Offseason In Review: Washington Nationals

After adding an impact starter and a few veteran pieces, the Nats will look to make a strong run at a division title after falling short in 2013.

Major League Signings

Notable Minor League Signings
Trades and Claims
Notable Losses

Needs Addressed
This is what things look like when an organization makes a few tweaks to an already-strong roster. Returning the vast majority of last year's disappointing second-place club — most of whom were part of the core of the team that won the NL East in 2012 — the Nationals had few areas of real need.
First and foremost, the club needed to resolve its managerial situation after the venerable Davey Johnson followed through on retiring after the year. GM Mike Rizzo narrowed things down to familiar options, ultimately choosing longtime major leaguer Matt Williams to take over as a rookie skipper. In addition to his reputation for intensity, Williams brings a dedication to employing an analytical approach to defense with him to D.C.
On the roster, a few problem areas from 2013 looked prime for new acquisitions. Rizzo had already begun re-working his bench late last season, adding Scott Hairston to the mix. And he acted even more decisively on the free agent market, making a significant commitment to Nate McLouth to draw the speedy left-handed hitter into a reserve role when he might have found a more regular gig elsewhere. Then, with just days to go before Opening Day, the club added Phillies castoff Kevin Frandsen to play a utility infielder role. Beyond that, the organization has former starter Danny Espinosa working as the primary middle-infield backup, with options like first baseman Tyler Moore, shortstop Zach Walters, catchers Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon, outfielders Eury Perez and Steven Souza, and the versatile Jeff Kobernus stashed away in Triple-A.
The second major roster construction issue that raised concerns last year was the team's lack of left-handed relief options. After letting three southpaw relievers leave for MLB deals elsewhere, the Nats opened with just one ineffective option (Zach Duke) and ultimately struggled to find southpaws that Johnson felt comfortable using for key outs in late innings. While Rizzo explored the free agent market, he found prices to be out of control. Instead, he pursued a familiar trade route, picking up two years of control over the affordable Blevins in exchange for the breakout prospect Burns, who did not have much of an organizational role in a Nationals system that features several other speedy outfielders. (Depth options include Xavier Cedeno and Mike Gonzalez, from the left side. Rookie Aaron Barrett will join an otherwise set bullpen from the right side, with Ryan Matteus, Christian Garcia, Manny Delcarmen, and Josh Roenicke among the righty relievers in the minors.)
The organization employed a similar tact in filling its open reserve catching spot, dealing from a position of depth (young, MLB-ready pitching) to bring in the relatively youthful and affordable Jose Lobaton, who comes with four years of team control. Though sacrificing a good arm in Nate Karns was not easy to do, the Nats were able to recoup prospect value by adding two well-regarded pieces who had off years in Rivero and Vettleson.
Trading on changes in perceived prospect value appears to have become one of Rizzo's calling cards, and that was never on display more than in the signature move of the Nats' offseason. In a deal that drew rave reviews from all quarters, the Nationals added a quality, affordable starting pitcher in Fister for the seemingly low price of young lefties Robbie Ray and Ian Krol along with utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi. Fister has been one of the most productive starters in the game in recent seasons, should benefit from playing in front of a better defensive infield given his strong ground ball tendencies, and is set to earn just $7.2MM this year before reaching his final year of arbitration in 2015.
As I noted in my outlook post for the Nats, the rotation was the area that seemed mostly likely for the team to make a truly impactful addition, with young arms and bats available to be dangled in a possible trade. Of course, it seemed unlikely that Washington would give up its few premium-level youngsters, which made it all the more surprising when the club was able to land two years of Fister without doing so. Though seemingly minor injuries appear to have the generally durable righty pegged for a DL trip to start the year, his addition remains a clear coup for Rizzo.
Questions Remaining
How things shape up at the back of the rotation remains to be seen, though the team has given some answers by moving Ross Detwiler to the pen, where he should have a chance to be quite a force. Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark remain locked in competition for the fifth starter's slot, though that battle now figures to extend into the regular season with Fister slowed in his build-up and dealing with elbow and lat issues.
Of course, if Fister (or another starter) were to miss a more significant amount of time, the questions would begin to become somewhat more pressing. While the Nats have about as much depth as one could hope for — presumably, Detwiler could move back into the rotation, giving the team seven reasonably attractive options to start the year — there is less behind that group than there was going into the offseason. Karns and Ray were probably the most advanced of the team's remaining rotation arms, Ross Ohlendorf is now on the 60-day DL, and the best-looking minor league signee, Chris Young, has signed with the Mariners.
Of greater consequence, though, are the mid-term strategic decisions facing the front office. The club did complete extensions with shortstop Ian Desmond and starter Jordan Zimmermann, but they were not quite as long as might have been hoped. Though the pair of two-year deals avoid arbitration battles this year and next while providing some cost deferral and certainty, they did not extend team control. It remains a pressing issue for the team to sort out how it will manage its young core as it nears free agency. (The division-rival Braves, of course, just resolutely dealt with their own, similar situation by locking up four key players to long-term deals.)
On the field, there are perhaps two situations most worth watching for the Nationals. At the corner infield, rumblings have persisted about the possibility of Ryan Zimmerman moving across the diamond to play first. While it appears that nothing is imminent, you can expect increasing chatter if Zimmerman's throwing woes and/or LaRoche's struggles at the plate carry over from last year.
Likewise, another free agent signing made last year — the partially deferred, two-year, $28MM pact given to closer Rafael Soriano — could carry intrigue in 2013. To begin, Soriano's 2015 option would vest if he finishes 62 games in the coming season (he finished a career-high 58 last year). More importantly, perhaps, is what would happen if the 34-year-old's evident decline worsens. Though he ended up with a solid 3.11 ERA last year, Soriano saw declines in his fastball velocity, swinging-strike percentage, and strikeout rates. (Though we all know that spring stats are not to be trusted, Soriano has been hit hard, though he has also struck out eight and walked none in 4 2/3.) If things don't go well, the presence of Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen in the pen could lead to some difficult decisions that the club would rather not deal with.
Deal of Note
Widely praised around the industry, the trade for Doug Fister just made a ton of sense for the Nationals. As I wrote at the time of the trade, the timing of the deal (in several different respects) allowed Rizzo to achieve outstanding value. And as I argued later, adding Fister delivered significant hidden value to the Nats because he gives the team an alternative extension candidate, provides a hedge against injury in the mid-term, and creates significant flexibility for a club looking ahead at numerous rich man's problems. 
Of course, Fister's injury issues this spring could be cause for a healthy pump of the brakes on the celebration. Pitchers break, of course, even when they have thrown a lot of innings without significant injury concerns. It could be that Fister misses a few starts and comes back fine, but there is reason for some concern now that a reportedly tight elbow has given way to a lat issue. While these matters could ultimately downgrade what Washington is able to achieve from the swap, it does not change the calculus that made it a good call for Rizzo in the first place.
It appears to have been a strong and balanced offseason from the Nats. Needs were addressed without giving up the team's best young talent or taking on onerous long-term obligations, and the players acquired all figure still to be in or around their prime. Meanwhile, Rizzo continued to trade away prospects whose value has risen based on recent performance history while nabbing those whose stock has fallen. That strategy has worked out beautifully with respect to the haul from the Michael Morse trade (A.J. Cole, Blake Treinen, Krol), though it remains to be seen whether Rivero and Vettleson will make up for the loss of Karns, whether Ray will turn into a strong big leaguer, and whether Burns will have an impact in Oakland.
Everything looks pretty good for the Nationals, but that was the case last year, as well. Though the team's core is young enough to envision a large contention window, the opportunity for winning before difficult choices have to be made on new contracts for some of those players actually probably ends this year. Regardless of how the year goes, it will be fascinating to see how Rizzo navigates the contract situations of players like Desmond, Zimmermann, Fister, Stephen Strasburg, and Bryce Harper over the coming years.

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