Baseball’s hot stove lit aflame at Winter Meetings

WASHINGTON — The 2013 Major League Baseball Winter Meetings were a letdown by baseball activity standards, with arguably the most exciting moment coming when a pair of agents reportedly resorted to fisticuffs outside the Swan and Dolphin Resort in Orlando. This year more than made up for it.

Ever since team executives arrived in San Diego Sunday night for the 2014 edition, the off-season hot stove has been a white flame of activity, with the Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics leading the way in a frenzy of trade activity. And while the Washington Nationals finally dipped their toes into the trade waters late Thursday, dealing embattled pitcher Ross Detwiler to Texas for a pair of minor leaguers, there have been rumors of much larger action on the horizon.

Washington is at an organizational tipping point, with four key players — Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, Denard Span and Jordan Zimmermann — primed to hit free agency after the 2015 season. As has been discussed, the club doesn’t look to have enough money under its current structure and style of management to extend most of those players. In order to keep their competitive window fully open past this year, they may need to make a short-term sacrifice with an eye on the future by trading one or more of that quartet.

This is even more pressing since the Miami Marlins have followed up their unprecedented extension for star slugger Giancarlo Stanton by trading for Dodgers second baseman Dee Gordon and Cincinnati Reds starter Mat Latos, further improving a good young team. Manager Mike Redmond may be looking at a playoff contender, especially if wunderkind pitcher Jose Fernandez comes back strong from Tommy John surgery.

Detwiler

Detwiler (AP)

Ross Detwiler helped the Nationals to a Game 4 win in the 2012 NLDS, but found himself the odd man out of the rotation last year. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

One of Washington’s clearest holes is at second base, but they’ve watched potential trade target Howie Kendrick go off the board, traded to the neighboring Dodgers Wednesday night. And while they have yet to address their own issues directly, they knocked over their off-season domino Thursday in the Detwiler deal.

For whatever reason, Detwiler fell out of favor with the Nationals and was relegated to the bullpen for the 2014 season, mostly in low-leverage or mop-up situations. This despite turning in a gem in the biggest postseason game of the franchise’s young history to date, when he allowed a single unearned run on just three hits in six innings of work, helping set up Jayson Werth’s eventual walk-off home run. While Texas is no breeze for pitchers, a new start — perhaps one in which he redevelops the curveball he once featured — could lead to greener pastures for the 28-year-old.

The Nats, meanwhile, cleared more than $3 million in salary in the deal, and netted a couple of low-level minor leaguers in return — pitcher Abel De Los Santos and infielder Chris Bostich, neither of whom played above A-ball last year. Needless to say, this wasn’t the type of deal a contender makes to compete, but one to help set up something else.

They seem unlikely to be big players on the free-agent market, where the best available second baseman is probably Jed Lowrie, as their payroll seems just about topped out. So what’s coming next? Here are the names that have been discussed, and some of their possible destinations and returns.

Tyler Clippard

As soon as top closer David Robertson went off the board, signing a four-year deal with the Chicago White Sox, the Nationals began receiving a flood of phone calls on Clippard. And why not? He’s been one of baseball’s best relievers since his transition to the bullpen, owning a 2.64 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 522 strikeouts since 2009 — tops in the majors among all relief pitchers.

If the Nationals can fill their second-base hole by dealing Clippard, it may be worth it to general manager Mike Rizzo. After all, bullpen help is the easiest thing to go out and get. But why risk giving up a key cog you like when you can keep the proven guy you’ve already got? For a team with championship aspirations, parting with a top reliever seems like a questionable risk.

Ian Desmond

Unsurprisingly, many teams have asked about the Nationals’ multitude of starting pitchers. Surprisingly, the name that has surfaced publicly the most in trade talks is Desmond. Ken Rosenthal indicated that Washington was fairly deep into talks that would send Desmond to the Seattle Mariners as part of a larger deal, including 25-year-old middle infielder Brad Miller in return.

Miller would mark a cheaper, long-term option at shortstop, one farther along in his development than Desmond at the same age, but has yet to achieve the type of success Desmond has over the past three seasons. Making such a deal would solve one of Rizzo’s impending free agent problems, but may well actually make the team worse in the short run.

Manager Matt Williams talked at the Winter Meetings about Bryce Harper shouldering more of a leadership responsibility on the team, one that will be even more crucial if Desmond is shipped out. The young star is also being moved to right field, where his superior arm is far more valuable, and where he probably should have been playing the past two seasons. But first, the Nats have to sort out his contract situation, one which is still on track for a mid-December hearing if it isn’t resolved before then.

Scott Boras, Harper’s agent, spoke in San Diego about the matter, saying he’s “in discussions with the Nationals on that subject.”

Jordan Zimmermann

Zimmermann’s name came up early in trade rumors with the aggressive Chicago Cubs, who gave Jon Lester a 6-year, $155 million free agent contract late Tuesday night. With a bevy of young position players who are major league-ready and a rotation that could use another big name up top, Chicago may still be a viable trade partner for the Nationals.

The Detwiler trade dug into Washington’s depth a bit, but behind the obvious top four of Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez, and Tanner Roark, there is still Blake Treinen, Taylor Jordan and A.J. Cole who could be ready to compete for the fifth starter job in spring training. While Fister is in the same position as Zimmermann, with just one year left on his contract, he is two years older and his peripherals (3.93 FIP to Zimmermann’s 2.68) suggest not nearly the same quality pitcher.

All that being said, based on Rizzo’s history, the moves that happen probably won’t be what we think.

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