A common refrain for the Nationals off-season so far has been that they have been smart to stay away from big free agents so as to not lock themselves into too many long term contracts and prevent their ability from re-signing their own players. The players most affected by this would be Desmond and Zimmermann as they are both free agents after the 2015 season, but let's look closer at the Nats 2016 payroll.
As it stands right now the Nationals have $47.67 mil committed to three players (Werth, Zimmerman, Gonzalez) for the 2016 season with several others arbitration eligible like Strasburg, Espinosa, and Harper. There will be an increase from the arb players but as that depends on their performance and health it is way too early to even attempt to figure out what that money will look like. If Strasburg and Harper can stay healthy they will be two of the highest paid players in the game, but if we have learned anything from watching baseball it should be that the expected future is not always the most likely one.
The big needs for the 2016 Nationals will be keeping or replacing Zimmermann and Desmond. As we have no idea what the state of the Nationals minor league system will be or how Zimmermann and Desmond performed in the 2015 season it is hard to say if the Nationals will even want them back. By that time Lucas Giolito could be ready to step into the rotation and more than adequately replace Zimmermann as the third starter and a 2013 or 2014 draft pick could be ready to be the future short stop for the Washington Nationals. Three seasons ago Rendon and Goodwin weren't even in the Nationals system and now the Nationals are making off-season moves in anticipation of their arrival.
There may not even be a need for the Nationals to even worry about keeping Desmond and Zimmermann past 2015. Let's face facts as good as Horace Grant was it was easy to replace him with Dennis Rodman. The players that couldn't be replaced were Pippen and Jordan, and for the Washington Nationals that is Strasburg and Harper. As long as those two stay healthy they will be one of the best pitcher and position player combos in baseball, and the stars the Nationals build around.
However, an obstacle known as Scott Boras is standing in the way of the Nationals making any long term plans around Strasburg or Harper. Boras is known for getting his players to free agency and getting the most money possible. It is likely, if not very likely, that the Nationals will lose Strasburg after the 2016 season and Harper the 2018 season. What the Nationals should be doing this off-season is not worrying about the 2016 payroll but trying to maximize the core they have in place through the 2015 season. That is win the window starts to close and this refrain of the Nationals needing to save money for what might happen after 2015 is growing tiresome.
This is nothing against the moves the Nationals have made this off-season. Denard Span is a talented centerfielder and will help the Washington Nationals. One of their biggest issues heading into the off-season was outfield defense and by simply excommunicating Morse from the outfield the Nationals have solved one of their biggest weaknesses. Dan Haren has numbers that compare with Hall of Fame pitchers and if he is healthy he will be a steal, but if he isn't the Nationals will only be looking for fifth starter level production from their fifth starters spot and that is something they can get from signing many of the non-tenders to minor league deals.
The Washington Nationals have had a good off-season. My problem isn't with them. It is with the insistence that they couldn't have spent money because the 2016 payroll was too much of a concern. The Nationals are in a great place financially with attendance taking a sharp upturn and at some point hopefully before 2016 the MASN deal being resolved. The Nationals play in a large market and can act accordingly. If the Nationals had signed Greinke instead of Haren the impact on the 2013 payroll would be minimal and the Nationals could have back loaded the deal in a way that his highest priced years would come in 2018 and 2019 after Werth is off the books and Zimmerman is about to be.
It is difficult to try and plan for an unknown future and Mike Rizzo is doing the job in the way he thinks is best. He has had enough successes that it is hard to question him at this point, but it is possible to get so caught up in the future that one loses sight of the present. Right now until 2015 is the Washington Nationals best chance to win a World Series, and when it is all said and done we may look back and wonder why Rizzo planned so hard for a future that never arrived. At some point it becomes a "Waiting for Godot" comedy and this far of future simply never arrives and all present opportunities have been wasted.