- As was reported in December, Nationals right-hander Erick Fedde has a fourth minor league option. Fedde found out that’s the case from his father, Mark Zuckerman of MASNsports.com writes. “Hey, I was reading an article online saying you have a fourth option,” Fedde’s father said in a text message. “Dad, don’t be dumb. Fourth options are not a thing,” Fedde replied. But they can be “a thing” if you’ve used your three options and totaled fewer than five professional seasons as a major or league leaguer. That applies to Fedde, a 2014 first-round pick who didn’t make his pro debut until June 2015 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Fedde called it “maybe an unfortunate bounce” that he’ll be optionable for another year, but he told Zuckerman he’s pleased he’ll at least get to stay in the Washington organization. While Fedde could still end up as part of the Nationals’ rotation sometime this season, he has struggled as a major leaguer so far. Despite a 51 percent groundball rate, the 26-year-old has put up a 5.39 ERA/5.32 FIP with 6.39 K/9 and 3.95 BB/99 in 143 2/3 innings.
- The Nationals’ World Series winning 2019 season started dreadfully, as they won just 19 of their first 50 games. Last fall, ownership said they never considered parting ways with manager Dave Martinez amidst the slow start. One more bad week last May, though, and the front office could have contemplated a change, reports Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic. One name discussed internally as a potential Martinez replacement: Buck Showalter, who, as Rosenthal notes, worked with Nats GM Mike Rizzo in Arizona from 1998-2000. Of course, that’s little more than an historical footnote now, as Martinez should be on solid footing after leading a remarkable turnaround. He and Rizzo are each entering the final guaranteed year of their contracts (although the Nationals have an option on Martinez for 2021). That said, neither Martinez nor Rizzo expressed worry about their situations as camp opens, and Rosenthal writes that “chances are” both will eventually work out extensions.
While we’ve heard some chatter suggesting the Nationals remain interested in trading for a top-shelf third baseman, Nationals president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo downplayed the possibility in comments to assembled media members including Todd Dybas of NBC Sports Washington (Twitter link).
Rizzo didn’t exactly stamp out the possibility of a late-breaking addition. But he certainly poured a bucket of cold water on recent hints that the Nats could still be talking with teams like the Rockies (Nolan Arenado) and Cubs (Kris Bryant).
“We’re not looking to make a trade,” says Rizzo. “It’s nothing that’s been a priority for us in the offseason.”
It would be foolish to assume that those comments are decisive. After all, no executive would fully commit the team’s direction through the media. And Rizzo in particular has acted counter to his public indications in the past.
That said, the Nats’ multiple, smaller veteran infield additions run counter to the concept of a major trade for a third baseman. It’s possible to imagine a reshuffling of the roster that would accommodate a new star player, but the organization might’ve stayed its hand a bit more with its earlier moves if it saw that as a plausible outcome.
As things stand, the D.C. organization will seek to defend its crown by relying upon a gathering of options at third (and second) base. The team hopes that youngster Carter Kieboom can lock up the job in camp, Mark Zuckerman of MASNsports.com writes. Otherwise, it’ll be a matter of mixing and matching. Another inexperienced player, Jake Noll, also has a 40-man spot and could push for a shot with a big spring. Veterans Asdrubal Cabrera, Howie Kendrick, and Starlin Castro all have spent time at the hot corner. Adrian Sanchez and Wilmer Difo will compete for a utility gig with veteran Emilio Bonifacio.
1:02pm: Hellickson tells Tommy Birch of the Des Moines Register that he has indeed opted to retire. He’d have required another surgery to repair his shoulder and opted against the arduous process of rehabilitating from that procedure. Best wishes to Hellickson in his post-playing days.
11:24am: Right-hander Jeremy Hellickson isn’t likely to pitch in the upcoming season, Craig Mish of FNTSY Sports Radio reports (via Twitter). The 32-year-old righty battled shoulder problems for much of the 2019 season with the Nationals and suffered an offseason setback in rehabbing the injury.
Hellickson proved to be a shrewed minor league pickup for the Nats in 2018, tossing 91 1/3 innings of 3.45 ERA ball over the course of 19 starts. That showing earned him a big league deal to return to the Nationals late last winter, but his shoulder woes limited him to 39 innings, during which time he was tagged for 27 runs (6.23 ERA) on 47 hits and 20 walks with 30 strikeouts. His final pitch of the season came on May 19.
What’s next for Hellickson remains unclear. He could certainly rehab the issue between now and the offseason in hopes of pursuing a minor league deal and another comeback effort next winter. Then again, Mish at least implies that the righty has contemplated calling it a career.
Whatever route he takes, Hellickson will have plenty of fond memories on which to look back. A fourth-round pick by the (Devil) Rays back in 2005, he burst onto the scene and won American League Rookie of the Year honors in 2011 when he racked up 189 innings with a 2.95 ERA. Hellickson was similarly excellent the following season, and although he endured some rough seasons in the next couple of years, he also enjoyed a solid bounceback effort with the 2016 Phillies in addition to his strong work with the ’18 Nats.
All told, Hellickson has pitched 1269 1/3 innings in the big leagues, compiling a 76-75 record and a 4.13 ERA with 6.6 K/9, 2.7 BB/9 and 1.3 HR/9 along the way. Hellickson never made an All-Star team but did win a Gold Glove Award in 2012 and took home a World Series ring as a member of the 2019 Nationals. He’s earned more than $35MM in his career to date when factoring in his above-slot $500K bonus from the ’05 draft. Perhaps that’s not quite the career that he and many onlookers hoped for when he was ranked a top 10 overall prospect and subsequently won Rookie of the Year honors, but it’s a career that virtually any player would be thrilled to call his own.
TODAY: Casting further cold water on the Bryant/Arenado rumors, a source tells Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post that this speculation could be “media noise” from the Cubs themselves, trying to spur on better offers from other teams (i.e. the Phillies, Nationals, Braves) that could have interest in Bryant.
FEBRUARY 12: When Major League Basbeall’s offseason started, the Cubs looked like one of the sport’s most intriguing teams. After collapsing last season and finishing with 84 wins, there was an expectation the Cubs’ roster would undergo a drastic makeover. That hasn’t happened at all, though, and the Cubs have largely been quiet this winter. They’ve made no earth-shattering acquisitions (apologies to Steven Souza Jr., Jason Kipnis and Jeremy Jeffress) or roster-altering trades, though they have lost a few notable players – including Nicholas Castellanos and Cole Hamels – since the winter began.
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein addressed the Cubs’ offseason Tuesday, saying (via Jordan Bastian of MLB.com), “I’ll be honest, it hasn’t been as much turnover as we expected.” Epstein noted, though, that the Cubs aren’t going to make changes for the sake of it, and he still has high expectations for the team as it’s currently constructed.
Chicago does indeed have quite a bit of talent still on hand, and third baseman/outfielder Kris Bryant may be atop the list. The former NL MVP continues to be the subject of trade rumors, however, and dealing him and his $18.6MM salary would enable the Cubs’ maligned ownership to get under the $208MM luxury-tax threshold in 2020. As things stand, the Cubs are projected for a tax payroll just south of $214MM, per Jason Martinez of Roster Resource and FanGraphs.
If the Cubs are more worried about competing than ducking the tax, the 28-year-old Bryant could remain an important cog in helping them rebound in 2020. However, multiple teams have shown interest in acquiring him. The Rangers, Rockies, Nationals and Phillies have discussed Bryant with the Cubs recently, according to Jon Morosi of MLB.com.
Aside from the Rockies, who have the disgruntled Nolan Arenado at third base, those teams could use upgrades at the hot corner. There has been talk of an Arenado-Bryant swap, but that has always seemed far-fetched, and there aren’t indications that Bryant will wind up with anyone else imminently. The Cubs could instead choose to keep Bryant, attempt to push for a playoff spot this season and see where they stand around the July trade deadline. Considering that Epstein still believes in the talent the club still has, Chicago may well go that way.
Shuck, notably, is now being listed as an outfielder/left-handed pitcher. The 32-year-old journeyman began an attempt to convert to a two-way player last May after being outrighted to Triple-A by the Pirates. Shuck wound up tossing 20 innings — 19 in Triple-A and one scoreless frame in the Majors — and allowed eight runs for a combined 3.60 ERA. But while Shuck only allowed 16 hits in those 20 frames and managed to rack up 23 strikeouts, he also issued 18 walks and hit a pair of batters. Those types of control issues are fairly common for position players as they transition to the mound, and Shuck will look to improve upon them in 2020.
Turning to his longstanding role as an outfielder, Shuck is capable of playing all three slots and has batted .243/.296/.314 in just shy of 1300 plate appearances. He’s been a solid bat in Triple-A, evidenced by a career .292/.365/.392 slash at that level. It’s a long shot that Shuck is able to successfully reinvent himself as a fourth outfielder/reliever, but if he can do so, he’ll be an increasingly valuable asset in light of today’s newly implemented changes to roster construction at the MLB level. Taking a look in Spring Training, of course, won’t cost the Nats anything.
As for the 32-year-old Freeman, he finished out the 2019 season in the Nationals organization after signing a minor league deal, but he didn’t appear in the big leagues with them. Freeman pitched only two innings in the Majors last season (both with the Angels), and he was torched in 52 2/3 frames with the Halos’ Triple-A affiliate. He tossed six shutout innings with an 11-to-1 K/BB ratio with Washington’s top affiliate, though, and is still not far removed from a 2017 season that saw him log a 2.55 ERA/3.34 FIP in 60 innings with the Braves. In 228 2/3 innings at the big league level, Freeman has a 3.62 ERA with averages of 8.9 strikeouts, 5.1 walks and 0.7 homers per nine innings pitched.
The Astros’ sign-stealing scandal has been the dominant story in baseball over the past several weeks, though it didn’t come as a revelation to many throughout the game. A scout from another team told Barry Svrluga and Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post: “It was a big open secret, really big. Throughout baseball, throughout the scouting community, for several years, not just starting in 2017. I would say probably 2016, maybe earlier, through , things were going on that were blatantly against the rules.”
If true, it further calls into question the Astros’ accomplishments in recent years. They amassed 100-plus victories in each of the past three campaigns, won the World Series in 2017 and took home the American League pennant a season ago. GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were suspended for a year apiece last month and lost their jobs as a result of their complicity in stealing signs during the team’s title-winning season. Luhnow, it seems, was a key part of a scheme called “Codebreaker” that the team used from 2017-18.
It’s possible neither Luhnow nor Hinch will work in the majors again as a result of their wrongdoing. That would’ve sounded ridiculous last fall when the Astros were the toast of the AL and vying for a World Series against the Nationals. The Nats upended the Astros in seven games, but Washington entered the Fall Classic wary of Houston’s shenanigans.
“It was amazing, once [it was assured] we were playing the Astros, how many people were coming out of the woodwork to let us know what they were doing,” one member of the Nationals told Svrluga and Sheinin.
Second baseman Brian Dozier, a National last season and a 2018 member of the Dodgers (whom the Astros took down in the 2017 World Series), received advance warning from his ex-LA teammates that Houston was behaving unethically. “Several” members of the Dodgers informed Dozier before last year’s World Series that the Astros were stealing signs, according to Svrluga and Sheinin. Meanwhile, former Astros and Nationals reliever Tony Sipp told Nats ace Max Scherzer to worry about Houston’s stealing of signs. The Nationals ended up overcoming it by using wristbands and multiple signs, as Svrluga and Sheinin explain in their piece.
The Astros advanced to the 2019 World Series by defeating the Yankees in the ALCS for the second time in three years. Like the Nationals, the Yankees suspected something was amiss.
“We’re so focused on them cheating, we’re forgetting we have to just go out and play,” one Yankees official said before the series, which the Astros ultimately won in six games.
Outfielder Carlos Beltran and catcher Brian McCann, both now retired from playing, are in the unique position of having suited up for the Astros and Yankees recently. Beltran even worked for the Yankees as a special advisor last season, and he informed “low level” New York officials of Houston’s cheating, per Ken Rosenthal, Evan Drellich and Marc Carig of The Athletic (subscription link). Beltran then became the Mets’ manager this past fall, only to lose his job last month as a result of the Astros’ violations.
While Beltran initially denied any knowledge of the Astros’ misdeeds, the 42-year-old potential Hall of Famer was apparently an important figure in them. McCann asked him to stop, two members of the 2017 Astros told The Athletic, but Beltran “steamrolled everybody.” At that point, he was one of the most accomplished individuals on the roster and someone whom younger players (and even Hinch) were basically reluctant to cross.
Beltran was part of commissioner Rob Manfred’s investigation into the Astros, but the latter elected against punishing any of the players from the 2017 club. However, if Beltran really was so instrumental in the Astros’ crimes, it’s hard to imagine him working in MLB again. He may even have less of a chance to get into Cooperstown. Regardless, this latest news on the Astros is yet another black mark on an organization that has taken a beating this winter.
Kris Bryant’s long-running service-time grievance against the Cubs finally came to an end last week. Bryant lost the hearing, meaning he’ll remain under team control for two more years instead of one. As you’d expect, the players’ association isn’t enamored of the results. MLBPA executive director Tony Clark issued a statement on the matter Tuesday:
“The Players Association disagrees with the decision issued today in the Kris Bryant service-time grievance. While we respect the finality of that decision, we will continue to pursue any and all measures that incentivize competition, discourage service-time manipulation and ensure clubs field their best players. We applaud Kris’ courage and determination in challenging the Cubs’ actions and seeing the grievance through to the end.”
Although Bryant understandably fought the Cubs over team control after they delayed his rookie promotion, he said last week he harbors no ill will against the club. While there doesn’t seem to be bad blood between the two sides, that doesn’t mean Bryant will be a Cub for much longer. The Cubs have had a modest offseason after last year’s dud of a finish, and if they’re as focused as getting under the luxury tax as, say, the similarly deep-pocketed Red Sox (who traded Mookie Betts and David Price on Tuesday), Bryant might not stick around for much longer. Bryant has been the subject of trade speculation for months, after all, and the fact that the $18.6MM man is controllable for two years instead of one should only help his value on the market.
A 28-year-old former NL MVP, Bryant has a pair of suitors in the Nationals and Phillies, who have shown “at least exploratory interest” in him, per Bob Nightengale of USA Today. This isn’t the first time either team has been connected to the 28-year-old Bryant this offseason, though, and it’s unclear whether they’re more inclined to trade for him now that the third base market has all but emptied out in free agency. The Nationals re-signed Asdrubal Cabrera, who figures to hold the position down until prospect Carter Kieboom’s set to take the reins, while the Phillies have the versatile Scott Kingery as their projected starter and Alec Bohm waiting in the wings.
The Braves, yet another NL East team, are in questionable shape at the hot corner, where they look prepared to roll with Johan Camargo and Austin Riley in the wake of Josh Donaldson’s exit in free agency. Nevertheless, the Braves have not been discussing Bryant with the Cubs, according to Jon Heyman of MLB Network, so it continues to look unlikely that he’ll end up in Atlanta.
The World Series champions came from the National League East in 2019, when the appropriately named Nationals took home their first-ever title. It has been an active few months in the division since then. Even the notoriously low-budget Marlins have gotten in on the act, having added multiple veterans in an attempt to climb out of the gutter in 2020. Odds are that the Marlins still won’t be in the race, though, so who’s the front-runner among the other four to win the division this year? It appears they’re all legitimate candidates.
Although the Nationals just won it all, they did so by getting into the playoffs by way of a wild-card berth, not an NL East title. That honor went to the Braves for the second year in a row. The Braves still have not been victorious in a playoff series since 2001, and they lost their No. 1 free agent, third baseman Josh Donaldson. However, even in the wake of Donaldson’s departure, they still bring a formidable roster to the table. Outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr., first baseman Freddie Freeman, second baseman Ozzie Albies and right-hander Mike Soroka haven’t gone anywhere. They’re now complemented by free-agent additions in outfielder Marcell Ozuna, lefty Cole Hamels and reliever Will Smith, among others.
Like the Braves, the Nats lost their marquee free agent, another third baseman in Anthony Rendon. There’s no easy way to replace him, though the team does have Asdrubal Cabrera on hand as a stopgap until standout prospect Carter Kieboom is ready to assume the reins. Rendon’s exit hasn’t deterred Washington from trying to go for a second straight title in 2020, as the club has re-signed righty Stephen Strasburg, to name one of several players, and picked up first baseman Eric Thames, second baseman Starlin Castro and reliever Will Harris from outside.
The Mets and Phillies were the next best teams in the division last season, and both clubs have new managers (Luis Rojas for New York, Joe Girardi for Philadelphia). They also have different-looking rosters compared to then. The Mets lost righty Zack Wheeler to the Phillies, whose $118MM guarantee ranks among the richest of the offseason. They still boast a quality rotation, though, with Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman, Steven Matz and the newly signed Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha in the mix to complement back-to-back Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom. They also continue to feature a solid lineup headlined by the powerful Pete Alonso, last season’s NL Rookie of the Year, as well as Michael Conforto and Jeff McNeil.
The Phillies did far more heavy lifting last offseason than this winter, but they’ve still been aggressive with the signings of Wheeler, who should give them a true No. 2 starter behind Aaron Nola, and shortstop Didi Gregorius. On paper, they look like a better team than the one that finished an even 81-81 a season ago.
Philly was a fourth-place squad in 2019, but it may be in line to push for a division title this year. However, it’ll have to overcome three strong clubs in the Braves (97-65), Nats (93-69) and Mets (86-76). The offseason isn’t over yet, but as of now, which team do you think is the favorite?
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This Harper should not be confused with former Nats’ minor-leaguer Bryan Harper, who’s also a 30-year-old right-hander. The Nationals’ incoming hurler was acquired after he was designated for assignment recently by the Twins.
The Nationals obviously faced some competition to bring in Harper, as they parted with a recent ninth-round draft pick to get him. McMahon, 21, signed an at-slot deal to join the D.C. farm system. He impressed in his first 12 2/3 professional innings, racking up an 18:2 K/BB ratio and allowing just one earned run in the low minors.
It seems there’s a good chance we’ll see another Harper uniform in D.C. While Bryan never made it past Triple-A, big brother Bryce was rather a notable player with the team for a stretch.
The Nats’ newest Harper isn’t exactly a high-ceiling player but could be quite a useful asset. He reached the bigs for the first time in 2019, spinning 54 1/3 innings of 3.81 ERA ball with 8.3 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, and 1.16 HR/9 while leaning on his excellent control and heavily utilized breaking ball. If he can repeat something along those lines, the still-optionable Harper would be well worth his non-guaranteed, league-minimum salary.
As for McMahon, the 21-year-old was the Nationals’ ninth-round pick just this past summer in the 2019 draft. The Texas State product allowed one run in 12 2/3 innings of relief with an 18-to-2 K/BB ratio in his brief professional debut.