After their first losing season since 2011, the Nationals made several short-term additions to reload the roster for another shot at contention.
Major League Signings
- Brad Hand, RP: One year, $10.5MM ($6.5MM is deferred, to be paid out from 2022-24)
- Kyle Schwarber, OF: One year, $10MM (includes $3MM buyout of $11.5MM mutual option for 2022)
- Jon Lester, SP: One year, $5MM
- Alex Avila, C: One year, $1.5MM
- Josh Harrison, IF/OF: One year, $1MM
- Ryan Zimmerman, 1B: One year, $1MM
- Sam Clay, RP: One year, $575K
- Total spend: $29.575MM
Trades & Claims
- Acquired 1B Josh Bell from the Pirates for RHPs Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean
- Claimed SP Rogelio Armenteros off waivers from the Diamondbacks
Notable Minor League Signings
- Gerardo Parra, Javy Guerra , Jordy Mercer, Luis Avilan, T.J. McFarland, Welington Castillo, Hernan Perez, Yasmany Tomas, Justin Miller, Blake Swihart, Humberto Arteaga, Aaron Barrett, Jefry Rodriguez, Ramon Flores, Sean Nolin
- Adam Eaton, Sean Doolittle, Michael A. Taylor, Kurt Suzuki, Asdrubal Cabrera, Eric Thames, Brock Holt, Roenis Elias, Howie Kendrick (retired), Anibal Sanchez (unsigned), Sam Freeman (unsigned)
General manager Mike Rizzo is no stranger to generating winter headlines, but there were no true blockbuster additions to the Washington roster this offseason, as the Nats (like most teams around baseball) took a more measured approach to spending in response to the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. This doesn’t mean Rizzo took it easy, however — the Nationals were one of the offseason’s busier teams, considering the sheer volume of familiar names added on both one-year MLB contracts and minor league deals.
The Nationals waited until late December to make a truly noteworthy transaction, picking up Josh Bell in a trade that sent young right-handers Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean to the Pirates. This was one of Washington’s few moves made with an eye beyond just 2021, as Bell has two years of arbitration eligibility remaining before he qualifies for free agency after the 2022 season. Earning $6.3MM this coming, Bell will be a pretty cost-effective piece for D.C. even if he has a good enough season to merit a big arbitration raise next winter, and naturally the club wouldn’t mind such an expenditure if it meant Bell was back to his old self.
The switch-hitting slugger batted just .226/.305/.364 in 223 plate appearances last year, with Bell also posting the highest strikeout rate and lowest walk rates of his five-year MLB career. That performance surely lowered the Pirates’ asking price in trade talks, and the Nationals must feel they’ve bought low on a player who was an All-Star in 2019. Crowe and Yean are prospects of some note, but not blue-chippers in a Washington farm system that is already pretty deep in pitching.
The Bell trade broke the seal on the Nats’ winter business to some extent, as the team soon thereafter moved on another power bat by bringing Kyle Schwarber to the District. The Cubs (as part of their own payroll crunch) non-tendered Schwarber after he hit .188/.308/.393 with 11 homers in 224 PA, a big step backwards from the above-average production Schwarber delivered in his previous five years in Wrigleyville.
Adding Bell and Schwarber probably won’t do much to help a Nationals defense that struggled badly in 2020. What the two sluggers can bring, the Nats hope, is suitable lineup protection hitting behind Trea Turner and Juan Soto. There is some risk involved if either of the two new faces continue to hit at their 2020 levels, but at least the risk is minimized to just the 2021 season, since D.C. can walk away from either Bell or Schwarber next offseason if things don’t work out.
This type of strategy informed the Nationals’ entire winter, as the team is rolling the dice on a number of bounce-back candidates in hope of landing at least a few bargain scores. While Washington has shown a willingness to exceed the luxury tax threshold (if only by a bit) in the past, the club would surely like to avoid another tax payment if possible, and the Nats are estimated to sit roughly $13.25MM below the $210MM Competitive Balance Tax limit. It leaves the team with a bit of breathing room for midseason additions, though the Nationals’ number will escalate depending on how many of their minor league signings make the roster and lock in guaranteed salaries.
Washington could have saved itself $500K if the team had just claimed Brad Hand on waivers last October, as Hand’s $10MM club option (that was eventually declined by the Indians) was less than the $10.5MM deal that Hand signed with D.C. in January. Still, the Nats weren’t alone in passing on Hand at that time, quite possibly because they and other clubs didn’t have their 2021 budgets planned at that point in the offseason.
An “extra” $500K also isn’t exactly a big price to pay for a former three-time All-Star. Though Hand’s velocity and strikeout numbers dropped a bit in 2020, he still posted some very strong numbers as Cleveland’s closer. Hand is an easy replacement for Sean Doolittle (who struggled last year and left for the Reds in free agency) and his addition could help stabilize a Nationals relief corps that has been a weak spot for years.
Unfortunately, as is often the case with the Washington bullpen, new problems emerge as quickly as old problems are corrected. Will Harris’ status is in question due to a blood clot in his right arm, while Tanner Rainey has yet to pitch this spring due to a muscle strain near his collarbone. This opens the door for one of many relievers in camp on minor league deals (such as Javy Guerra, T.J. McFarland, Luis Avilan, Aaron Barrett, and more) to win jobs, or the Nationals could fill at least one bullpen role with one of the pitchers who doesn’t win the fifth spot in the rotation.
Joe Ross, Erick Fedde, and Austin Voth are all out of options, so the Nats will have to figure out a way to keep them on the big league roster unless they want to risk losing any of the hurlers on a waiver placement. D.C. can ill-afford losing a starter-capable arm for nothing, both because innings will be harder to fill this season, and because there is a fair amount of injury risk within the veteran top four of Washington’s rotation.
Stephen Strasburg tops this list, as the right-hander has been slowed by a calf injury this spring after missing all but two starts of 2020 due to carpal tunnel syndrome. Between Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Patrick Corbin, the Nationals reinforced this experienced group with an even older pitcher in 37-year-old Jon Lester. It has been some time since Lester was a true top-of-the-rotation force, and his 5.16 ERA in 2020 (albeit over only 61 innings) was the worst of his career. While the Nats obviously think Lester can improve on that statistic in a more normal season, Lester’s primary function will be to act as a durable innings-eater.
Returning to the position-player side, the Nationals said goodbye to several regulars from their World Series team, as Adam Eaton (White Sox), Michael A. Taylor (Royals), Kurt Suzuki (Angels), and Asdrubal Cabrera (Diamondbacks) all left the District as free agents and Howie Kendrick decided to retire. Some familiar faces were retained, however, as the Nats worked out a new contract with longtime franchise stalwart Ryan Zimmerman, and utilityman Josh Harrison was re-signed for a second season with the club.
Zimmerman will serve as Bell’s backup, while Harrison could end up in a more significant role given the unsettled state of the D.C. infield. On paper, Harrison will play much everywhere on the diamond in a super-utility capacity. In practice, however, Harrison might end up getting more regular work in the infield since Carter Kieboom has followed up a rough 2020 season with a lack of production in Spring Training. (Kieboom was also mentioned in trade rumors over the winter.) It is possible the Nationals could end up using Starlin Castro at third base and Luis Garcia as the regular second baseman, but since Garcia is also inexperienced, having a versatile veteran like Harrison on hand becomes even more important.
The Nationals did at least consider making a much bigger splash to their everyday lineup, as such free agents and trade targets as D.J. LeMahieu, J.T. Realmuto, Carlos Santana, Eugenio Suarez, and Kris Bryant were all reportedly considered at different points in the offseason. While Harrison, Alex Avila or (“Baby Shark” sing-alongs notwithstanding) Gerardo Parra don’t have the same cache as those star names, it seems like Washington is opting to wait until next winter to start considering more big-ticket additions.
Only three players are on guaranteed contracts for the 2022 season, though the trio of Corbin, Harris, and Strasburg accounts for $67MM in payroll (roughly $11.5MM of Strasburg’s salary is deferred). As well, the Nationals are surely hoping that some of their payroll space will be taken up by long-term extensions with Soto and Turner. A Soto extension might well be the priciest contract in baseball history, while Turner is more of an immediately pressing concern, since Soto is controlled through the 2024 season and Turner only through 2022. Scherzer is also entering his final year under contract, and it’s probably safe to assume the Nats will have some talks about another deal for their longtime ace.
It makes for an interesting dynamic heading into 2021, as the Nationals will challenge for a return to the playoffs, but they are also well-positioned to pivot into being deadline sellers should they fall out of contention. The 2022 Nationals may look quite different, but there is still enough of the old championship core remaining this year for Washington to make a proper 162-game defense of the 2019 World Series title.
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