it's looking like his down 2010 is the aberration.
After that, the argument for the deal is simple: every day players--especially up-the-middle players--are harder to find and worth more than relievers. If the reporting is accurate and the Twins were asking for Storen and a so-so prospect like Steve Lombardozzi, then I would have made that deal. (Of course, we don't really know whether it was Mike Rizzo or the Twins GM Bill Bill Smith who walked away, so I'm not going to get too worked up about this one rumor.)
But here's the real reason my knee-jerk reaction was to say no to Storen for Span: I was reacting as a fan. I like Drew Storen, and it's been exciting to see him come up and perform right away. It's really hard to say goodbye to your team's home grown players, and my heart said no before my head got a vote.
Which brings me to the real topic of this post: Setting aside my feelings as a fan, it's becoming increasingly clear to me that the player the Nationals should have traded last week was Ryan Zimmerman.
First, even despite losing a bunch of time (again) with an injury, Zimmerman's trade value is sky-high. Dave Cameron argued on Fangraphs that Zimmerman has the 10th highest trade value of any player in baseball, which may be a little high but is close. We all know he's one of the game's elite all-around players, and he's signed to a really team-friendly contract through next season.
But let's look at where the Nationals are at as a franchise. This year, they have met or exceeded any fan's highest expectations, and they are sitting in last place at 53-57 on pace for 78 wins. And while a few key things have gone wrong for the team this year (Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Jayson Werth), look at the things that have gone right.
Mike Morse has made it impossible to miss Adam LaRoche. Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos have done very well in their first full seasons. The bullpen has been very good. Laynce Nix? And really every single starting pitcher other than maybe Tom Gorzelanny has given the team a best-case-scenario performance.
The reality is that the window of opportunity to win with Ryan Zimmerman could very well be next year and the year after, as his contract expires in 2013. He's going to be a free agent going into his age 29 season and will command a huge contract, assuming nothing goes wrong for him over the next 2 years.
And let's face it, even if you project a healthy Strasburg, continued development from the young players, and a bounce-back year from Werth, the team still doesn't have enough to make the playoffs next season, barring some massive spending spree that starts but doesn't end with Albert Pujols.
Now, I'll admit that there's been a lot of progress for this team. It's damn hard to go from 59 wins to 69 wins to 78 wins in three consecutive seasons. I can see how some fans might feel like the team is getting close. But it's really not. Look at the Nationals rotation. Now look at the Phillies' rotation. Back to the Nationals. Now back to the Phillies. Sadly, they aren't them, though in all fairness they probably smell about the same.
And here's the best news of all for the Nationals: they've had a nice little year on the farm. Brad Peacock is getting a lot of ink as the big breakthrough of 2011, but other guys like Sammy Solis, Robbie Ray, Tom Milone, and A.J. Cole are having very nice developmental seasons as well. That's a lot of arms coming together all at once, and draft picks Alex Meyer and Matt Purke are two more potential impact arms to add if they sign.
They still don't have impact bats in the system, and Derek Norris still hasn't really been able to follow up on his breakthrough in 2009, but Anthony Rendon will change that as soon as he signs (and oh by the way, you know what position he plays).
Bottom line, the Nationals have the best farm system they've had since coming to DC. And a lot of these guys aren't that far off. You can really see the makings of a contending group taking shape around Strasburg and Harper--a rising core of talent that can get good together at the same time from from 2013-2016.
Now, let's imagine the kind of prospect haul the team could get for Zimmerman and add that group to what they already have. If the Nationals had put Zimmerman on the market last week, he easily would have been the most valuable player on the market--far and away more valuable than Hunter Pence, Carlos Beltran, or even Ubaldo Jimenez. And all those guys fetched top-shelf prospects. And with third base so thin around the league, there would be no shortage of suitors.
With the internal development they've had, plus the 2011 draft, plus a blockbuster package of prospects, their under-25 organizational talent would suddenly be right up there with Kansas City and Texas as the best in baseball. And with that you really could be looking at a sustained run of playoff appearances and a World Series.
The first alternative is to resign Zimmerman to another long-term deal, which may or may not even be possible and will likely cost over $170 million, and keep trying to win now with a team built around him, Werth, Strasburg, maybe Harper, and whatever else you're willing to pay for in free agency. In this scenario, I think the Nationals can expect a sustained run of respectability, but it's hard to imagine how a true contender comes together.
Of course the other possibility is that they lose Zimmerman in free agency after 2013 and get a couple draft picks as compensation (and please Nationals fans stop cherry-picking Jordan Zimmermann to overstate the value of a second round draft pick, ok? Good luck does not make good process.)
Add all this together, and it's kind of surprising to me that there hasn't been any discussion of moving Zimmerman. It just makes a lot of sense if you can stop and think about it without getting emotional about The Face. And it's certainly not too late--they should be able to put him out on the market next year at the deadline and get as much or more in return assuming nothing else changes.
Of course, there's one other complicating factor here: Jayson Werth and his $126 million contract. Could the team really sell off a piece like Zimmerman while sitting on a contract like that for a 32-year-old? Most teams wouldn't, but that doesn't mean it's not the right move. It would just make one more way in which the Werth signing will likely be more of a hindrance than a help for this team.