Offseason Outlook: Washington Nationals

The Nationals failed to repeat their 98-win 2012 campaign, but were the best National League team not to qualify for the 2013 post-season. With the team's core still fully intact, the Nats surely hope to climb back atop the NL East in 2014.

Guaranteed Contracts

 Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses)

Free Agents

The Nationals are loaded with young, cost-controlled talent that is still in or approaching its prime. Much the same unit combined to bag nearly 100 wins just one year ago. Owner Ted Lerner is one of the richest in the game; the club already ratcheted up payroll going into 2013; and Washington recently extended and promoted Mike Rizzo, the front office man who built the current club and will guide it for the foreseeable future. Sounds pretty promising. 

Then again, these pieces led manager Davey Johnson to declare 2013 a "World Series or bust" year, and the team failed even to earn a chance to compete for a ring. And now, the team's guru-skipper is himself riding off into the sunset. Priority number one for Rizzo will be finding the right man to take the helm. Internal options Trent Jewett or Randy Knorr could be asked to take the torch, or the team could look outside the organization to candidates like Brad Ausmus or Matt Williams

As for the on-field components, Rizzo has shown a penchant for acting opportunistically, rather than just filling needs, over the last two off-seasons. With Edwin Jackson in 2012 and Haren in 2013, Rizzo targeted veteran pitchers he liked for a bounceback. Last year's signing of Soriano to a heavily deferred deal was an unexpected stroke. And he swung two trades that remade the club's outfield, ultimately adding Span and pitching prospects A.J. Cole, Blake Treinen, and Ian Krol while parting with Michael Morse and top minor league arm Alex Meyer. Though the signings have not worked out quite as anticipated, the trades look to have been beneficial in the aggregate. And Rizzo surely remains undeterred in his confident, decisive approach.

But what bold strokes might the Nats' head man have in mind for 2014? The club has few positions obviously ripe for upgrade. In particular, the club's starting outfield is unlikely to change, with Harper and Werth entrenched at the corners and Span holding down center field. Though there have been rumblings that the Nats could move on from Span just one season after installing him, he rebounded from a slow start to deliver just what the team expected when it dealt for him: a league-average bat, twenty swipes, and outstanding defense in center, good for 3.5 fWAR and 2.4 rWAR. He remains a very nice bridge to the team's top overall prospect, Brian Goodwin, who could arrive by 2015.

In the infield, three spots are virtual locks. The shortstop Desmond has established himself among the league's best, and the only question is whether — and at what price – he'll be extended. Zimmerman's throwing woes at third abated enough that he won't yet be moved across the diamond. And the backstop Ramos, who returned from ACL surgery to his promising trajectory, could himself be an interesting target for a long-term deal

The other two infield positions are probably also set, barring some complicated maneuvering. At first base, the team returns LaRoche, who is still owed $14MM (including his 2015 buyout). There has been some suggestion that the Nats could look to upgrade here after the veteran's sluggish 2013, which may have been caused in part by weight loss issues that the team hopes to be able to address going forward. But for the team to sell low and eat salary to move one of its valued clubhouse members, it would need a very good reason. Washington was reportedly interested in Jose Dariel Abreu, for instance, but not at anything close to the price he ultimately commanded. Unless a golden opportunity arises, an acquisition at first seems improbable.

Indeed, a more plausible (but still unlikely) means by which the smooth-swinging lefty might be displaced would be if ownership empties its wallet for this year's top overall free agent target, second baseman Robinson Cano. But Rendon is already on hand. He is a cheap, high-upside 23-year-old who had a solid rookie campaign, showing the ability to play second and maintaining a league-average batting line after minimal seasoning (326 minor league at-bats). Washington could dump LaRoche and employ some combination of Cano, Zimmerman, and Rendon to play the 3-through-5 positions, or even trade the valuable youngster. But the likely breathtaking commitment that Cano will command could hamstring the club's efforts to retain its homegrown stars down the line. Rizzo may kick the tires on Cano, but Rendon remains highly likely to man the keystone next year.

Of course, the team also still has Danny Espinosa in the fold in the middle infield. The low-contact switch hitter saw his stock plummet (and missed qualifying for arbitration) after a disastrous (28 OPS+) start to 2013. Though he could be dealt, the club would hate to sell so low on a player with Espinosa's upside. And while the 26-year-old could make the roster as a reserve, it seems more likely he'll provide injury insurance while working to rebuild his offensive game — and trade value — in Triple-A. 

Whether or not it includes Espinosa, the Nats' bench must improve on its sub-replacement-level 2013. Other backup middle infield possibilities include the limited-but-sturdy Steve Lombardozzi and minor leaguers Jeff Kobernus (who showed nice speed and on-base ability at Triple-A last year with 42 swipes and a .366 OBP) and Zach Walters (who flashed rare power for a shortstop with 29 International League bombs). Tyler Moore hit well after a mid-season run at Triple-A, but doesn't play third and may be redundant with Hairston as an outfield option. Corey Brown, 27, may have an outside shot at Roger Bernadina's old role or could be traded away. Behind the dish, minor leaguers Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano seem ready to fill a backup role. Of course, Rizzo could well pursue a veteran or two rather than relying on those options. What is most clear, however, is that the club will be in search of a left-handed bench bat. The team is likely to let Chad Tracy walk after a sub-par 2013. A relatively direct free agent replacement might be found (e.g., Luke Scott). Or the club could seek more utility from a player like short-time Nat David DeJesus.

Situational lefties, it would appear, are something of a theme in Washington. After leaving the LOOGY role essentially unfilled to start 2013, the Nats are widely expected to peruse the market for help on that side of the bullpen. And the club could look to add other arms as well. But the relief corps may receive less of an overhaul than many commentators have suggested. On the whole, it was about as effective this season (3.0 fWAR, 3.56 ERA, 3.50 FIP, 3.79 xFIP) as it was the year prior (3.4 fWAR, 3.23 ERA, 3.70 FIP, 4.01 xFIP). And the team has internal options. Though an established lefty will certainly appear on Rizzo's shopping list, all of the team's primary left-handed pen arms last year — Fernando Abad, Xavier Cedeno, and Krol — are under team control and short of arbitration eligibility. The closer job remains Soriano's to lose, even if his leash has shortened. Clippard and Storen will be the top setup men, unless one is traded (which is probably the most interesting situation to watch). And Stammen's role will continue to grow after another sturdy campaign. Otherwise, the club has some reasonably promising internal options that it could use to fill things out. Ryan Mattheus, Erik Davis, and even Christian Garcia and Aaron Barrett all spring to mind. Finally, one or more of the odd men out of the rotation will likely wind up in relief as a long man.

And that leads us to what is, perhaps, the most intriguing area of the off-season for the Nationals. The top of the rotation is set, with Strasburg, Gonzalez, and Zimmermann making up one of the best and most cost-efficient front three in the game. If healthy, Detwiler should get another shot after missing much of 2013. Beyond those four, the team could choose to allow Ohlendorf to compete with the emergent Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan for the fifth slot that will be vacated by Haren, leaving the losers to supplement the pen or provide depth in Syracuse. A rising Nathan Karns could also push for a role with a big spring after getting his first taste of the bigs last year, and other solid arms are moving through the system with him, headlined by Cole. 

But while the club certainly has sufficient options on hand, Rizzo could make a big impact with one move in the rotation. Though it would be surprising to see the Nats hand out a lengthy contract to any of this year's free agents, the acquisition of a high-quality veteran who won't compromise the budget long-term could be the most direct, least risky way to boost the club for 2014. Rizzo could conceivably target a veteran arm like Tim Hudson, offer yet another pillow contract, or even pursue a trade, though it is somewhat difficult to imagine the Nats giving up the kind of top-end young talent that will be needed to land a David Price.

If Rizzo dabbles in the trade market at all — whether for a starter or otherwise — one asset group he could use as currency is the mid-tier, MLB-ready talent that is backed up at Triple-A. Though Washington will likely value its few premier prospects quite highly, it could be open to dealing from the aforementioned middle infielders (Kobernus and Walters) and pitchers (Jordan, Karns, et al.). Likewise, speedy center fielder Eury Perez, 23, was strong in Triple-A last year but has Span in front of him and Goodwin and Michael Taylor behind.

Assuming they tender contracts to all of their arbitration-eligible players, the Nats figure to enter the off-season already nearing (if not exceeding) the franchise-high 2012 opening day tab of just under $120MM. Lerner has hinted that the club went over its own, flexible internal budget last year, which obviously did not turn out as expected. But the Nationals' window is unquestionably open, attendance is on the rise, and a healthy splash would help to stir up continued interest in a growing fan base.

Some money and attention probably will be earmarked for extensions, with Desmond and Zimmermann being the most pressing candidates. (As MLBTR's Tim Dierkes explained earlier today in assessing the team's arbitration eligibles, it could cost the Nats upwards of $100MM for the former and around $85MM for the latter.) And moves will be made to improve the team around the fringes. But ultimately, for an organization that learned firsthand that big projections and talent aren't enough in the fickle game of baseball, tinkering with the bench and pen may not be enough. A significant move — a signing, trading, or both — seems reasonably likely to be in the offing.

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