The offseason is underway for the Washington Nationals, who’ve already signed a new manager and had their starting catcher exercise his player option to remain with the team next season. Many questions remain, however, as a lot is going to happen between now and Opening Day.
Now, how exactly these next five months are going to shake out is still up for debate. Will Kubzansky and Matt Weyrich decided to take a shot at making some offseason predictions while they wait for the Hot Stove to warm up.
Be careful not to burn yourself on any of these hot takes.
Matt: Will, the Nationals lost Joe Ross to Tommy John surgery in July and won't be seeing him back on a pitcher's mound until at least midway through next season. Erick Fedde wasn't super impressive in his short stint at the majors before being shut down with a forearm injury in September and Washington doesn't really have any other starting pitching depth behind him aside from A.J. Cole. Do the Nats need to sign a free agent starter? Who should be on their radar?
Will: If the Nats just had the issue of not having a fifth starter, I would advocate for letting Fedde or Cole tough it out and see if one of them sticks -- ultimately, it's only about fifteen games, and both will provide you with a decent chance to win, if not as great as, say, Strasburg or Scherzer. However, I think the Nats are still in need of another starter just from the standpoint that Gio Gonzalez will almost certainly be nowhere nearly as good as he was last season in 2018. It's possible Tanner Roark bounces back, but overall, the Nats' rotation heading into next season looks decent -- not great.
Then again, the free-agent pitching market -- as it was last year -- is incredibly weak. Maybe the Nats can make a play for Yu Darvish or Jake Arietta, but neither of those guys seem like great solutions seeing as the team already has its definitive co-aces in Scherzer and Strasburg. The only free-agent pitcher that I think would legitimately improve the team would be pending free agent Alex Cobb (Tampa). So, I think if they do acquire someone, it'll have to come via trade - Dan Straily from Miami could be an interesting idea, but there aren't any obvious candidates. Moreover, with a farm system so depleted everywhere but the top, who do you even trade?
Matt: I agree with you that the Nats don't have many options in terms of free agent starters, but in my opinion their biggest obstacle is the Lerners' wallets. The Washington Post projects the team's payroll to exceed $168 million — a team record. Washington will be hovering just below the luxury tax threshold, meaning there's probably not going to be much action on the free agent front unless someone's willing to really backload a deal. The only pitchers I could see the Nats chasing would be guys like John Lackey, Jason Vargas or Chris Tillman — veterans with upside seeking about a one-year deal.
As for the trade market, the Nats have a few pieces in Michael A. Taylor and Brian Goodwin that could be attractive to some potential buyers. While the departure of Jayson Werth creates an opening for Taylor to step into the everyday lineup, Goodwin will be fighting with prospects Victor Robles and Andrew Stevenson for playing time. If the front office is willing to move Goodwin, he could be packaged alongside someone like breakout catcher Raudy Read for a handsome package. Perhaps they go knocking on the Blue Jays' door for J.A. Happ and one of their solid back-end relievers?
Will: I think the Nats could go after Lackey or the sort -- it wouldn't be the first time that they've gambled on a veteran starter late in his career (Dan Haren, Edwin Jackson come to mind). Regarding trades: Goodwin, at least in my mind, doesn't really project to be a starting center fielder -- at least for a team as good as the Nats. I could be wrong, but he was just okay in his time starting last season. Same goes for Andrew Stevenson. I think either could be packaged with, say, Erick Fedde for a more proven guy (like Happ), but alone, Taylor is the only one that, to me, could be worth it alone or with Read. Of course, Taylor is also the only young Nationals' outfielder that appears to be ready to start on Opening Day.
Matt: I don't think trading Taylor would be in the Nats' best interest, particularly with Bryce Harper likely hitting free agency after this season. Goodwin impressed me a lot last season and I could see a rebuilding team liking what they see in him. Between the high payroll and need for Taylor, I think Goodwin is the Nats' ticket to filling out their rotation.
Now, I want to pivot to the reliever market. There are a couple big names floating around in free agency (Wade Davis, Greg Holland, Addison Reed) as well as in trade rumors (Zach Britton, Alex Colome), but the Nats already have their closer and set-up man in Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. Do you foresee them being active in discussions for a late-inning arm or will they just try to fill out the front end?
Will: I think the back-end -- the back, back end of the bullpen -- is pretty set with Doolittle and Madson. I also think the Nats have two good solutions for the fifth and sixth in Sammy Solis and Koda Glover. However, there are two slots the Nats still need to fill: a middle-innings type guy such as Matt Albers (who likely won't return) that can eat up around two innings, and someone for the seventh inning, assuming Brandon Kintzler doesn't return. I'm personally never a fan of acquiring any reliever not named Kenley Jansen for longer than two years, and Davis/Holland would almost certainly command that length of a contract. With that in mind, I think the Nats will need to rely on a one/two-year deal, or hit the trade market. The one big problem with that is that some of the more undervalued names in baseball -- the Tommy Kahnles of the world, per say -- all got moved at the deadline last year. So who do the Nats go for?
Matt: While I do think Enny Romero is going to play a big role in the Nats' bullpen next season, you're right in that Washington needs a late-inning arm to complete the back-end trio. I like guys like Juan Nicasio, Brandon Morrow and Travis Shaw a lot, but MLBTR predicts they'll all sign three-year deals. They could bring back Kintzler, who's said to have enjoyed his time in D.C. and would be interested in returning, but he doesn't produce a lot of strikeouts. The cheapest options would probably be either Anthony Swarzak or Tommy Hunter. Personally, I like Steve Cishek a lot and don't think he'll command more than a two-year deal.
Will: I'm with you on that. And, if for some reason, the market evaporates, I wouldn't mind seeing Wade Davis in a Curly W uniform. I also think Morrow would be a steal, and I could waive my typical rule (that I know Mike Rizzo pays so much attention to) about maximum lengths of contracts to sign relievers to.
However, I think the Nats set a nice precedent -- spending on a position that is already seemingly filled -- last year by signing Matt Wieters, and I think they should do it again. Wellington Castillo and Alex Avila could be great fits for the team and certainly couldn't be worse than Wieters -- one interesting idea I read was that if the Nats were willing to part with a B-list prospect -- say, Fedde -- they could attach him to Wieters and get a bullpen arm or two in return, which would be a creative way of solving both the Wieters and bullpen problems.
Matt: I couldn't agree more that the Nats need somebody else starting at catcher other than Wieters. I'm not sure if I'm ready to part ways with Fedde just yet — he showed strong flashes despite his poor numbers — but that is an interesting idea to package Wieters with a prospect for a reliever. I'm not sure how much value the former Oriole is going to have, but if we could dump his salary somewhere that would certainly gives the Nats a little more flexibility.
Thanks for joining me for this, Will! Hopefully the Nats' front office can capitalize on their final year with Harper guaranteed to be on the team.