The Washington Nationals are almost three months into the offseason and general manager Mike Rizzo’s finger is still resting on the trigger of nearly all of the team’s biggest potential maneuvers. 

Washington had a fairly short to-do list entering its idle months after being bounced from the postseason in the divisional series by the San Francisco Giants. As disappointing as it was for the team with the National League‘s best record to fall short in the first round, there were only two glaring issues to address in the aftermath. 

But, as of late December, both of those questions remain unanswered.

Washington has three members of its nucleus that it must either sign to an extension, trade away or risk losing in free agency in 2015. That’s the situation for the trio of shortstop Ian Desmond and starting pitchers Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister.

The other pressing matter is at second base. Whether the Nationals use an in-house promotion to fill the position or bring in a fresh face, there will be a different everyday second baseman than last year in D.C.

Those began as, and continue to be, priorities 1A and 1B for the team. And the moves Washington makes to answer those questions could serve as the fireworks that ring in the new year at Nats Park. 


Will Desmond, Zimmermann and/or Fister be leaving the Nationals this winter?

You never want to let an asset go in free agency and get virtually nothing in return when you could trade the player and address other needs. 

We saw the Boston Red Sox avoid that scenario last summer when they traded Jon Lester to the Oakland A’s. Lester was set to enter free agency following the season, just like the three Nats in question will do after the 2015 campaign.

That is, if Washington can’t sign them to extensions. 

But to suggest the Nationals can just pay all three players would move beyond optimistic into unrealistic territory now that they’ve gone this far with little progress. 

At the start of last season, principal owner Mark Lerner suggested Washington’s payroll was already stretched too thin, according to a report from The Washington Post‘s Adam Kilgore.

“We’re not going to do something where we’re losing tens of millions of dollars a year,” Lerner said back in April. “Anybody can understand that. We’re going to be smart.”

This offseason, smart has equaled patience for the Nationals while they take a wait-and-see approach to the rest of the league’s dealings. As marquee free agents like Lester and shortstop Hanley Ramirez come off the board, the trade value of Washington’s pieces at the same position goes up.

As The Post‘s Thomas Boswell suggests, this patience will continue to serve Washington well in the long run.

So the question now isn’t whether or not news will come this winter regarding the Desmond-Zimmermann-Fister triad, but rather the nature of the story. 

News could break tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that any one of the three has been traded or signed to a lucrative extension. 

But according to The Post‘s James Wagner, Zimmermann is the only one to reopen negotiations regarding a contract extension so far. While they are both still under team control for another year, Desmond and Fister are still in a sort of limbo. 

“I wouldn’t respect Mike (Rizzo) the way I do, like I said, if he just sat on his hands and did nothing,” Desmond told The Post‘s Chelsea Janes. “That’s not how this organization got here, and it’s not how it’s going to continue to move forward. Hopefully I’m a part of it, but if not, I’m still going to be rooting for them.”


Who will play second base for the Nationals in 2015?

For the second half of last season, Asdrubal Cabrera was an above-average everyday second baseman for Washington.

But with a number of other players to pay with priority over Cabrera, the Nationals seem less and less inclined to bring the free-agent second baseman back this year. 

With the free-agent and trade market drying up, Washington could find itself plugging that hole on a temporary basis in 2015.

Danny Espinosa is the likeliest name on the current roster to take over at second base. The 27-year-old has spent his entire major league career with the Nats and hit a respectable .219 mostly off the bench last year. 

Utility man Kevin Frandsen is another option, albeit a self-proclaimed one. Frandsen showed some initiative at the team’s annual fan fest in early December when he suggested Washington should consider him for the vacancy at second base. 

But according to’s Bill Ladson’s report on the subject, the idea was met with skepticism by manager Matt Williams.

“He is having fun today, isn’t he,” Williams said. “I’m sure at some point during the season, Franny will play second base.”

It’s also worth noting that Frandsen saw his greatest struggles at the plate when he was listed as a second baseman last year. According to his position splits on from 2014, Frandsen hit .279, .288 and .348 as a left fielder, third baseman and first baseman, respectively. 

He hit just .162 coming from second base. 

During this offseason Washington could end up signing a free-agent middle infielder to bolster the position—Stephen Drew is still floating around looking for a team. Or, if the Nats do trade away one of their starting pitchers, they’ll almost certainly want a major league-ready infielder in return. 

But assuming the team sticks with an in-house second baseman for this season, Washington does have some options down the line.

Dominican shortstop/second baseman Wilmer Difo looks like a bona fide stud. The 22-year-old is the Nationals’ seventh-ranked prospect according to Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt, and he could be close to a breakthrough into the bigs. 

“He’s a very talented, exciting, athletic middle infielder that can hit for power and steal bases,” Rizzo said in Wagner’s latest update on the prospect. “He has an extremely high ceiling, and he’s going to help the Nationals in the near future.”

Washington also recently signed former Marlins and Braves second baseman Dan Uggla to a minor league deal. The 34-year-old will get an invite to Nats spring training, and fans of a true comeback story will invite him into their hearts. 

From 2007-2011, Uggla hit at least 30 home runs each year. So if that guy shows up with the change of scenery, and not the Uggla who hit .162 in 48 games with Atlanta last year, he could get a shot with Washington’s big league club. 

After sneaking into the headlines with a number of recent trades and free-agent pickups, we can no longer say the Nationals have been totally silent this offseason.

But all of the minor wheeling and dealing still leaves the major questions regarding Washington’s notable soon-to-be free agents and its need at second base unanswered.

And when it comes to decisions like these that could set the long-term course of the franchise, we’ll have to wait until Rizzo is good and ready before we have any more clarity.

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