The Washington Nationals are now more than a year removed from winning the World Series. Their attempt at back-to-back titles fell flat, with the Nationals instead finishing tied for last in the National League East during the shortened 2020 season. Washington will now attempt to put the pieces back together, lest they waste what remains of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg's prime, or Juan Soto's cost control.
What might that entail? Below we've outlined three major areas of concern for the Nationals, as well as how they might go about changing them into areas of strength.
1. Figure out third base
For the second consecutive winter, the Nationals will have to think about the hot corner. Last year, they let Anthony Rendon depart for the Los Angeles Angels, creating an opening that Mike Rizzo attempted to fill with a combination of veteran Asdrubal Cabrera and rookie Carter Kieboom. That plan didn't work. Cabrera was roughly an average hitter and is now a free agent, but Kieboom hit .202/.344/.212 -- marks that actually improved upon his career slash line.
It's hard to see the Nationals entering next spring with Kieboom penciled into a meaningful role. As such, Rizzo seems likely to add a veteran third baseman in some capacity. That could mean a low-stakes signing, like a Jedd Gyorko or a Jake Lamb, or it could mean swinging for the fences by adding a top free agent -- a Justin Turner or a DJ LeMahieu -- or pursuing Kris Bryant or Nolan Arenado, two high-priced third basemen known to be on the trade block. (The Nationals could, theoretically, also turn their sights to long-time rumored target catcher J.T. Realmuto.)
Bryant seems to be the likeliest of those four to land in D.C. because he's a short-term obligation coming off a leverage-eroding season. The Nationals are projected to have an Opening Day payroll of $150 million at this stage in the offseason, which is some $26 million shy of what they were supposed to have last Opening Day, and more than $40 million underneath their 2019 total.
Bryant, for his part, is expected to make $18.6 million in his final year of arbitration. In other words, the Nationals should be able to fit him into their budget with room to spare.
2. And the other corners, too
Unfortunately for Rizzo, fixing his lineup isn't as easy as addressing third base. The Nationals ranked in the bottom five of batting runs at first base, too, and will have to add another corner outfielder -- left or right, depending on where they intend to station perennial MVP candidate Juan Soto -- after declining Adam Eaton's club option earlier this offseason.
The Nationals may want a reunion with Ryan Zimmerman, but they would be wise to pursue a superior starting option at the cold corner. Maybe a Carlos Santana, a C.J. Cron, or a Mitch Moreland. Elsewhere, the Nationals could target a left fielder like Joc Pederson, Michael Brantley, or Marcell Ozuna if they have the budget room to spare. A downmarket option -- think Robbie Grossman -- could also make sense if the Nationals are running low on funds.
Whomever the exact individuals prove to be, the Nationals figure to head into next spring with new starters at three of the four corner spots -- they'll need to if they want to improve upon an offense that had just three individuals with more than 100 plate appearances finish with a 100 OPS+ or better.
3. Shore up the back of the rotation
Provided everyone is healthy, you can count on the Nationals trotting out a rotation that features Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. The other two spots are where things get dicey, and where Rizzo will likely look to make at least one addition.
The internal candidates for the No. 4 and 5 slots are Joe Ross (who opted out last season and is out of minor-league options), Erick Fedde (who the Nationals viewed as a reliever entering last spring), Austin Voth (a 6.34 ERA in 11 starts), and Wil Crowe (three big-league appearances). Say the Nationals give Ross a nod for the fourth spot; it seems more likely than not, then, that they would turn to the free-agent market to find a cheap veteran fit.
That might mean someone like Mike Leake, a veteran who opted out of the 2020 season but has intrigued the Nationals in the past. It could also mean a Chase Anderson type -- someone who should be a fine, cheap back-end starter provided they can avoid the home-run bug.
The good news for the Nationals is that there are any number of options in this class, suggesting they should be able to land one to their liking at a reasonable cost.