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Five biggest offseason questions for the Washington Nationals

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The questions all start with Bryce Harper, but there are several other holes the Washington Nationals’ front office will be tasked with patching up this winter.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t the season Mike Rizzo envisioned when the Washington Nationals took the field March 30 for the Opening Day festivities. The Nats’ general manager and president of baseball operations constructed a roster stocked full of stars, but injuries and some lackluster performances by those stars derailed a season that had oozed with potential.

Eighty-two wins later, the Nationals now face an offseason of uncertainty. The development of the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies into contenders has painted a competitive future for the NL East. As a result, Washington finds itself forced to keep pace rather than set the standard.

Several questions will define the team’s offseason, but nothing will be decided until its biggest star chooses where he’ll call home. It’ll be up to the Nationals’ front office to decide whether or not that means the window of contention stays open for a few years longer.

Where will Bryce Harper sign?

MLB: Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It’s going to require a hefty paycheck, but both Harper and the Nationals’ front office have expressed mutual interest in working out a long-term extension to keep the right fielder in D.C. Washington entered this season with a team-record $180 million payroll, but the expiring contracts of Harper, Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez, Matt Wieters and several others amounts to approximately $85 million coming off the books.

The team’s back-up plan is a good one, with young stars Juan Soto and Victor Robles locked into starting roles while Adam Eaton, Michael Taylor and Howie Kendrick round out the depth chart. All five outfielders are signed to team-friendly deals, giving Washington flexibility to use that $85 million on other areas of the roster.

If Harper does re-sign, it’ll likely prompt Washington to trade an outfielder in order to reallocate payroll somewhere else. However, assuming Harper’s deal doesn’t include any opt-outs in the near future, the Nationals would have a clear picture of their starting outfield for the next half-decade if they’re able to reel him in.

Only five players in MLB history have signed contracts with an average annual value of $30 million or higher, but Harper appears likely to break that threshold even despite his uncharacteristic 2018 season. The Nationals can go on record about how much they admire Harper all they want, but will principal owner Mark Lerner break the bank to keep him?

Which left-handed starter should the Nationals target?

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Perhaps the most important hole on the Nationals’ roster is that which Gonzalez is leaving behind. While he wasn’t the ace of the staff, Gonzalez was the team’s most dependable southpaw for seven seasons and Washington doesn’t have a left-hander in the ranks ready to replace him.

If the season were to start tomorrow, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark, Joe Ross and Erick Fedde would likely fill out the rotation while Jefry Rodriguez, Austin Voth and Kyle McGowin started in the minors. All eight pitchers are righties, and nearly all of them outside Scherzer have questions surrounding either their health or ability to pitch in the major leagues.

Available lefty free-agent options will include Gonzalez, Dallas Keuchel, Patrick Corbin, J.A. Happ, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Drew Pomeranz and Wade Miley. If Clayton Kershaw decides to exercise his opt-out clause, the future Hall of Famer will be available as well.

Although the team already has a considerable amount of money invested into the rotation, Keuchel, Corbin and Kershaw are all viable targets — especially if Harper departs for greener pastures. Will the Nationals make a splash for a left-handed starter or are they willing to choose from the scrap heap and trust in their uncertain pitching depth?

How will the Nationals fill the void at catcher?

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Aside from Wilson Ramos’ breakout year in 2015, the Nationals have never had a season in which their starting catcher remained healthy and productive at the plate over the course of a full year. Ramos is a free agent once again and led all catchers with an .845 OPS in 2018 (min. 250 plate appearances).

A reunion certainly seems possible, but Ramos’ checkered injury history may dissuade the Nationals from bringing the Buffalo back. A safer bet might be the DodgersYasmani Grandal, who will also be a free agent and has played at least 115 games each of the past five years.

Grandal will be the most highly sought catcher on the market, so payroll will be a factor. Cheaper options include the PiratesFrancisco Cervelli, who may be available for trade after Pittsburgh missed the playoffs for the third-straight year, and reclamation project Jonathan Lucroy — the two-time All-Star who has fallen to the wayside after playing for four teams in three years.

The void Washington had at catcher this season was often scrutinized as one of the key reasons for the team’s downfall. Will that prompt the team to make finding a new backstop its biggest priority?

Can the Nationals replace Daniel Murphy?

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In addition to filling his position at second base, the Nationals are tasked with replacing Murphy’s potent bat in the lineup. The top of the order is suddenly heavily right-handed as well, as Soto and Eaton are the only lefties in line to return to the team in 2019.

There aren’t many players who fit the bill of that description. Free-agent second basemen Brian Dozier, Logan Forsythe, Neil Walker and Ian Kinsler are all coming off disappointing campaigns while DJ LeMahieu and Daniel Descalso don’t offer much in terms of power.

That leaves Asdrubal Cabrera, Jed Lowrie and Marwin Gonzalez left on the free-agent mark. While all three are right-handed, they’ve each had at least one 20-homer season over the last two years. Gonzalez is the most intriguing option, being the youngest of the three and only a season removed from posting a .907 OPS over 134 games.

In short, the Nationals can’t replace Murphy — at least not with a second baseman. Can the Nationals get creative and find a way to insert another bat like Murphy’s into the lineup?

How many set-up men will the Nationals acquire?

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After trading Brandon Kintzler and Ryan Madson, the Nationals are left without a viable set-up man to bridge the late innings to closer Sean Doolittle. Greg Holland, who accumulated a 0.84 ERA in 24 appearances down the stretch for Washington, is a strong candidate to return to D.C., but he won’t be enough.

Luckily, this is an excellent offseason to be in need of a reliever. Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Zach Britton, Brad Brach, Kelvin Herrera, Adam Ottavino, David Robertson, A.J. Ramos and Adam Warren will all be looking for late-inning roles. If the Nationals sign Holland and at least one other name on this list, the team should be confident about its relief corps heading into next season.

The way things stand right now, Wander Suero, Matt Grace, Justin Miller and Koda Glover appear to be the most likely candidates to fill out the rest of the bullpen. While Spring Training battles do happen and another name or two could make its way into the mix, that still has the look of a solid group.

The bullpen has been the downfall of the Nationals’ success before, and the front office won’t take the relief market lightly. However, with Doolittle already securing the closer job, some ninth-inning arms will look elsewhere for better opportunities. Will the Nationals be able to attract the relievers they need to build a dominant bullpen?