The Nationals are dangling their ace and soon-to-be free agent Jordan Zimmermann, and one of the teams he's been dangled in front of is the Red Sox. It's a fit that, on the surface, makes sense for both sides: the Sox have lots of young talent the Nationals would like to have for themselves, and the Red Sox have a need for an ace. What's unclear, though, is what the Nationals would want in return for Zimmermann on a more specific level: what would the Red Sox actually need to give up in order to pry one year of an ace from the Nats?
The answer is not a simple one, and, in fact, there might not be a satisfying answer at all. Let's look at what we do know about the Nationals and Zimmermann so far to see what we can learn, though. He would like to have an extension in place by Opening Day, or not at all. He's set to make $16.5 million in 2015, and could easily pull in at least, let's say, $22 million per year on a six-year deal if he were a free agent right now, if not $20-plus million more overall than that. That means the Nationals have to give Zimmermann a Lester-esque deal if they want to seal the deal and keep him around, and given that they're discussing trading him to one of a few teams, they obviously aren't entirely committed to that plan. We only have one trade proposal from the Nats' side to go on, and it's complicated a bit because it also involved the final year of Ian Desmond's deal: the Nationals offered the Mariners a Zimmermann/Desmond package in exchange for Taijuan Walker and Brad Miller.
In Boston's favor we have Zimmermann's $16.5 million salary and the public knowledge that the Nationals are not convinced he's sticking beyond 2015. Against Boston, though, and anyone trying to get Zimmermann, is that the Nationals are still great and are set up to compete easily in 2015. Given that, holding on to Zimmermann's final year is also in Washington's interests: if they only get a compensation pick for him, but also make it deep into October or win a World Series, no one is going to be upset when he walks this time next year. Well, no one rational.
Figuring out just what the Nationals want for a return is tough, thanks to two things: Desmond's presence in the declined offer to the Mariners, and the fact that it represents what the Nats want, not necessarily what they would accept. The Nationals shot high, aiming for a former top-10 prospect who should be a rotation mainstay if he stays healthy, one who can be plugged into Zimmermann's vacated spot immediately. The Sox don't have a Walker, but if they remove Desmond from the equation and add another prospect, maybe they don't have to.
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That's a significant maybe, however, as Boston just doesn't have someone in their farm system who is ready for a rotation spot. Rubby De La Rosa was the only one, and he's been dealt for three years of Wade Miley. That's not to say De La Rosa would have been the key, or the Sox should have explored a Zimmermann trade further first, because neither of those statements is likely true. The Sox could use Miley and Zimmermann, and they used their chip on the one who is still under team control for three years.
What the Sox do have left from that vein is Anthony Ranaudo, Brandon Workman, Edwin Escobar, and if it came to it, Joe Kelly. None of those pieces are a viable replacement for Walker on a talent level, but if the Nationals simply want someone who can fill Zimmermann's spot, with the real value of the deal coming from another place, then one of those names could be of interest. Ranaudo and Workman are probably too likely to be relievers to interest the Nationals, at least as the piece. Escobar's future is also uncertain, but he's probably a better bet to start than those two. Kelly isn't a prospect and has the least amount of service time left, but he would also be the best bet of the bunch to step in and successfully start for the Nationals from Opening Day onward.
Lester is officially gone, the Red Sox are not
Jon Lester is officially on the Cubs. Let's try to understand that.
None of those pitchers would be enough on their own, and Kelly might be the only one who even interests the Nationals since he's at least a starter. This is where the Sox could dip into their considerable prospect depth to see if there is a match. Would shortstop Deven Marrero, whose ETA is likely late-2015 or 2016, make sense given Desmond's potential departure? Would the Sox need to move a position player far from the majors, someone like Manuel Margot? Would it take Kelly, Marrero, and someone intriguing like Sean Coyle to get it done? Or would the Nationals insist on receiving someone like Henry Owens along with Kelly, even though they are just giving up the one season of Zimmermann? Remember: that one season could be the only one this Nationals team needs to win their first-ever World Series, just like Zimmermann could be the final piece for the Red Sox in their own quest for one. Both teams have every reason to make a deal happen, but also every reason not to force one.
This is why asking what a Jordan Zimmermann trade would cost Boston produces an unsatisfactory answer. Nationals' general manager Mike Rizzo has made some fantastic trades over the years, and is known to ask for a serious return in exchange for his players. The Nationals might lower their demands because they know Zimmermann is gone in a year, but they also know how significant a 2015 season with him could be, so they don't actually have a reason to do so. The Red Sox don't want to give up their major prospects for five years of Cole Hamels, so giving up a major piece for a rental -- even one as talented as Zimmermann -- is unlikely. There is some middle ground here, where the Red Sox hand over Joe Kelly, Deven Marrero, and whichever legitimate low-level talent the Nationals want to be in their organization, but it seems, at this time, to be an unlikely conclusion to their discussions.