For the first time in a while, the Nationals enter the winter with a variety of question marks and a lack of linear solutions.
- Max Scherzer, SP: $190MM through 2021 ($105MM deferred, payable in seven installments of $15MM over 2022-2028)
- Ryan Zimmerman, 1B: $72MM through 2019 (including buyout of 2020 club option, $10MM personal services contract)
- Jayson Werth, OF: $42MM through 2017
- Gio Gonzalez, SP: $12.5MM through 2016 (includes buyout of 2017 club option)
- Jonathan Papelbon, RP: $11MM through 2016 ($3MM deferred to 2017)
- Yunel Escobar, INF: $8MM through 2016 (including buyout of 2017 club option)
- Bryce Harper, OF: $5MM through 2016 (remains eligible for arbitration through 2018)
Arbitration Eligibles (projections via MLB Trade Rumors)
- Craig Stammen (5.160) – $2.4MM
- Drew Storen (5.140) – $8.8MM
- Stephen Strasburg (5.118) – $10.5MM
- Wilson Ramos (5.047) – $5.3MM
- Jose Lobaton (4.138) – $1.5MM
- Danny Espinosa (4.113) – $2.7MM
- David Carpenter (4.016) – $1.5MM
- Tyler Moore (3.018) – $1.0MM
- Anthony Rendon (2.130) – $2.5MM
- Non-tender candidates: Stammen, Lobaton, Carpenter, Moore
- Casey Janssen, RP: team declined $7MM mutual option, paid $1.5MM buyout
- Nate McLouth, OF: team declined $6.5MM club option, paid $750K buyout
The 2015 season was filled with disappointment and controversy for the Nats, who entered the year heavily favored in the NL East. Underperformance abounded on a talented roster, much as occurred in 2013, and GM Mike Rizzo will now look for a similar bounce back.
Once again, there will be a new skipper in the dugout, though this time the outgoing manager (Matt Williams) was fired. (Davey Johnson’s retirement had long been planned.) Dusty Baker got the nod, but not until the team had engaged in a highly publicized dalliance with Bud Black. Washington was openly mocked for reportedly looking to get a manager on the cheap, though the team obviously reached terms with Baker and seems to have spent big on highly-regarded new pitching coach Mike Maddux.
That was hardly the way the team wanted to start the winter — especially after a late fade punctuated by an ugly dugout fight in which high-price closer Jonathan Papelbon tried to choke superstar Bryce Harper.
In many ways, that incident frames the team’s offseason. Papelbon was the team’s major deadline addition, unseating Drew Storen as the closer but bringing the promise of an excellent 1-2 punch in the late innings. That combo started out well, but it (and the team’s season) fell apart as Williams mismanaged, Storen faded, and Papelbon raged.
Now, the question is whether the Nationals will shop Papelbon, Storen, or both. Harper has reportedly chatted with Papelbon in an effort at conciliation. And GM Mike Rizzo says that both righties will remain with the team unless a “real baseball offer” comes in. That leaves at least some window for either or both to stay on in D.C. for the final year of their respective contracts.
Of course, the club badly needs pen arms. Washington has been tied to upper-tier trade candidates such as Aroldis Chapman since the trade deadline, and is one of many teams with reported interest in top free agent Darren O’Day. Significant additions of that kind would probably enter the picture (and the payroll) as Papelbon and/or Storen depart.
Regardless what happens at the back end, the Nats face a lot of questions in the pen. Lefty Felipe Rivero, an underappreciated piece of the Jose Lobaton/Nate Karns deal, had a nice rookie campaign. Righty Blake Treinen still has a huge arm, though he’ll need to take a step forward in harnessing it. We’ve yet to hear conclusively whether the team will take the risk on Craig Stammen and his projected $2.4MM salary after he missed the entire season with arm surgery. He’s expected to be ready for the spring, but even if he’s healthy, he’ll only be stepping back into the void left by Aaron Barrett, who’ll miss most or all of 2016. David Carpenter is another injury/arb question mark. There are other options in the organization, including Rafael Martin, Sammy Solis, and Matt Grace,
Tanner Roark could end up back in the pen if he’s bumped from the rotation, and some less experienced starters — A.J. Cole, Taylor Jordan, Taylor Hill, and Austin Voth — potentially could as well. But there are a lot of question marks in that group, and it seems likely that the Nationals will be hunting for relief arms at all levels of the market.
The rotation, on the other hand is set … probably. You could’ve said the same last year, after all, and the club added Max Scherzer on top of an already highly-regarded staff. That group fell shy of expectations, and will lose Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister to free agency, but still ought to be pretty good. Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez form a good (and potentially excellent) trio at the top, Joe Ross was highly impressive in his debut last year, and Roark still profiles as a sturdy innings eater. The club also has some options and upside behind that group, with Cole perhaps ready for a real opportunity and consensus top overall pitching prospect Lucas Giolito not far behind (and ascending at a rapid pace).
Of course, Ross was mistakenly overlooked by many when news broke that he’d been traded to D.C. Taking top billing in that swap was Trea Turner, a swift young shortstop who got a brief taste of the big leagues last year. It will be quite a lot to ask of him to step in directly for the departing Ian Desmond — who, it should be noted, leaves big shoes despite a rough 2015 — but the Nats have other options as well. Yunel Escobar was acquired last winter due, in part, to his ability to step in at short for 2016. Danny Espinosa remains an outstanding defender and showed more with the bat last year, making him a platoon option up the middle. And Turner could ultimately be joined by another promising youngster, Wilmer Difo, as a double-play pairing. He, too, got a cup of coffee last year with the big club and could conceivably enter the picture this coming season.
The aforementioned group of players could combine in some form to occupy the middle infield positions. But we’ve heard whispers that the team could consider trading away Escobar, possibly in a reversal of the move (well-compensated reliever for well-compensated infielder) that brought him to D.C. in the first place. In that scenario, perhaps, the club would add a left-handed-hitting infielder to join the mix. Turner and Escobar, like most of the other Nats regulars, hit from the right side. And while Espinosa and Difo are both switch hitters, both are historically much more effective against southpaws.
It might not be out of the question, then, for the team to pursue a player like Daniel Murphy or Ben Zobrist. Both would add another left-handed bat to a heavily right-handed mix while contributing depth to the infield. (The latter hits from both sides of the plate.) Fellow free agent Kelly Johnson might represent a budget version of that type of player.
Adding another infield piece makes all the more sense when one considers the durability questions that still follow both Anthony Rendon and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, both of whom are all but certain (injuries aside) to occupy the starting jobs at the infield corners. Much the same holds for left fielder Jayson Werth, who is aging and has been on the DL quite a bit recently — though, generally, his stints have been for acute injuries that might not reflect any particular long-term concerns.
There are in-house reserve options at the corners, but there are limits to their function. First baseman, bench bat, and emergency outfielder Clint Robinson did a nice job at the plate and could represent a cheap piece to pair with Zimmerman, he’s of limited utility in the National League given his poor glove on the grass. Much the same holds true of right-handed power source Tyler Moore, except that he doesn’t have as obvious a function on the team. A more versatile utility piece — such as those mentioned above — would also supply some support in the outfield while opening up opportunities to gain the platoon advantage.
Of course, there’s a more direct outfield need in center. Denard Span is hitting free agency, and the fact that he didn’t receive a qualifying offer — making him, arguably, the most eligible candidate who did not — signals that there’s little likelihood of a reunion. That leaves the toolsy but strikeout-prone Michael A. Taylor in position to take over. He’s a premier defender with legitimate power and wheels on the basepaths, but he’s still a question mark in terms of getting on base.
With Taylor ready but still raw, the club appears to have two primary routes available. The easier, more straightforward one would be to add a quality fourth outfielder who is capable of playing center and swings from the left side (so as to complement Taylor and also Werth). Though Matt den Dekker could fill that role, too, the team will probably try to do better while keeping him around for depth.
On this year’s free agent market, Gerardo Parra makes for the most obvious fit, and the Nats reportedly tried to add him at the trade deadline. A swap might also procure that sort of option. Rizzo has shown a proclivity for dealing for veterans on affordable, mid-length contracts, with Span, Fister, and Lobaton all representing examples. Brett Gardner of the Yankees, Leonys Martin of the Rangers, and Ender Inciarte of the Diamondbacks are a few names that come to mind, and all of those teams could well have interest in Storen in a swap. The Blue Jays, too, might like the idea of building out the back of their pen and could stand to part with Ben Revere. And depending upon what direction the Cardinals go, Jon Jay could be a target.
The catching position also carries some uncertainty. Wilson Ramos had a tough season in 2015, and is now just one year away from free agency. The same as true of Lobaton, the switch-hitting reserve, who could theoretically end up non-tendered despite his reasonable salary. It’s not as if there’s a ready replacement coming through the minors, as the team’s nearest catching prospect — 22-year-old Pedro Severino — hasn’t yet shown enough bat to profile as an upper-division regular. There was some reason to believe that Washington could make a run at Matt Wieters in free agency, but obviously there wasn’t enough interest there for the backstop to decline his qualifying offer, and he’s no longer available. An upgrade, if any, would have to come via trade. While that’s far from certain at this point, one would have to think the Nats would at least want to know the price on Jonathan Lucroy if he’s shopped.
If Rizzo (or his bosses) wants to shake things up, it’s not out of the question for the Nats to add a major free agent in the outfield. Indeed, MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes pegged D.C. as the likeliest landing spot for the tough-to-call Justin Upton. Presumably, an addition of that kind would mean that Harper — or, potentially the new player himself — would play somewhat out of position in center. Personally, I see Jason Heyward as the best match of the major free agent outfielders, since he hits from the left side and would probably be the most capable defender in center of the bunch. As I explained in a profile of his free agent case, Heyward also might command a slightly lesser AAV and could seek an opt-out clause. And the Nationals’ ownership has shown quite an affinity for complicated contract structures that spread financial commitments out over time. But those possibilities still seem fairly speculative. Indeed, Rizzo said recently that he doesn’t expect the team to “be big players for one of the big free agent outfielders.”
Truly bold action could come from elsewhere. Strasburg showed that he can still produce at an ace level down the stretch last year, and would be a highly appealing rental arm at his salary. The Nationals would surely be able to find a substantial return if they shopped him, and the team was reportedly willing to consider deals last winter for Desmond and Zimmermann. I suspect that Rizzo would be willing to move him in the right deal, but am skeptical that a sufficient offer would come in.
More likely, albeit still rather remote, is the extension route. Strasburg may be too close now to free agency to take a serious pass at negotiations, particularly since he looks like the best pitcher on next year’s market by a landslide. But his down-and-up 2015 could leave him willing to sacrifice some money to relieve some risk. Similarly, now could be the time to float a proposal to Rendon, who had an injury-filled 2015, though he’s still four years from free agency. And, of course, there’s always the at-least-theoretical possibility of getting something done with Harper, who met and exceeded the enormous expectations with a historically-relevant campaign last year. Locking him up, in turn, might well require a record-setting contract — a topic that I explored and put to a reader vote a little while back.
Rumors of the Nationals’ demise are premature. True, the core of the team is no longer the same as the 2012 iteration and its successors. But many of the same pieces are still in place, and the organization has supplemented quite nicely. Indeed, as noted above, a whole new wave of talent — Ross, Giolito, Turner, Taylor, and more — is not only lined up but designed to fit with the team’s needs. But patience only holds so long when the talent level (and payroll) is as high as it has been in recent campaigns, and Rizzo will need to be at his creative best to re-energize the big league roster without sacrificing too much prospect value and/or spending capacity.