The Nats are at somewhat of a crossroads. This offseason marks the first of two where a mass exodus of players will completely change the make-up of a Washington team that has been fairly stable and moderately successful since 2012. After that second year, we do not know whether the talent base that remains will be strong enough to continue to be successful. The Nats therefore are faced with a choice. They could focus on competing now. They could try to compete later. Or they could attempt to thread the needle and field consistently competitive teams through the next half-decade or so. An important influencer for this decision is whether they believe Bryce Harper will be around in 2019. It seems like an unnecessary question to ask three years out, if Bryce will leave via free agency, but it isn't. Whether you think Bryce will be here after that time informs what the Nats should do right now.
The Nats know they can be competitive in 2016. The talent that had the pundits picking the Nats as runaway favorites for the NL mostly remains. Yes they will lose Zimmermann, Fister, Desmond, and Span (and don't forget Matt Thornton!). But Ross and Roark can probably replace what ZNN and Fister gave to the team in 2015, Espinosa should be able to compensate for 2015 Desmond, and Taylor may raise his game a bit in year 2. That would hold the team steady around 85 wins. If Rizzo can add a solid bat to compensate for the injury risk inherent in the offense and can bring in some reliable bullpen arms, the Nats will likely be seen as in a fight for the NL East title with the Mets.* Given health of course.
Beyond 2016 is hazy though. Strasburg, Stammen, Storen, Ramos, and Papelbon (and Escobar) will all likely be gone by 2017. In that year, Werth will be 38. Scherzer will be entering the danger zone for arms. Gio may still be sliding. Zimmerman will only be an older injury risk. Even if all those guys remain productive in 2017, it won't be enough by itself to make the Nats good. You would also be looking at the first or second full years for Giolito, Turner, and Ross and expecting them to be effective. You would be looking for Taylor to have turned a corner and Rendon to have bounced back, along with any other number of things going right. Free agency and trades can certainly help but there is no denying beyond 2016 there is a lot of uncertainty. As it has been since the 2012 offseason, it is a good bet the Nats will be competitive in the upcoming year, but, for the first time in a long time, it is not a good bet that they'll be competitive the year beyond that.
This is where the dilemma begins then. If you don't believe that Bryce Harper will be around in 2019 then it makes all the sense in the world to invest very heavily in players for this season. That doesn't mean you have to sign a bunch of old guys, but it could. As strange as it may sound, you can easily come up with a scenario where 2016 represents the best remaining chance for the team to win with Bryce. By going with good enough players you are only opening the chance for another wasted MVP type performance like the Nats got in 2015.
However, if you think the Nats can keep Bryce, it may be best to try to thread the needle. Hope that you get healthy in 2016 and compete, but if you don't, you haven't over-committed to aging players beyond that. 2017 is probably is a dip year, but assuming a clearer picture emerges via the development of the young players, you'd then likely have the money available to go out and get help via free agency to make the team good again in 2018.
A third option exists, too. If you are sure you are going to keep Bryce**, you could try to build a super team of youngsters around him in 2018 and beyond. How? By giving up on 2016 and trading the talent you do have (and potentially shedding contracts if possible). It's a riskier move to be sure, but in the previous scenario there is a chance those young players haven't developed. Let's say Taylor never develops, Turner disappoints, and Giolito gets injured. It would be hard to see how you can simply trade and sign your way to a great team in 2018 and beyond given that scenario. So instead of relying on hitting all your gambles, you get enough that it doesn't matter if you hit on all of them. Trade Strasburg, Gio, Ramos, Storen, Papelbon, Escobar. Get rid of Werth and Zimmerman if you can. Get a BUNCH of guys who may be very good in a year or two or three. It's very unlikely they'd all fail and the idea of using FA and trades to field a very good team in 2018 seems a lot sounder. But it only works if there's a 26 year old Bryce to build around.
The Nats are most likely going to try to thread the needle. It's the conservative choice. It's the choice that keeps them in it in 2016 and allows Rizzo to work something out for 2017 and beyond when the time comes. However, as we've seen twice now in 3 seasons, when you don't go all-in you have a smaller margin of error. We'd be looking at three more seasons of "if healthy and if all this goes right" planning. It could net the Nats three seasons of playoffs or no seasons of playoffs. And then Bryce could be gone. I think I'd rather see the Nats spend alot to win this year or spend alot to keep Bryce, then to spend a little and hope luck breaks their way.
*Of course this is dependent on what the Mets do. I'm assuming now that Uribe , Johnson, Murphy and Cespedes all leave and only one moderately good bat is signed. If they do more they would probably be a solid favorite.
** like how about offering him 13/500 now?