The Nationals had an active Tuesday as second baseman Daniel Murphy to the Cubs and let first baseman/outfielder Matt Adams go to the Cardinals . Bryce Harper, but it's still a pretty jarring turn of events given that GM Mike Rizzo opted to stay the course at the July 31 non-waiver deadline.
Given that Nats fans may be fairly disaffected at the moment -- albeit mostly because of the current standings -- owner Mark Lerner penned an open letter to those fans in an effort to explain Tuesday's moves. You can read the letter in full here, but let's focus on this part ...
The good news is this is not a rebuilding effort. We have a lot of talent on our roster -- from seasoned veterans to enthusiastic young guys. And Mike Rizzo and his team will be busy during the offseason making sure we have all of the pieces necessary to come back and be competitive next year.
So Lerner wants fans to know that this isn't a full teardown. That's certainly the case. Dealing away an aging, walk-year second baseman and a couple of relievers obviously isn't an Astros/Cubs-level rebuild. Lerner's also justified in believing that the team can achieve relevance in 2019.
First and most obviously, let's assume the Nationals lose Harper and fellow notable free agents Gio Gonzalez, Matt Wieters, Ryan Madson and Kelvin Herrera. This leaves the 2019 Nats with some holes to address ...
Despite the loss of Harper, the Nats should be OK in the outfield. Also keep in mind that outfield prospect Victor Robles coming into the season was more highly regarded than Soto. He missed much of the season because of a hyperextended elbow, but he's presently heating up at Triple-A. Robles may or may not be in line for a September call-up, but either way the 21-year-old still has an enormous ceiling (he was a consensus top-five overall prospect coming into 2018). He also is a standout defensive center fielder, so he fits in the Nats' most obvious outfield hole and perhaps pushes Taylor back into to a reserve role.
As for second base and catcher, the Nats don't have any obvious internal solutions. Wilmer Difo is stretched as a regular at second base, so he shouldn't be thought of as a post-Murphy option. Carter Kieboom, who's presently at Double-A, figures to be ready at some point next season. While he's likely to settle in on the left side of the infield, perhaps he'd get a look at second. Alternatively, would the Nationals consider shifting Rendon back to second and plugging the hole at third with Kieboom? Failing that, the club is probably looking having into dip into the market for an affordable name like Brian Dozier or Marwin Gonzalez.
On the catcher front, there's no reason to re-up with Wieters, who's been sub-par all season. Spencer Kieboom doesn't project as being worthy of full-time duty, but fortunately the free agent market should have a number of reasonable options at catcher. Those names include Yasmani Grandal, Tyler Flowers, Brian McCann, Wilson Ramos, Devin Mesoraco and Jonathan Lucroy.
As for the rotation, there's a nice front three so long as Strasburg can stay reasonably healthy (never to be assumed, of course). The Nats may also look into bringing back Jeremy Hellickson. Joe Ross is working his way back from Tommy John surgery right now and should be back in D.C. at some point this season. Erick Fedde, 25, still has some ceiling. As for depth and back end help, options on the market will abound. If Rizzo decides to go bigger, then premium free agents like Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton may be of interest.
In the bullpen, picking up Sean Doolittle's $6 million club option is an easy call, and guys like Koda Glover and Matt Grace remain under team control for years to come. The market will of course have relief options, and the Nats should also get it on the re-emerging trend of giving starting pitching prospects a transition period in relief at the highest level.
On the budget front, the Nationals right now have a little more than $110 million committed in salaries for next season. Even after Tuesday's deals, the Nats are still probably over the competitive-balance tax threshold. Perhaps that means they won't be big spenders in the winter of 2018-19. Even if that's the case, the Nats have enough talent in place and on the way -- again, Robles is huge on that front -- to afford relevance in 2019. The Braves will likely enter 2019 as NL East favorites, and the Phillies are also positioned to contend again. Washington, though, compares favorably with the crowded fray of good-not-great rosters in the NL.
Budget latitude from ownership will help, no doubt, but Rizzo can focus on bullpen additions, affordable back-end rotation help and a couple of lineup spots, which isn't exactly a daunting wish list. That's especially the case when your core includes the likes of Scherzer, Strasburg, Soto, Rendon, and Eaton. Settling somewhere between the .500-ish depths of this season and the lofty regular-season heights of the Dusty Baker years is a reasonable goal for 2019, and that may be enough to earn a trip back to the playoffs.