Five things the Nationals still must do this offseason after landing Patrick Corbin
Finding a way to bring Bryce Harper back remains a top priority
After going 82-80 in 2018 and being the consensus most disappointing team in baseball, the Washington Nationals have come out this offseason with a vengeance. They've been the most active team to date -- the most active team among buyers, I should say -- and have already made several big splashes heading into the Winter Meetings next week in Las Vegas.
Here's a quick recap of general manager Mike Rizzo's work so far this winter:
- Added relievers Kyle Barraclough ( ) and Trevor Rosenthal ( ).
- Added catchers Yan Gomes ( ) and Kurt Suzuki ( ).
- Signed lefty Patrick Corbin to a .
"We're very impatient people. We have a wish list, we try and get things done," Rizzo joked at the team's Winterfest last week (video link). "... We saw some values out there and moved quickly. We moved quickly, but not in lieu of getting something that we didn't want. These guys we were focused in on. We were fortunate enough to get both (relievers) and get both catchers we wanted."
Signing Corbin,, is obviously the headliner move. Don't sleep on the upgrade at catcher though. Washington's catchers were worth 0.5 WAR in 2018. Gomes is one of the better all-around backstops in baseball and Suzuki might be the best backup catcher in the game. They combined for 4.2 WAR this past season and that doesn't include Gomes' elite pitch-framing, which should work well with Washington's power rotation.
Rizzo has aggressively bolstered his roster in the early weeks of the offseason and it stands to reason more moves are on the way. The Nationals not only want to return to the postseason next year, they desperately want to win a postseason series. They've yet to do so with this core -- they've suffered some heartbreaking NLDS losses along the way -- and the clock is ticking. Here are five things the Nationals still must do this winter.
The most pressing piece of business, hands down. Bryce Harper is one of the most talented players in the world and he turned only 26 in October, so he's entering what should be the best years of his career. For all the ups and downs, Harper hasn't posted a sub-.370 on-base percentage in four years and he's averaged 30 homers per 150 games in his career. He's a star and the Nationals are better with Harper than without.
, but they had to know that would be rejected. At best, the offer showed Harper and agent Scott Boras they're serious about retaining him. At worse, it was a "see, we tried to keep him!" offer to placate the fan base. Either way, an offer was made, it was rejected, and Harper remains unsigned. Rizzo confirmed the two sides are in contact, though there's no sense of when Harper will sign.
"They haven't showed their hand either way and what their timeline is," Rizzo said at Winterfest. "I think their timeline is when they get the deal they feel comfortable with, they're going to move. I don't think there's any urgency on their part. When they get something they like, they'll probably act on it."
For what it's worth,. Here are Lerner's comments in full:
"Well, when we met with them and we gave them the offer, we told them, 'This is the best we can do.' We went right to the finish line very quickly,' Lerner said. "And we said, 'If this is of interest to you, please come back to us and we'll see whether we can finish it up.' But we just couldn't afford to put more than that in and still be able to put a team together that had a chance to win the NL East or go farther than that."
"If they choose some other place, I totally understand," he said. "It's the opportunity of a lifetime for Bryce and Kayla and their family. But we have no hard feelings about it, I must say. I love Bryce and he was a good teammate here. If he chooses to go some place else, I totally understand it, but we put one heck of an offer out there."
At the moment Washington is set to go into next season with Juan Soto, Victor Robles, and Adam Eaton as their starting outfielders, with Michael Taylor on the bench. That's a pretty solid outfield unit, especially if Robles becomes the player everyone believes he can be, and especially especially if Eaton stays healthy. That group offers speed and on-base ability (Eaton), defense (Robles), and pop (Soto). There are worse post-Harper fallback plans than that group.
You could talk yourself into the Nationals not needing Harper. It's not about need though. It's about putting the best together the best possible collection of 25 players -- more than 25, really, given how teams use their Triple-A affiliate as a taxi squad nowadays -- and Harper is on the short list of the most talented players in the world. Robles is still an unproven rookie and Eaton has played only 118 of 324 possible games the last two years due to injuries, after all.
Of course there's room for Harper on this roster, and the Nationals should do everything they can to bring him back. Simply put, their chances of getting to the postseason and winning a series (nevermind the World Series) improve greatly with Harper on the roster. He is a prime-aged dynamic talent with the ability to change the game each time he steps to the plate. You don't let a player like that walk away as a free agent.
Add another starting pitcher
Yes, even after signing Corbin, the Nationals could still use another starting pitcher. They don't need an ace, but a depth arm to fill the fifth spot wouldn't be a bad idea. Here is the team's rotation depth chart at he moment:
- RHP Max Scherzer
- LHP Patrick Corbin
- RHP Stephen Strasburg
- RHP Tanner Roark
- RHP Joe Ross
- RHP Erick Feede
- RHP Austin Voth
- RHP Henderson Alvarez
That top three might be the best top three in the baseball. It's in the discussion, at the very least. And Roark is a rock solid No. 4 starter as well.
Things get a little sketchy after that. Ross is a personal favorite but he is returning from Tommy John surgery, and the Nationals will have to monitor his workload. Fedde really struggled against lefties -- they hit .302/.378/.500 against him in 2018 -- and finished with a 5.54 ERA in 11 starts this past season. Voth is a former top prospect whose star has dimmed a bit.
As far as I'm concerned, adding another starting pitcher is never a bad move, for any team. I'd rather have the rotation depth and not need it than need it and not have it. Strasburg is no stranger to the disabled list and you don't really know what to expect from the kids. A one-year deal for a depth starter like, say, Trevor Cahill or Derek Holland could be in the cards.
Find a second baseman
Right now veteran second baseman Howie Kendrick, who is coming back from a torn Achilles, is penciled in at second base. It's been a few seasons since he rated as even an average second base defender, and I can't imagine he'll be any more mobile coming off a major Achilles injury at age 35. At this point, Kendrick fits best as a high-end utility guy who can play left field and the three non-shortstop infield positions, not as an everyday starter.
Beyond Kendrick the Nationals have stellar gloveman Wilmer Difo and utility man Adrian Sanchez as second base candidates. Top shortstop prospect Carter Kieboom could be a factor here but probably not on opening day seeing how he's played only 62 career games at Double-A and zero at Triple-A. There's an opening at second base, clearly, and that's okay because there are still two months to go until spring training. Rizzo has plenty of time to address this need.
Assuming signing Manny Machado to play short and moving Trea Turner to second is a non-option -- if the Nationals give out a mega-contract this winter, it'll be to Harper, though it would be kind of fun to see them shift gears and sign Machado -- the best free agent middle infielders are Marwin Gonzalez, Jed Lowrie, DJ LeMahieu, and Brian Dozier. Scooter Gennett is the top second base option on the trade market.
Those players each bring something different to the table and all of them represent nice upgrades over Washington's in-house second base options. Lowrie or Gonzalez would add balance to the lineup as switch-hitters, plus Gonzalez can play pretty much anywhere. LeMahieu would drastically improve the infield defense. Point is, the Nationals need to add a second baseman at some point. It is a glaring need.
Keep adding to the bullpen
There is no such thing as too many good relievers. Here is what Washington's bullpen looks like following the Barraclough and Rosenthal additions:
- Closer: LHP Sean Doolittle
- Setup: RHP Kyle Barraclough, RHP Trevor Rosenthal
- Middle: RHP Koda Glover, LHP Matt Grace, RHP Justin Miller, LHP Sammy Solis
- Depth: RHP Austin Adams, RHP Jimmy Cordero, RHP Trevor Gott, RHP Wander Suero, RHP Austen Williams
There's some nice depth there -- I've long liked Gott and Williams had an overwhelmingly dominant minor league season in 2018 -- but I'd like to see the Nationals add another late-inning option. Zach Britton, Jeurys Familia, Andrew Miller, Adam Ottavino, and David Robertson are the best non-Craig Kimbrel free agent relievers. Cody Allen, Brad Brach, Blake Parker, Adam Warren, and Justin Wilson represent lower cost options.
Rizzo did well to pounce on Rosenthal and Barraclough -- Barraclough was traded in the middle of the postseason -- early in the offseason. He's not desperate to add relief help now. The bullpen could use an upgrade simply because there is always room for improvement in the bullpen (always), and if something comes along that makes sense, Rizzo can pounce. If not, he knows he has Barraclough and Rosenthal already locked in for 2019.
Upgrade the bench
This will be tied to the Harper and second base situations. If the Nationals re-sign Harper, it'll push either Eaton or Robles into a part-time role, or maybe both guys into a platoon. And, if they upgrade second base, that puts Kendrick on the bench as well. Without Harper and without a new second baseman though, the bench currently looks like this:
- C Kurt Suzuki (RHB)
- IF Wilmer Difo (SHB)
- IF Adrian Sanchez (RHB)
- OF Michael Taylor (RHB)
Lefty hitting outfielder Andrew Stevenson and righty hitting infielder Matt Reynolds are the only notable depth players. Re-sign Harper and add a second baseman, and that bench looks a lot better with Robles/Eaton and Kendrick replacing Difo and Sanchez. Or maybe Difo sticks as a defensive option with Taylor being used as trade bait. The Nationals could play it a few different ways.
Every team signs depth players to minor league contracts in the offseason and the Nationals will be no different. A versatile left-handed hitting bench piece would be the ideal add for Washington. Someone like Derek Dietrich, for example, though I'm not sure he'll sign a minor league deal. Cory Spangenberg or Daniel Descalso may be more realistic options. Bottom line, the Nationals should continue adding depth. Pitchers, position players, whatever. The more the merrier.
"We go into the offseason with a checklist every year. We've checked a few things off so far but we're far from finished," said Rizzo at Winterfest. "The Bryce situation and fulfilling some of the other things we're trying to do are independent of each other. We've always been an organization that ownership has given us the resources to do what we need to do build a championship caliber club and I don't see that changing."
At the moment the Nationals have about $197 million on the books for 2019 when you included projected arbitration and pre-arbitration salaries. The team paid luxury tax in 2018 -- their final payroll was approximately $204 million this season -- and next year the luxury tax threshold jumps from $197 million to $206 million. The Nationals appear to have some payroll flexibility, though re-signing Harper would mean Rizzo either has to cut salary elsewhere or run by far the highest payroll in team history in 2019.
Harper is a generational talent and losing him would be a devastating blow to the franchise both on the field and at the box office -- because they paid luxury tax in 2018, the Nationals would only receive a draft pick after the fourth round as compensation for losing Harper -- but it wouldn't make them non-contenders. They can still field a roster led by Scherzer, Corbin, Strasburg, Soto, Robles, Turner, Gomes, and Anthony Rendon, and that's a really strong core. Re-signing Harper might put this squad back among the NL's elite, however, as would adding to a second baseman and continuing to add to the pitching staff.
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