It took a little longer than everyone expected, but a big offseason domino finally fell on Tuesday night as Josh Donaldson spurned the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves in favor of a four-year deal with the Minnesota Twins.
Though there were reports that the Nationals were still in the mix for the former Braves third baseman, it appears as though they effectively bowed out when they made five signings in five days last week.
So with Donaldson now officially heading to the junior circuit, it still leaves an elephant in the room. Are the Nationals going to make a big move to plug the gaping hole in their lineup?
It’s feasible, and probably likely, that Mike Rizzo and the front office are happy with how the team is currently constructed. There is at least a route to contention if there is major improvement in the bullpen and some of the offensive players outperform expectations.
But if the Nationals want to give their chances of defending the World Series title a shot in the arm, they’re going to have to make a big splash on offense and right now, the most logical option by far would be Kris Bryant.
The Chicago Cubs have been listening to trade offers for him as they aim to get under the luxury tax threshold — because that’s apparently what billion-dollar teams want to do these days — and there have been several reports showing the Nats do have interest in Bryant.
Their interest in the 2016 National League MVP makes a lot of sense. He would be able to slot right into the heart of the order, taking a spot vacated by Anthony Rendon, meaning that the lineup would barely miss a beat from last year’s group.
Over his five big league seasons, Bryant holds a strong .284/.385/.516 slash line with 138 home runs, 403 RBIs, and a 139 wRC+ which ranks 17th among qualifiers in the majors in that time.
Yes, the last two years have been disappointing by his lofty standards, with injuries a big factor. But if Bryant can rebound as many expect, he’ll once again be one of the more feared hitters in baseball who would also come at a reasonable salary for 2019.
Earlier in the week, Bryant and the Cubs also settled on an $18.6 million deal for 2020 to avoid arbitration, a figure that would seem to fit in with the Nationals’ payroll plans.
According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Nationals are about $15.6 million below the luxury tax threshold. Given the seeming lack of effort to try to re-sign Rendon after locking up Stephen Strasburg, it looks as though ownership wants to stay under the threshold again this year because, again, that’s what teams worth more than a billion dollars do now.
So, theoretically, it wouldn’t take too much maneuvering to clear a few million from the luxury tax payroll and stay under the threshold after acquiring Bryant from the Cubs.
That’s a big factor. Payroll is one of the main reasons that the Nats didn’t appear to go hard after Rendon this offseason, it’s why they faded late in the Donaldson sweepstakes, and it’s also why they won’t likely go and pursue another marquee third baseman via trade in Nolan Arenado.
The Colorado Rockies seem more and more likely to deal the man they signed to an eight-year, $260 million deal just last offseason. However, unless they’re paying a significant portion of the salary, his contract won’t fit under the apparently terrifying tax threshold.
Outside of Arenado, the trade market isn’t all that inspiring. Kyle Seager only represents a slightly above-average option and the likes Matt Chapman or José Ramírez aren’t likely to be attainable at a prospect cost that the Nats can afford.
That brings us back to the Cubs and Bryant as the only realistic option for the Nationals.
One of the hold-ups for a trade right now though is that Bryant is still waiting on an outcome of his service time grievance. Though it’s highly unlikely that he will win and become a free agent after the 2020 season, it’s not worth the gamble in case he does win.
With a resolution potentially coming next week, trade talks may pick up again, but it’s still unclear whether the two sides can actually work out a deal that both are happy with.
Based on the early reports of what the Cubs appear to be asking for, probably not. According to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman, among others, their front office wants to bring Victor Robles to the North Side of the Windy City.
Given they still want to win now, the lack of talent in the Nats’ farm system, and the hole in center field Robles could fill right away, it makes sense for them to do so.
It’s possible that the Cubs never come off their ask for Robles in a trade for Bryant.
However, from the Nationals’ perspective, it’s completely unrealistic to think that they would deal away a player of Robles’s talent who is already contributing significantly at the major league level and still has five years of team control remaining.
The only way a trade could get done is if the Cubs set their sights a little lower. Maybe Carter Kieboom’s name comes to the table and the Nats are more willing to include him, or maybe even he isn’t on the table if it’s just two years of Bryant, it’s tough to say.
Though the Nationals’ need for a big bat is clear, with Starlin Castro, Asdrúbal Cabrera, and Howie Kendrick aboard, they aren’t in a position of desperation. The ball is going to firmly be in the Cubs’ court.
In the end, it likely comes down to whether they are hell-bent on trading away one of their superstars in fear of the luxury tax or not.
As Spring Training draws closer, it's time to wait and see whether the Nationals will stick or twist in their search for a big bat, with Bryant the last card in the deck...