The Nationals never really got on track in 2020, perhaps because the shortened season didn’t allow them time for the type of turn-around that defined their 2019 championship run. With a number of key members of that title team heading into free agency, the Nats will look to reload for a return to the playoffs.
- Stephen Strasburg, SP: $210MM through 2026
- Patrick Corbin, SP: $106MM through 2024
- Max Scherzer, SP: $50MM through 2021 ($15MM signing bonus, $35MM in deferred salary)
- Will Harris, RP: $16MM through 2022
- Starlin Castro, IF: $7MM through 2021
- Daniel Hudson, RP: $6MM through 2021
- Yan Gomes, C: $6MM through 2021
- Josh Harrison, IF: $1MM through 2021
- Sam Clay, RP: $575K through 2021
Note on arb-eligible players: this year’s arbitration projections are more volatile than ever, given the unprecedented revenue losses felt by clubs and the shortened 2020 schedule. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, who developed our arbitration projection model, used three different methods to calculate different projection numbers. You can see the full projections and an explanation of each if you click here, but for the purposes of our Outlook series, we’ll be using Matt’s 37-percent method — extrapolating what degree of raise a player’s 2020 rate of play would have earned him in a full 162-game slate and then awarding him 37 percent of that raise.
- Anibal Sanchez, SP: $12MM club option for 2021 with $2MM buyout (declined)
- Adam Eaton, OF: $10.5MM club option for 2021 with $1.5MM buyout (declined)
- Howie Kendrick, IF: $6.5MM mutual option for 2021 with $2.25MM buyout (team declined)
- Eric Thames, 1B/OF: $4MM mutual option for 2021 with $1MM buyout (team declined)
- Sanchez, Eaton, Kendrick, Thames, Ryan Zimmerman, Asdrubal Cabrera, Sean Doolittle, Kurt Suzuki, Javy Guerra, Brock Holt, Paolo Espino, Sam Freeman, Roenis Elias, Welington Castillo, Michael A. Taylor (signed with Royals)
Washington took care of some early business in re-signing Josh Harrison before the free agent market even opened, bringing the veteran utilityman back on a one-year, $1MM deal. Between retaining Harrison and also adding former Diamondback Yasmany Tomas on a minor league contract for the first base mix, the Nats have taken steps to address an infield that could potentially be quite similar or quite different to 2020’s collection of talent.
We know Trea Turner will be at shortstop, and that Starlin Castro will return from a broken wrist to assume another everyday role, likely at second base. Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia will both continue to get looks at the MLB level, though Kieboom struggled badly in his first extended taste of Major League action and Garcia didn’t hit much better while filling for Castro at second base. Harrison provides bench depth at multiple positions, Tomas or rookie Jake Noll could factor into first base, and it’s probably safe to assume that the Nats and longtime first baseman Ryan Zimmerman will explore another one-year pact after Zimmerman opted out of the 2020 season.
There’s certainly some room for growth here, which is why the Nationals have reportedly checked in on two major names in DJ LeMahieu and Kris Bryant. Both players have been Nats targets in the past, though LeMahieu has a much bigger price tag now than he did in his previous trip through free agency in the 2018-19 offseason, and landing Bryant could require some tricky negotiating with the Cubs. With Bryant coming off a down year, only one year of club control remaining and an $18.6MM projected arbitration salary in that final year, Chicago’s asking price for Bryant has surely lowered since last offseason. But, these same concerns could also lead the Nationals to prefer LeMahieu as a longer-term answer.
Of course, the x-factor is whether or not the Nats will spend on higher-priced talent, as recent reports suggest players like LeMahieu or Bryant might not be on the radar. It isn’t yet known whether GM Mike Rizzo will have the financial resources to make any significant additions, or if the front office will just have to avoid the top shelf in offseason shopping endeavors.
All of Washington’s free agents account for over $40MM in salary coming off the books, and the Nats also save in pure 2021 dollars since so much of the salaries owed to Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are deferred. That said, D.C. has a projected payroll of just under $170MM for 2021 with a luxury tax number roughly $163.9MM, so ownership may not want to stretch that significant budget much further. One would imagine the Nationals also still want to set aside future payroll space for potential long-term extensions with Turner and Juan Soto, and the Nats will likely have some conversations with Scherzer about his future as he enters his final year under contract.
Until we get more of an idea about what the team is willing to spend, thoughts of acquiring LeMahieu, Bryant, or perhaps J.T. Realmuto may have to go on the backburner. That said, the unsettled nature of Washington’s position player mix gives Rizzo some flexibility in looking for upgrades.
The Nats have the freedom to acquire a one-position type — hypothetically, let’s say Kolten Wong at second base — to lock down a single position and go from there, or they could give manager Dave Martinez even more options for late-game maneuvering by adding other multi-positional players. While Harrison is already back in the fold, it also wouldn’t be a surprise if the Nationals looked to re-sign another of its veteran free agents (i.e. Howie Kendrick, Asdrubal Cabrera, Brock Holt) to further add depth.
The outfield also represents an area of need, as the Nats declined Adam Eaton’s option and opened up a hole in either left or right field. Soto will probably remain in his customary left field spot, though the superstar has played some right field and could change positions if the Nats landed a solid left fielder. Victor Robles remains the incumbent center fielder after a bout of COVID-19 led to a brutal year both offensively and defensively, and the Nationals can only hope that a healthy Robles can rediscover his 2019 form.
It might behoove the Nats to find an outfielder with center field capability just in case Robles struggles again, though Andrew Stevenson might be tabbed for a larger role after posting big numbers in limited at-bats in both 2019 and 2020. Depending on how big D.C. was willing or able to go with adding outfield help, acquiring Michael Brantley, Jackie Bradley Jr., or Joc Pederson would make some sense (and give Washington another left-handed bat), or the club could opt for a part-timer to share playing time with Stevenson and Harrison.
The presence of a DH spot in National League lineups in 2021 would also help Washington in finding another hitter, allowing for even more time-sharing and position-shifting. Someone like a Brantley (or a Marcell Ozuna, at the higher end of the market) would be even more of a fit for the District if the universal designated hitter was a sure thing, though a league decision on that front doesn’t appear to be imminent.
Let’s turn to the rotation, where the biggest question is how Strasburg will rebound. The right-hander tossed only five innings in 2020 due to hand problems that eventually resulted in carpal tunnel syndrome surgery, thus getting his seven-year, $215MM contract off to an ominous start in its first year. Scherzer and Patrick Corbin were also both more solid in 2020 than their usual excellent selves, and the Nationals surely hope that this dip in form was just temporary and not a sign of decline.
Since Anibal Sanchez’s option wasn’t exercised, Erick Fedde, Austin Voth, Joe Ross (who opted out of the 2020 season) and Wil Crowe are all in the mix for the fourth and fifth starter’s jobs. Particularly since there might be some doubts about the top three starters, the Nationals will certainly look into adding a veteran pitcher to help deepen the rotation. Trevor Bauer is probably too pricey a fit, but since Bauer might be the only free agent arm who could command a major multi-year deal, D.C. has its pick of several free agents that might require three years at the most.
Names like Masahiro Tanaka or Jake Odorizzi represent the upper tier of remaining available pitchers in the non-Bauer class, and this is another area that represents some fluidity for the Nationals. If they don’t want to spend a ton of resources on pitching, they could try to find essentially the next Anibal Sanchez — a veteran coming off a good season and with perhaps a couple of red flags on the resume that the Nats don’t feel are a big concern (or can be overlooked).
The bullpen continued to be an issue for Washington, and after investing in Daniel Hudson and Will Harris last winter, the Nats might not want to make more big expenditures on relief pitching. The team could opt to mostly stand pat and hope that Hudson pitches better as the preferred closing option, or perhaps look out for other closer-capable free agents, or perhaps elevate an internal candidate like Tanner Rainey into more high-leverage moments. D.C. has already re-signed Aaron Barrett to a minors contract and added minor leaguer Sam Clay on an MLB deal, but some more tinkering (left-handed relief is a particular need) is sure to come as the Nationals try to finally fix their relief corps.
With all the early focus on the Braves’ free agent pitching signings, the Marlins’ hiring of Kim Ng as general manager, the Mets’ expected splurge under new owner Steve Cohen, and the Phillies’ front office machinations, the Nationals have largely flown under the radar this winter. But, with so many needs around the diamond, the Nats could end up being one of the offseason’s busier teams. Given Rizzo’s track record of success in both major and seemingly minor acquisitions, possibilities abound for the Nationals in the coming months.