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Right after wrapping up a dream 2019 season, the Nats are already in the midst of an offseason loaded with big questions and abundant possibilities.
- Patrick Corbin: $125MM through 2024 ($10MM deferred)
- Max Scherzer: $70MM through 2021 (all deferred); $30MM in signing bonus payments payable in 2020 and 2021
- Anibal Sanchez: $11MM through 2020 (includes buyout on 2021 club option)
- Adam Eaton: $11MM through 2020 (includes buyout on 2021 club option; Nationals exercised 2020 club option)
- Sean Doolittle: $6.5MM through 2020 (Nationals exercised 2020 club option)
- Kurt Suzuki: $6MM through 2020
Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Hunter Strickland – $1.9MM
- Javy Guerra – $1.3MM
- Michael A. Taylor – $3.25MM
- Roenis Elias – $1.9MM
- Joe Ross – $1.4MM
- Trea Turner – $7.5MM
- Koda Glover – $700K
- Wilmer Difo – $1.2MM
- Non-tender candidates: Strickland, Guerra, Taylor, Glover, Difo
- Asdrubal Cabrera, Brian Dozier, Jeremy Hellickson, Daniel Hudson, Howie Kendrick, Gerardo Parra, Anthony Rendon, Fernando Rodney, Jonny Venters
- Stephen Strasburg: opted out of remaining contract ($100MM through 2023)
- Matt Adams: paid $1MM buyout in favor of $4MM mutual option
- Yan Gomes: paid $1MM buyout in favor of $9MM club option
- Ryan Zimmerman: paid $2MM buyout in favor of $18MM club option
Things can change quickly, eh? It wasn’t but a few months ago that the baseball world was shoveling dirt on the 2019 Nationals, with huge and unpredictable ramifications for the organization’s future sure to come. But the Dave Martinez-led troops got back on their feet, dusted themselves off, and ultimately made a stirring run through the postseason to claim a redemptive World Series title. And now, after briefly basking in the glow of that victory … the team’s three longest-tenured stars are free agents, along with a slate of other postseason heroes, contributors, and/or Baby Shark visionaries.
The Nats have never faced a crossroads like this, even when Bryce Harper reached the open market last winter. They’ll come to the intersection wearing a satisfied grin, but make no mistake: there are many difficult decisions soon to be made.
Fortunately, the Nationals have loads of payroll flexibility to work with. The club has carried one of the game’s heftiest commitment levels for the past several seasons, paying some luxury tax in 2018 and barely avoiding it in 2019, and could presumably again top $200MM in payroll in 2020. The Nationals enter the offseason with something like $80MM to $90MM of headroom (depending upon arbitration decisions) beneath the $208MM competitive balance tax line. That should give president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo an awful lot of options to consider. (He’ll also likely be negotiating his own new contract; his current deal runs through 2020.)
It all begins with Rendon and Strasburg, a pair of quiet, Scott Boras-repped stars who each turned in ~6 WAR campaigns in 2019. It was far from inevitable that either would reach free agency this year. Mutual interest in a deal prompted a long-running exchange of offers with Rendon, but never resulted in an extension. And the general consensus, until rather recently, was that Strasburg would be best served staying in his own previously inked extension with the Nats. While there’s some reason to think that each player would prefer to stay in DC, all else being equal, the cost to keep these players will be steep. MLBTR predicted that both would secure $30MM+ average annual values over lengthy commitments. The organization would reportedly prefer to wrap up its talks with these two players early in the offseason, allowing both parties to move on if it isn’t to be.
Should the Nats retain both of these familiar faces, they’ll have committed a big chunk of their spending capacity — but hardly all of it. If either or both players depart, the club will have more cash to spread around. But there are a few open-market alternatives that could cost just as much or even more. If Rendon takes off, the Nationals may look to Josh Donaldson as an alternative. The fiery veteran is not far off from Rendon in present on-field ability and won’t require as lengthy a commitment (or, likely, as big an annual salary). And the loss of Strasburg could lead the Nats to join the pursuit of Gerrit Cole, who’s likely to out-earn all other free agents this winter.
As things stand, we just can’t know how these major decisions will turn out. But they represent major offseason plot twists for these and other teams. An extra thirty or sixty million of spending capacity can open quite a few doors. Rather than trying to guess on Rendon, Stras, et al., we’ll run through the many remaining D.C. roster needs and think about players at different price points that could be fits.
Let’s begin on the position-player side. The Nats are crossing their fingers that Trea Turner will bounce back well from his recent surgery; he’s ensconced at shortstop. It’s mostly fixed in the outfield, where phenom Juan Soto and veteran Adam Eaton will flank Victor Robles. Half of the catching situation is accounted for with Kurt Suzuki. And … that’s really all that’s nailed down at the moment. That’s not to say that we would expect the Nats to have seven new position players on the active roster come Opening Day. But every other spot is at least up for grabs and susceptible to change.
The 3-4-5 spots are especially interesting. We’ve seen indications that Ryan Zimmerman could be slated to return at first base, but the club hasn’t moved to do so yet and would certainly be justified in exploring alternatives after he turned in an injury-limited, offensively marginal (.257/.321/.415) campaign. Top prospect Carter Kieboom could be ready for another shot at the majors after scuffling in an early 2019 look. He has a bright outlook with the bat and could be slotted in at second or third base. Jake Noll is in much the same place from a positional standpoint but doesn’t come as highly regarded at the plate. It’s possible he’ll be bumped from the 40-man rather than seen as a significant piece of the puzzle; the same holds for utility infielders Wilmer Difo and Adrian Sanchez.
It seems fair to presume the Nats will be add at least three players to infield mix. At first base, even if Zimmerman is brought back, he’ll be accompanied by a quality lefty bat. Platoon mate candidates include Adams, Mitch Moreland, Eric Thames, and the switch-hitting Justin Smoak. There’s a lot to love about the bat from Edwin Encarnacion, but he’s not likely to spend enough time in the field to fit on a National League team. It’s tough to identify any quality regular first basemen who’d figure to come available via trade unless the Indians make Carlos Santana available or the Pirates dangle Josh Bell. Perhaps Brandon Belt of the Giants could be an option. Brad Miller, who’s probably best kept at first but can fill in all over the field, could be an under-the-radar target.
Even if Kieboom will be relied upon for a major contribution at second base, there’s a need for a regular at the hot corner and a versatile reserve. Fortunately for the Nats, they’re well-positioned to take advantage of the market’s abundance of veteran free agents at second and third base. Mike Moustakas is the next-best option at third behind Rendon and Donaldson; he’s also now capable of seeing some time at second. Outgoing D.C. free agents Howie Kendrick, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Brian Dozier are all available, as are players such as Todd Frazier, Jason Kipnis, Starlin Castro, Jonathan Schoop, Eric Sogard, and Ben Zobrist (who was targeted by the Nats when last he reached free agency). The trade market isn’t loaded with especially appealing options, but could feature some high-priced veterans that might conceivably fit. Dee Gordon, Jurickson Profar, and Matt Carpenter could all make sense for the Nationals in varying ways. The versatile Whit Merrifield would be a perfect fit, though that’s true of other teams and the Royals don’t appear inclined to sell.
Some of those players would also be potential outfield contributors, which would be nice. The Nats could hang on to Michael Taylor and hope he can handle the fourth outfielder role, though his bat has just never been consistent. The left-handed-hitting Andrew Stevenson had a nice 2019 showing at Triple-A and could also be considered, but he wasn’t trusted with much time in the bigs and doesn’t really fit as a compliment to Eaton. So, where might the Nats fit into the free agent market on the outfield grass? Veterans such as Adam Jones, Hunter Pence, and Cameron Maybin could be considered. The Nats may also just bring in some minor-league free agents to compete for jobs and then adjust mid-season if there’s a need.
Behind the plate, there’s an argument for a relatively modest addition to share time with Suzuki. Jason Castro would make for a nice potential fit. Other left-handed-hitting backstop options are available in the form of Alex Avila and Stephen Vogt (along with switch-hitting old friend Matt Wieters, who doesn’t seem likely to filter back). The open market also features Travis d’Arnaud, Francisco Cervelli, Russell Martin, and Martin Maldonado, among quite a few others. The level of player the team will target could depend upon the degree of confidence in 40-man options Raudy Read and Tres Barrera. The former had quite a nice offensive campaign at Triple-A.
There is one more, yet more intriguing possibility: Yasmani Grandal. Interestingly, he’s a more accomplished hitter than any of the first base options on the open market this winter, so the Nats could conceivably utilize him in a ~50-50 timeshare behind the plate while also giving him time at first. Depending upon how things shake out, Grandal could continue to function in a split capacity or slide back into a full-time catching role once Suzuki departs after the season. It’s an intriguing possibility for a team that will have a boat load of free spending capacity and a need for star position-player talent if it loses Rendon.
Things are somewhat more straightforward on the pitching side. The Nats are clearly in the market for Strasburg or a replacement. For a team that once added Max Scherzer to an already-loaded rotation and rode its starting staff to a title this year, all bets are off when it comes to starters. Anyone and everyone is a potential target if Strasburg heads elsewhere. Even if he returns, the fifth rotation spot will be open for supplementation. Joe Ross, Austin Voth, Erick Fedde, Kyle McGowin, and perhaps Shannon Sharp and Wil Crowe (only the former must be protected from the Rule 5 draft) could battle for the job in camp with a minor-league signee or two. Or the Nats could plug in another veteran. It’s frankly impossible to rule out any single starter as a conceivable potential target.
The relief situation might be more interesting if there were high-end closers out there for the bidding. But with Aroldis Chapman and Will Smith both already locked up, the top available arm is the guy who gave up a monster home run to Kendrick in Game 7. Come to think of it, Will Harris is actually not a bad target for the Nats, who desperately need some added certainty after a season full of nail-biting relief appearances. Daniel Hudson could be brought back after his successful stint. He’s part of a pretty broad group of hurlers lined up behind Harris in the pecking order. If the team is inclined to roll the dice again after whiffing on Trevor Rosenthal, it could take a shot on Dellin Betances in hopes of landing on a late-inning ace to pair with Sean Doolittle. Supposing Roenis Elias can get back to form, there isn’t a particular need for a southpaw, so the Nats can focus simply on getting the best arms for the best price.
How many new pen arms do the Nats need? It’d make sense to secure at least two sturdy new options and perhaps add another if the club decides to cut bait on Hunter Strickland. But that really depends how the club feels about its existing arms, since it’ll surely be forced to shave a few players off of the 40-man if it doesn’t rely upon them. Several of the above-noted starters meet that description, as do some of the other uncertain relievers presently taking up roster spots. Austen Williams is coming off of a rough campaign, James Bourque has both an intriguing arm and a walk problem, and both Aaron Barrett and Koda Glover are major health risks.
So what’ll the Nats do to set the stage for an encore? It’s a question without anything close to a clear answer. All of the above possibilities and more are surely under consideration. Soto and Turner are extension candidates, too, it’s worth noting — with added onus, perhaps, if the organization says goodbye to Rendon, Strasburg, and Zimmerman. Even with all the disappointments now atoned for, the Nationals are perhaps entering their most free-ranging and interesting offseason under Rizzo’s helm. And he has already shown quite a penchant for surprise.