The Washington Nationals won the World Series for the first time in franchise history last week. Did you know that? They did. There's a trophy and everything.
While at this writing the party has yet to fully subside, in certain corners of the organization the focus has already shifted to the future. The Romans among others proved it's possible to party and ruminate at the same time, so while you, the Nationals rooter, continue to party, we'll take care of the rumination insofar as the club's near-term future is concerned. Forthwith.
First, the Nationals have the foundations of a contender in place and under team control. Juan Soto, perhaps the best young pure hitter in baseball, will be pre-arbitration this winter, as will promising young fly-catcher Victor Robles. Shortstop Trea Turner returns for his age-27 campaign, and in the rotation the Nationals still have ace Max Scherzer and lefty complement Patrick Corbin under long-term contract. The still useful Anibal Sanchez returns, as well. They've exercised their $9.5 million option on Adam Eaton for 2020, and veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki, who over the last three seasons has hit 48 home runs in 271 games, is locked up.
All of that adds up to the foundation of a contender. The Nats, after all, are fresh off a 93-win season and have ripped off eight straight winning campaigns. Before, however, we drift into a state of assumption let us note that the Nats stand to lose their best player, third baseman Anthony Rendon, to free agency. Rendon this season authored a 6.3 , and he's got a total of 16.4 WAR over the last three seasons. Even though he'll turn 30 in June, he's headed for a major payday. , and he's wisely testing the market.
Elsewhere, the Nats may also be facing the loss of right-hander and World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg signed a seven-year, $175 million contract extension in May of 2016, but that deal included an opt-out after this past season, which Strasburg has already utilized. Given that Strasburg is coming off a season in which he led the NL in innings and registered an ERA+ of 138 with 251 strikeouts -- and given his dominant run in the postseason -- choosing free agency was likely an easy call.
Yes, the Nats will still have an enviable core in place, but they need to complement that core if they're to take advantage of what's in place. That will require additional payroll investments. But will the Lerner family do what is required to give the team a shot at a repeat? The Nationals in 2017 were one of five teams to be over the competitive balance tax threshold (CBT or, as it's more commonly known, the luxury tax threshold), and they were one of two to be over in 2018 (joining the Red Sox). As for 2019, their fate isn't yet certain. Per the invaluable Cot's Contracts at Baseball Prospectus, the Nationals are just barely over the line, but that's an estimated figure. If they are ruled by MLB to be CBT payers, then it's possible ownership will order payroll slashed for 2020. That was reportedly the aim for 2019 -- staying under -- and if that doesn't wind up happening, then it may become a hard mandate for GM Mike Rizzo this offseason.
That would be too bad. The Nats are coming off a championship season in which high salary players like Scherzer, Corbin, Strasburg, and Rendon were essential to their efforts. Those four combined to make more than $112 million this past season. Take any one of them off the roster, and it's likely the Nats don't wind up hoisting the trophy. Consider the 2019 Nationals an object lesson in the value of paying for the best players.
They need to re-up with Strasburg, who's reportedly open to doing just that. While bringing back Rendon seems less likely, the Nationals need to install a worthy replacement who fits the goal of making a vigorous repeat bid. Josh Donaldson and Mike Moustakas are free agents, and Kris Bryant may be among the needle-moving third basemen available in trade. If the Nats prefer to devote their resources elsewhere, then giving the third base job to top prospect Carter Kieboom is certainly a viable option.
If that's the case, then finding a regular second baseman should be a priority item. Perhaps there's mutual interest in a reunion with Howie Kendrick, who enjoyed one of his best offensive seasons at age 35 and of course authored one of the biggest home runs in franchise history. Banking on Kendrick to remain adequate defensively is a risk. The free agent market doesn't offer much help, unfortunately. One option is to install Kieboom as the second baseman and return to the richer crop of available third basemen. None of those are going to be as good as Rendon, but investment can minimize the drop-off.
First baseman and franchise icon Ryan Zimmerman is a free agent after the Nats declined their 2020 option on him. That was the right call, since it seems Zimmerman's days as a productive hitter, especially by the standards of first basemen, are over. Nothing about in-house candidate Jake Noll suggests he's capable of producing adequately at the highest level, so Rizzo will need to look elsewhere. Putting together a lower-cost platoon arrangement is certainly a consideration. This where Kendrick perhaps has a role moving forward. As noted just above, he may not be capable of pinning down a middle infield position now that he's 36 and firmly in decline with the glove. However, quality of contact metrics suggest his work at the plate in 2019 wasn't a fluke. Deep decline with the bat may still be a ways off for Kendrick, and a role as the Nats' semi-regular first baseman or, at worse, the right-handed half of a platoon and pinch-hitter of first resort seems like a path forward for both sides.
On the bullpen front, the Nats have exercised their option on Sean Doolittle, and bringing back Daniel Hudson, who's now a free agent, is surely in play. Austin Voth can still be an interesting arm, and incoming prospects like Wil Crowe and James Bourque may also have paths to regular roles. The Nats should also be among the teams with interest in free agent lefty Will Smith.
Yes, bringing back Strasburg, signing a quality infielder, and adding a bullpen piece will push the Nats over the CBT line for 2020 and activate another round of penalties (yes, the system is designed to punish teams for investing in the on-field product), but the penalties are overstated. That's especially the case given how much teams make these days and, in the Nats' case, the win-now flow of the roster. CBT penalties are really more tidy rationale for cutting costs as opposed to anything actually onerous, and it's on the Lerner family to ignore the anti-competitive trend to which so many other owners are in thrall. When you share a division with the Braves, Phillies, and Mets, you can't be passive.
A good-faith effort to become the NL's first repeat champions since the 1975-76 Reds will require the commitment of resources in Washington. That, though, is what teams who prioritize winning games are supposed to do. So go and do that.