What does the pursuit of Jason Heyward say about the direction of the Nats franchise?

Once upon a time, back when we were all young and idealistic, people talked about the Nationals having a “window of contention” that would close after the 2015 season. At the time, it sounded like a somewhat reasonable thing to say. The Nats had a star pitcher (Jordan Zimmermann), solid pitcher (Doug Fister), star shortshop (Ian Desmond), and ace reliever (Tyler Clippard) all scheduled for free agency after that season. Then, a few funny things happened. Clippard was flipped for a player with team control beyond 2015. Ian Desmond regressed so badly he suddenly looks replaceable. Fister regressed so much he won’t even be missed. Zimmermann regressed a little, but his “replacement” named Max Scherzer is already on board.

The 2015 season wasn’t the closing of a window at all. It was just another season the Nats had a chance to make the playoffs, just like the 2016 season will be. Mike Rizzo has never appeared to believe in windows of contention. He has a one year plan, a three year plan, and a five year plan. Tyler Clippard may have fit into the one year plan last offseason, but he didn’t fit into the three year plan. So Rizzo flipped him for a guy that did, Yunel Escobar. It’s only appropriate Escobar himself was just flipped for a guy that fit into this year’s five year plan, Trevor Gott, a young reliever under team control until 2021.

Rizzo has always been willing to sacrifice a little bit this year to make himself a little more competitive a couple of years down the road. Some people despise this approach and there’s merit to the criticism. Flags fly forever, and it’s a shame to see a team miss out on a championship when they’re a few attainable pieces short. But Rizzo wants this team to be in the race every season. His fear is a Phillies situation, where a team has an extended run that suddenly turns into a long, miserable rebuild. As someone who lived through a long miserable rebuild in DC from 2006-2011, I see merit in this approach as well.

So, Jason Heyward. Where does he fit? It’s somewhat surprising to see the Nationals so heavily in the bidding. I won’t try to pinpoint the value of Heyward and whether he’s worth the $200 million figure being thrown around. Any discussion of Heyward’s value inevitably devolves into a wormhole of WAR and the reliability of defensive metrics. I’m more interested in what the signing of Heyward would mean for the direction of the Nats franchise.

Heyward seems like an odd choice for the 2016 season. Sure, he makes the Nats a better team, but there are less expensive options to fill whatever hole Heyward is filling. A Werth-Taylor-Harper outfield seems like a solid outfield. If you fear further injury/regression from Werth, there are cheaper insurance plans. If you don’t believe Taylor is ready for a full time job, there are more affordable outfielders available until the Nats organization produces a full time CF. The Nats don’t need Heyward next year; there are other more noticeable holes on this roster (catcher, middle infield, 5th starter, and of course bullpen).

But if there’s one pattern we’ve noticed with Rizzo and free agent signings, it’s his willingness to use the free agent market to fill long term needs over short term ones. The Nats didn’t need Werth when they signed him in 2011, but signing him then made sure he was on board when the Nats expected to contend in 2012-14. The Nats didn’t need Max Scherzer last season, but signing him last year ensured he’d be in the rotation in 2016, when the team would otherwise be lacking an ace. Heyward would fit this pattern. The Nats may be able to scrape by this year with their current outfield, but 2017 (Werth’s last season) and definitely 2018 will need him.

Here’s another completely different way to look at it. Rizzo may not believe in windows. I do. Bryce Harper will only be here three more years. It’ll be the same three years Scherzer is still at his peak, Rendon will be entering his prime and Ryan Zimmerman will be finishing his (whatever that looks like). Some Nats fans have expressed misgivings over devoting so much money to a guy like Heyward when they believe the Nats limited resources would be “better spent” on a Harper contract extension. Folks, there’s no guarantee Harper wants to stay here. There’s not even a guarantee he’s willing to take seriously the prospect of avoiding the free agent process by signing an extension. Instead of worrying about keeping Harper past 2018, wouldn’t you rather maximize the Nats chances while he’s actually here?

Mike Rizzo’s actions in the past indicate he doesn’t believe in windows of contention. Loading up on free agents now while this roster appears to be somewhat close to a championship might be the first sign Rizzo is changing his mind.

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