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The Nationals organization isn’t hiding the disappointment after another NLDS washout. Neither is it making any secret of its expectation of a World Series run in 2018. But what’ll it take to get there?
- Max Scherzer, SP: $165MM through 2021 (2019-21 salaries deferred, without interest, through 2028)
- Stephen Strasburg, SP: $150MM through 2023 ($70MM deferred, without interest, through 2030)
- Ryan Zimmerman, 1B: $36MM through 2019 (includes $2MM buyout of 2020 club option)
- Bryce Harper, OF: $21.625MM through 2018
- Adam Eaton, OF: $15.9MM through 2019 (includes $1.5MM buyout of 2020 club option; contract also has 2021 club option)
- Gio Gonzalez, SP: $12MM through 2018
- Daniel Murphy, 2B: $17.5MM through 2018 ($5.5MM deferred, without interest, through 2020)
- Matt Wieters, C: $10.5MM through 2018 ($5MM deferred, without interest, through 2021)
- Ryan Madson, RP: $7.5MM through 2018
- Shawn Kelley, RP: $5.5MM through 2018
- Sean Doolittle, RP: $4.85MM through 2018 (includes $500K buyout of 2019 club option; contract also has 2020 club option)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Jayson Werth, Adam Lind, Matt Albers, Brandon Kintzler, Oliver Perez, Howie Kendrick, Stephen Drew, Edwin Jackson, Joe Blanton
On paper, this is a fairly simple offseason for president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo and his staff. The Nats will return all of the core of a team that coasted to a second-consecutive NL East crown. Unfortunately, though, the postseason heartbreak now hangs over the organization more than ever before. Perhaps as much as anything else, a sense that something had to change is what led to the decision to part ways with manager Dusty Baker.
The overarching question for the winter, then, is whether the organization will find it necessary to seek significant improvement to the roster that will be turned over to new skipper Dave Martinez. The Nationals may not have many glaring needs on paper, but that doesn’t mean there won’t opportunities for major acquisitions.
If there is a key area to improve, though, it’s probably behind the plate. The Nationals whiffed on their signing of Matt Wieters, who not only failed to bounce back offensively but sank to a personal-worst .225/.288/.344 batting line in 2017. The hope has been that Pedro Severino would force his way into the major-league picture, but he managed only a .242/.291/.332 slash of his own at Triple-A. Raudy Read provides another option but hardly seems to be a sure thing at this stage.
While Wieters is said to be viewed as an asset to the pitching staff, and there’s still cause for hope from the youngsters, it’s the one spot that’s crying out for improvement on this roster. As I explored earlier in the offseason, there are some possible options out there, with J.T. Realmuto of the Marlins representing an ideal (but likely hard-to-obtain) target and a few open-market veterans also worth considering. Even if the team has to commit multiple years to draw a free agent, such a player could be a part of the future solution when Wieters departs. While Wieters is going to be an important member of the team for 2018, it seems critical that the Nats reduce his role and find production from a second catcher.
There’s far less urgency elsewhere in the lineup. The Nats are locked in around the horn, with Ryan Zimmerman (first), Daniel Murphy (second), Anthony Rendon (third), and Trea Turner (shortstop) making up an enviable unit. And in the outfield, the club can flank breakout performer Michael Taylor with Bryce Harper and Adam Eaton. There are bench options on hand as well, with the left-handed-hitting Brian Goodwin representing a potentially solid platoon option to pair with Taylor and Wilmer Difo providing infield versatility. With top prospect Victor Robles impressing enough in his brief debut that he made the postseason roster, and Juan Soto also climbing the ladder, the Nats also have future outfield pieces on hand — with Robles giving the team a high-upside, potential early or mid-season call-up. Adding two veteran bench pieces — perhaps a lefty slugger type to replace Adam Lind and a righty swinger capable of playing the corner outfield (perhaps even Jayson Werth) — would round things out without much fuss.
Of course, when you’re aiming to win it all, you have to look for every opportunity to get better. In this case, it’s arguable that the Nats could stand to do more in the outfield. Taylor and Goodwin have each been top prospects in the past. But the pair overperformed expectations when thrown into surprisingly significant roles due to injury. In Taylor’s case, he rode a .363 BABIP to a .271/.320/.486 batting line; with his excellent speed and glovework mixed in, he topped 3 fWAR. He also struck out over 30% of the time; while his speed makes a higher BABIP more believable, there’s likely some regression coming. Goodwin, meanwhile, launched 13 homers and posted a .247 isolated slugging mark over 278 plate appearances — the kind of power output he has never sustained in the minors. While there has long been a hope he’d eventually tap into his nascent upside, he too is far from a sure thing.
There’s an argument, then, for the Nationals to go after a significant new bat in the outfield — especially if the organization comes to believe it likely won’t have a shot at retaining Harper past 2018. Really, it’s possible to imagine any number of possibilities, particularly since the club felt comfortable utilizing Eaton in center field to open the 2017 season (though he has long been viewed as a much better option in the corner). Were such a move to be made, the Nats could go on to flip Taylor and/or Goodwin — each of whom comes with affordable control — to bolster the pitching staff, or simply hold onto them for depth and flexibility. Alternatively, or additionally, the Nationals could spend more money than they need to on a bench piece. The club once made a luxury signing of Nate McLouth (not that it worked out well) and might do something similar — say, with Howie Kendrick, who was a quality contributor in D.C. down the stretch.
Of course, it’s also possible that a bigger move could be swung in the pitching staff. Given the presence of Robles and the possibility (however slight) of trying to get a deal done with Harper, this is likely the safer bet. The Nats stunned many when they added Max Scherzer to a rotation that was fronted by Stephen Strasburg, but that move has worked out better than anyone could have hoped. With those two joined by Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, four of the five slots are taken, but the other is entirely unclaimed. Joe Ross underwent Tommy John surgery in July. A.J. Cole, Erick Fedde, and Austin Voth provide alternatives, but it’s unlikely that any of that trio will be entrusted with a rotation spot after tepid 2017 campaigns.
On the relief side, the Nationals are no doubt glad that the late-inning mix isn’t in doubt with Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson returning. But Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley are question marks, lefties Sammy Solis and Enny Romero were far from dominant, and the team is losing the steady contributions of Matt Albers and (upon his mid-season arrival) Brandon Kintzler. While younger pitchers (including some mentioned above) provide options, none have earned anything approaching a presumption of a roster spot.
There’s not a huge amount of urgency on the mound, particularly given the general state of disrepair that envelops much of the rest of the NL East. Perhaps the wiser course will prove to be one of largely waiting and observing, with an eye on dedicating resources to fill the most pressing needs once they are known at next year’s trade deadline. Early signals are that’s where the organization is leaning, though it wouldn’t likely tip its hand anyway.
There surely are plenty of potential pieces that could fill the holes without making any major commitments. The Nats previously have signed short-term veterans to shore up the rotation (Edwin Jackson, Dan Haren) and bullpen (Brad Lidge, Joe Blanton), and might look to do something similar. There’s no true analogue to E-Jax and Haren on this year’s market, though Jaime Garcia shares many of the attributes they carried when they signed. Pitchers such as old friend Doug Fister and grizzled competitor John Lackey could make sense if the team looks to fill out the rotation with a seasoned hand; CC Sabathia is also out there, though he’ll likely cost more. There are many cheaper, less-certain options in free agency. The Nats also might pounce if a team like the Diamondbacks (Patrick Corbin), Astros (Colin McHugh, Mike Fiers), or Rays (Jake Odorizzi) decide to shuffle the deck a bit. In the pen, the Nats seem likelier to focus on the right side. Re-signing Kintzler certainly makes sense on paper. Albers could be brought back, too. And there are a wide variety of hurlers in the broad range between those two pitchers that will likely sign for fairly manageable guarantees.
But those are mostly gap-filling measures, and we have to at least consider the possibility of something more. There will be opportunities to get even better from the jump, many of which simply won’t be there over the summer. It would be a bit of a stunner were the Nats to add a third top-rate pitching salary to their books, but pursuits of Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, or other top hurlers can’t be entirely ruled out — that is, so long as the Nats are willing to blow past the luxury tax line. Even in the ’pen, it’s not inconceivable that the Nationals could put in a bid on Wade Davis in hopes of fielding a dominant late-inning trio.
Rizzo has also swung quite a few high-value trades over the years. The Nats do have some outfield talent to play around with if they go hunting for a controllable starter or reliever. Sean Manaea of the Athletics is an appealing target — the Nationals and Athletics are frequent trade partners and this could be something of a reprisal of the Gio swap — though it is far from clear whether there’s a match there; Kendall Graveman might be a more realistic (but less enticing) fit. Rizzo has also done business with the Pirates, who could have some arms to spare and would draw a crowd if they market Gerrit Cole. The Nats would certainly have to weigh a run at Chris Archer if he’s made available, though he’d have a swarm of auction participants and may well not be put on the block at all.
Tampa Bay is likely more willing to part with closer Alex Colome, a power pitcher whose price tag won’t be as lofty as it was last winter after a less-than-great 2017 season. Similarly, Kelvin Herrera of the Royals might be had after his own down year; as a pending free agent, he won’t cost as much in future value. Brad Hand of the Padres ought to be available, but competition will be steep. Raisel Iglesias of the Reds is probably the most appealing reliever that could be available, though he’ll need to be pried out of Cincinnati. Iglesias, notably, is the type of pitcher that could function as the multi-inning relief piece that the Nationals don’t have. Danny Salazar could be another, and he’s a fascinating trade chip for the Indians — though that contending organization may well prefer to keep trying to unlock his upside itself.
Ultimately, those are just a lot of names that could conceivably pique the Nats’ interest. None seem particularly likely to end up moving to D.C. (or, in many cases, moving at all). But the variety of options out there shows that there are quite a few avenues for Rizzo to pursue; it would hardly be shocking for the Nationals to line up on one of these hurlers (if not some other, yet more surprising pitcher).
Another key topic for the winter centers on existing Nationals players. There’ll be at least some effort to explore a new contract with Harper. It’s conceivable the team could chat about things with Murphy, who’ll also be a free agent, though that seems less likely. The under-hyped Rendon is also clearly a candidate for a multi-year pact, though, which might offer a nice opportunity to realize some real value. There’s no urgency, but perhaps it’s not too soon to think about approaching Trea Turner with a deal that could lock in some earnings and deliver tons of upside to the team.
There’s also one other key extension candidate to account for: Rizzo himself. The team previously picked up his option for the 2018 season, but he’s not under contract beyond. Whether and when that’ll be sorted out remains to be seen — indications are that ownership would like to continue the relationship — but it seems the club would do well to ensure it retains an executive that has delivered an extended run of success while leaving the club well-situated for the future. Of course, there’s still that pesky matter of the postseason failings. It’s tough to pin dropping tightly-contested postseason series on an executive who has compiled talent capable of winning so many games. But the same general reasoning arguably held true of Baker to an extent. Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the Lerner family extend its commitment to Rizzo before it sees how things play out in a 2018 season that could shape the future of the organization.