You know it’s coming. I know it’s coming. Every national media outlet is constantly reminding you it’s coming. Bryce Harper will test free agency next offseason.
Fifty-eight percent of Federal Baseball’s readers believe Harper will be playing in D.C. beyond next season. However, let’s say the Nats lose out on the superstar outfielder.
The Nats do have a contingency plan in case he decides to seek other options, and it’s not as scary as many might think.
“I think that everyone positions themselves,” GM Mike Rizzo explained at Nats’ WinterFest last month. “Everyone’s got their long-term plans. We’re no different. We try to focus in on ourselves, we’ve got a strategy in place, we’ve got a game plan and a blueprint to be good for a long period of time, and that continues.”
Harper may only be the team’s right fielder, but his decision will affect every corner of the Nats’ roster. That’s because he won’t be the only National hitting the open market next winter.
Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez, Matt Wieters, Ryan Madson, Shawn Kelley and Matt Adams will all be free agents following the 2018 season. In terms of the average annual value of their contracts, that’s nearly $73 million off the books for Washington.
If the Nationals don’t use a major chunk of that suddenly available salary space to sign Harper, a plethora of options will be open to them.
While Harper vacating right field certainly creates a crater of a hole in right field, the Nationals have top prospect Victor Robles waiting to step into an everyday role. Washington has been very reluctant to make Robles available in trade talks, indicating it fully expects him to start for the big league club in 2019 at the latest.
Michael Taylor and Adam Eaton will fill out the rest of that outfield, giving the Nats a fearsome unit even without Harper. In the infield, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner and Ryan Zimmerman will still be around, but Murphy will leave a hole at second base. The Nats could fill that hole in-house with Wilmer Difo — a player they’ve been very high on — or choose from the wide variety of middle infielders in free agency.
Pedro Severino and prospect Raudy Read will be the top candidates to take over Wieters’ role behind the plate, but that will depend on their development. Catcher may be one of the team’s biggest needs if Severino and Read aren’t able to take a step forward in 2018.
The bench is a toss-up to project at this point, but Howie Kendrick will still be under contract and Brian Goodwin showed last season he could be a capable fourth outfielder. The rest will depend on how the starting lineup is constructed.
As for the rotation, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Tanner Roark give Washington an enviable base to work with. Joe Ross will (hopefully) be back on the mound after recovering from Tommy John surgery, while both Erick Fedde and A.J. Cole will have shown the club what their value is with ample playing time in 2018.
None of those starters are left-handed, so it wouldn’t be astronomical for the Nats to sign a southpaw in order to add some balance to the rotation. One player that could save Washington from handing out top dollars to a free agent pitcher is 2017 first-round pick Seth Romero, who is left-handed himself and considered one of the top arms talent-wise in the draft.
Finally, the bullpen has several major question marks. Both Sean Doolittle and Brandon Kintzler have team options for 2019, meaning poor performances this season could push Washington to hit the restart button on their relief corps.
Middle relievers Koda Glover, Enny Romero and Sammy Solis will still be under contract, but all three struggled with injuries and inconsistency last season. Fedde or Romero could be converted into relievers at some point, but for now the Nats are still focused on developing them as starters.
All in all, the Nationals’ top needs heading into 2019 will be catcher, second base, left-handed starting pitcher, late-inning bullpen arms and a few bench spots. While the team will be free from several high-priced contracts, Washington will still be under some financial constriction.
The club exceeded the luxury tax threshold in 2017 and is likely to do so again this season, so it’s worth noting the Nats may try to avoid hitting the $206 million threshold for 2019 so as not incur a 50 percent tax on their payroll.
It’s no secret the 2018-19 MLB free agent class is going to be one of the deepest in the history of the sport. From Harper to Manny Machado to Dallas Keuchel to Andrew Miller, there will be players looking to sign at every position on the diamond.
The trade market is tough to predict before teams have established themselves as contenders, but clubs such as the Miami Marlins, Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates, Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, Oakland A’s and San Diego Padres have made it clear they aren’t intending to compete this season.
So we have several roster holes, a list of impending free agents (one that will only grow as player opt-outs are taken and team options are declined) and seven teams that will likely be sellers over the winter. The Nats will almost certainly be big spenders, but luxury tax restrictions could force them to stay in-house at a few positions.
Unless Severino has a breakout year in 2018, it’s safe to assume Washington will be seeking a long-term solution at catcher.
Yasmani Grandal will be the top backstop on the free-agent market, but his offensive struggles last season forced the Dodgers to phase him out as the starter in favor of Austin Barnes toward the end of the year. Familiar faces Wilson Ramos and Kurt Suzuki could be good signed for good value, as Ramos has yet to show signs of his former self since tearing his ACL with the Nats in 2016 and Suzuki will be entering his age-35 season.
The Marlins already have J.T. Realmuto on the trade block, so he very well may be somewhere else by the time next offseason begins. If he isn’t, the Nats could come calling as he’ll only have two years left of team control and a much lower price than Miami is asking for right now.
Second base is perhaps the most likely position to be filled by a free agent. In addition to Murphy, DJ LeMahieu, Brian Dozier, Logan Forsythe and Ian Kinsler will all be available. Josh Harrison could join them if the Pirates decline his $10.5 million option. The Nats could sign any of them, and will likely target Murphy as their No. 1 choice.
If Washington truly wanted to make a splash, it could sign Machado to play shortstop and shift Turner over to second. While his contract will likely be the second most expensive deal of the winter, Machado would fill the offensive void left by Harper and add a Gold Glove to the infield.
As for the rotation, the Nats will be in the mix with almost every top arm on the market. Everyone will be holding their breath waiting to see if Clayton Kershaw takes his opt-out, a move that could shake the entire landscape of free agency.
The Nats will have a preference for lefties who make up the better half of starters in this free agent class anyway. Keuchel will be the crown jewel of pitchers if Kershaw stays in LA, while Drew Pomeranz and J.A. Happ are good middle-of-the-rotation arms.
If the Nats decide to stick with Difo at second base and save money on a pricey infielder, Keuchel could very well be their top target. On the other hand, a deal for a second baseman could prompt them to seek out cheaper options. At 36 years old, Happ will likely be a target for a short-term solution whereas Pomeranz (30) should be seeking a longer deal.
Detroit offers the most desirable trade targets, highlighted by rising star Michael Fulmer. Jordan Zimmermann and Anibal Sanchez could restore their trade value as well with bounce-back seasons. The Nats have several prospects in Juan Soto, Carter Kieboom and Wil Crowe that could be packaged for a deal.
It all depends on Ross, Fedde, Cole and Seth Romero. If at least two of them show they can handle a rotation spot, the Nats will be less inclined to spend top dollar on risky contracts. Romero won’t be in the majors, but his development is something to keep an eye on.
The bullpen will be wide open, and there will be a wide array of options to fill it out. Miller, Craig Kimbrel, Zach Britton, Cody Allen, David Robertson, Justin Wilson, Kelvin Herrera, Jeurys Familia, Brad Brach, A.J. Ramos, David Phelps, Adam Ottavino, Adam Warren and Brad Ziegler will all be seeking jobs.
If everything goes according to plan, Doolittle and Kintzler will already fill the back end. The Nats could sign two of the set-up men on that list and walk away spending millions less than what Miller or Kimbrel would go for while sporting one of the best bullpens in the league.
By this time, the Phillies will have made a splash and signaled their intent to contend in 2019. The Mets probably won’t ever tear down and will likely be aiming for the postseason as well. Atlanta’s rebuild has been slow to develop, but their young arms and underrated lineup give them a good chance at contending for October baseball. The Marlins, well, we’ll enjoy watching Giancarlo Stanton blasting homers in the Junior Circuit as opposed to the NL East.
Harper’s departure won’t signal the end of contention for Washington, but there will be a much tougher road to the division title than in years past. The loss of a franchise icon has an impact that goes far beyond the baseball side of things, but in that department, the Nats would be just fine.
Until then, the Nats have one last guaranteed run with the player who’s played as integral a role as any in shaping Washington into a contender. Ted Lerner may not sleep well at night mulling over the decision to dole out the money to reign Harper in, but Mike Rizzo and Co. have a plan in place in case he keeps his hands in his pockets.