On this day a year ago, the Washington Nationals were in the midst of a World Series parade. Alcohol flowed, Baby Shark and Calma played endlessly until the following spring, and it gave the fans, players, and staff a chance to bask in their achievement.
Unfortunately, in 2020, the Nationals had their title defense ended in September without even a playoff berth in an expanded postseason to show for it.
With that disappointing season in the rearview mirror, it’s fair to say there’s a lot to do this winter.
So, with some actual time to prepare for the Hot Stove season, unlike 2019 — don’t get us wrong, we’d much rather be covering the Nats in a World Series again — we’ve gathered our writers together for an offseason preview to discuss the major decisions for Washington.
- Patrick Reddington — Bold prediction sage
- Marty Niland — Our seasoned D.C. veteran
- Brett Barnett — Resident window expert
- Blake Finney — Buried under snow already
What do you think is the Nationals’ biggest need this offseason? Who are some players that you could see filling that need?
Patrick Reddington (PR): “I strongly believe in pitching and defense. But without starting pitching it’s hard to win championships, we proved that in 2019.” - That’s Davey Martinez late this season. I’d argue that the Nationals also proved that in 2020.
Stephen Strasburg was injured and made just two starts. Max Scherzer hit his stride late in the 60-game campaign by his own assessment. Aníbal Sánchez never really got himself straightened out (and is a free agent). Patrick Corbin underperformed in the second year of his six-year deal. Erick Fedde and Austin Voth once again failed to really establish themselves as legit back end arms, and other starters they used (Wil Crowe, Ben Braymer, and Paolo Espino - now a free agent), didn’t exactly put themselves in the mix for a rotation spot with their performance.
I acknowledge the other needs on the roster (OF, C, 1B), but fully expect to see Rizzo and Co. in the front office add a legitimate-ish 3-4 starter.
Strasburg (hopefully healthy), Scherzer, Corbin, [new starter], and Ross (with Fedde/Voth starting or pitching in long relief)? Think the rotation is a clear/big area of need.
Targets? Who knows - Trevor Bauer - (because why not? And I’d like watching him pitch every five days), Robbie Ray, Jake Odorizzi (who has history with new pitching coach Jim Hickey and Davey Martinez from Tampa Bay).
Marty Niland (MN): Despite the worries this season over the Nats’ rotation and bullpen depth, the biggest need is another consistent bat in their order.
The Dodgers’ World Series run this season was based on prodigious power, with 12 homers in the Series. That’s something the Nats have lacked since Anthony Rendon became a free agent after the 2019 World Series. With a lot of money coming off the payroll this offseason, the Nats can afford to hit the free-agent market.
One guy who can fill multiple needs for the Nats is George Springer. With a .270/.361/.491 career slash line, he’s the leadoff hitter they’ve been lacking since Trea Turner moved into the third spot in the batting order, and with 34, 22 and 39 homers in his last three full seasons, the three-time all-star and two-time Silver Slugger winner will be in scoring position or have scored enough to help the hitters behind him in the order.
Juan Soto’s late-season shift to right field foreshadowed this move. The 31-year-old will likely be the most expensive player on the market, though, and if the Nats can’t afford him, they could go with Marcell Ozuna, 30 next season, or the versatile 32-year-old Marwin Gonzalez. Another sure-fire top of the order bat would be DJ LeMahieu, who now has batting titles in both leagues. He also has the versatility to play anywhere on the infield.
Brett Barnett (BB): I’m not sold on first base.
The Pirates are in a rebuild, meaning they could very well be willing to ship out players. The Nationals don’t have much to offer from their farm system, but it could be worth it to look into acquiring Josh Bell, especially if the National League DH stays around. Of course, this is all contingent on the Nationals’ front office believing they’re true contenders.
Blake Finney (BF): Though there will be a lot of focus on the rotation struggles the Nationals endured in 2020, by far and away the biggest need for the team this winter is another big bat.
I’ve made it no secret that I think J.T. Realmuto would not only bolster the lineup but help get the most out of their rotation too. Failing that, Marcell Ozuna could be an excellent fit in the outfield after a strong 2020 that will likely see him finish top 10 in the NL MVP voting.
What other needs do you think the Nationals need to address?
PR: As noted above, the Nationals need someone in the outfield to play alongside Juan Soto and Victor Robles. Martinez acknowledged as much when he discussed playing Soto out in right field towards the end of the season, telling reporters who asked if they should read into that decision that they’ll look for a corner outfielder in free agency or via trade, “It could be a possibility. Use your imagination.”
They need a first baseman, assuming the Eric Thames experiment is over after a rough year at the plate in 2020. Don’t know how they approach Ryan Zimmerman, who wants to come back but didn’t play this season after opting out and just turned 36 last September. There’s a need there as well. [ed. note - “Don’t say, ‘Move Carter Kieboom to first. Or we fight.”]
And a catcher. I know everyone wants to sign J.T. Realmuto, and they should, but not if he’s in the market for a $200M deal as rumored. If they don’t just bring Suzuki back for another season of teaming up with Yan Gomes (who’s under contract for 2021), they’re going to be in the market for catching unless they like a prospect in the system a lot more than talent evaluators out there.
MN: The Nats have also spoken with pitcher Trevor Bauer, who would be a formidable No. 4 starter behind Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, but he may also be a bit too expensive for the Nats’ tastes. Erick Fedde, Joe Ross and Austin Voth can all be effective starters at the back end of the rotation.
The free-agent market will be just as slow this year as in the recent past, and if they do decide to find a starter outside the organization, there are plenty who would offer better value on a medium-term deal, like Robbie Ray, Jake Odorizzi, Marcus Stroman or Michael Wacha.
The Nats should not pay big money for a catcher like J.T. Realmuto. At 30, he looks to be entering his peak years as a hitter, but he’s likely to want a long-term contract, and at the end of the deal, he might wind up as an expensive first baseman.
If they don’t decide to bring back Kurt Suzuki to go with veteran holdover Yan Gomes, they may go with James McCann, who who’ll be 31 in the upcoming season and helped turn around the Chicago White Sox pitching staff, including former Nat Lucas Giolito.
BB: Personally, I’m in favor of a minor reset.
The farm system is wildly depleted. This team’s competitive window is closing fast. A lot of cash is going to have to move into the hands of free agents over the next couple of years, especially with what the Braves are concocting in Atlanta.
BF: The Nationals’ biggest need is offense, and their other needs are... offense, more offense, then maybe a lefty reliever and a dart-throw starter mixed in for good measure.
Seriously, they need to ensure they fill the lineup holes at catcher, outfield, and a lefty-hitting first baseman with players who can hit well. If they have money left over to spend, that’s when they can go and get a nice back-end rotation option or bullpen upgrade.
Which Nationals player do you think is the most likely to be traded away this winter and why?
PR: Starlin Castro? If they’re comfortable with what they saw from Luis García at second, and are committed to sticking with Carter Kieboom at third, even though he’s struggled in two stints in the majors now, Castro, who signed a 2-year/$12M deal with the Nationals last winter, would seem like a potential piece they could trade. Or would they trade Kieboom if they didn’t like what they saw from him and some other team is higher on him than the club that drafted him. Other than Castro, uh, maybe trade from some of the pitching depth, Fedde or Voth, for what they need?
MN: The Nats have said all the right things about being patient with Carter Kieboom, and he has played solid defense at third base. But his bat has never showed up. Luis García seems set at second base, and Starlin Castro showed flashes of brilliance before his season was ended by a broken wrist. The re-signing of Josh Harrison shows that the Nats are likely considering a platoon at third, if they don’t snag LeMahieu.
It’s unclear how much trade value Kieboom has, but it’s even less clear how much more patience the team will have waiting for him to become the hitter he’s been in the minor leagues. General manager Mike Rizzo usually offers value in his trades, so he’d likely package the underperforming Kieboom with someone else, but it’s hard to predict whom.
An offseason trade looks doubtful.
BB: Max Scherzer has one year remaining on his deal. Depending on how the season’s going in Washington, he could be a piece they move in order to address the farm problem.
But, as with question one, that’s contingent on the front office conceding that the road they’re heading down is a troublesome one. I wouldn’t count on it.
BF: If I were Mike Rizzo, I’d be listening to what teams have to say with regards to Starlin Castro.
Luis García and Carter Kieboom are the future in the infield. While they both had struggles to some degree, neither looked completely out of place, so Castro becomes something of a luxury. If they can get something worthwhile, they should pull the trigger.
Will the Nationals agree to an extension with either Trea Turner or Juan Soto?
PR: I’d say Turner is the more likely of the two to agree to an extension right now, considering that Rizzo said in late September that they’d, “had discussions in the past, and we would certainly love to continue having those discussions.” Rizzo said Turner was part of the core in D.C. and a player, “... that’s really coming into his own and becoming a real factor in the game.” He’s relatively cheap now, doesn’t become a free agent until 2023, and put up big numbers the last two seasons.
Soto, on the other hand, just won a batting title, is one of the best young players in the big leagues right now, and has to think there’s a big contract coming down the line, whether it ends up coming from the Nationals or another team if he hits free agency. Right now, he’s really a ridiculous bargain (he earned a prorated amount of $629,400 in 2020), and I don’t see a Scott Boras client signing a long-term deal at this point, though the Nationals should 100% try.
MN: Of all the players on the roster who deserve a contract extension, Trea Turner is the top priority.
With two years until he becomes eligible for free agency, Turner is the most likely target on the team for a deal that would still allow him to become a big-money free agent at age 35 or so. Five-tool shortstops don’t grow on trees, and teams that have one usually don’t let them get away. Turner might have been an all-star in 2019 had he not broken a finger, and at .335/.394/.588 he would have been an All-Star this year had teams been selected. Here’s a hunch that the Nats break with their tradition of letting young stars go on the market and work out a deal that makes Turner the centerpiece of the Nats for years to come.
Soto, the 2020 National League batting champion, also merits a long-term deal in Washington, but as a Scott Boras client, he’s likely to become a free agent as soon as he’s eligible.
Rizzo’s usual strategy with arbitration-eligible Boras clients is to buy out their arbitration years at a team-friendly value. Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon walked away after he used that strategy on them. Soto may have different motivations than the other did. The same goes for another Boras client, Max Scherzer, who can be a free agent after the 2021 season. Maybe he likes Washington and the Nats enough to stay. Maybe he has personal reasons for wanting to move on. Whatever the case, it’s foolish to suggest that the lack of a long-term deal before they go on the market means the team isn’t earnest in its efforts to re-sign them.
BB: Juan Soto is obviously the guy to get. But that’s tough.
The Braves were able to swindle Ozzie Albies into a club friendly deal, but Albies isn’t the generational player Soto is. He (and Scott Boras) might opt to take the road many have taken: Wait out the process and cash in down the line.
BF: This could be the time to strike for a Turner extension. Perhaps a beefed-up version of the contract they reportedly offered Ian Desmond in 2014 could do it? I don’t think we see it, but it would not be shocking at all if they do come to terms at some point this winter.
For Soto, while an extension would be well-greeted by fans, I think Scott Boras has other ideas.
And finally, a bold offseason prediction not covered by the above?
PR: The Nationals trade for Josh Bell to play first base and hit in the middle of the lineup.
Going with this because a scout told Pirates beat writer (at The Athletic) Rob Biertempfel he could see it happening to clear up holes at first base and in the middle of their order, and I couldn’t think of anything else to put here. Plus in that article, Jim Bowden said he’s still big on Bell. And he’s good at talent evaluation.
MN: Rizzo is one of the best general managers in the game because he’s smart, not necessarily bold. His free-agent signings are usually strategic. For every Jayson Werth, Max Scherzer or Patrick Corbin he signs, he gets two guys like Harrison, Castro, Asdrúbal Cabrera, or Gerardo Parra.
So, the prediction here is that the Nats stick with the system that made them a contender for almost a decade. A couple of strategic signings to fill glaring needs, but other than that, nothing spectacular.
BB: They double down. Maybe that’s not so bold because they clearly want to win — and now.
They’re going to try to make a splash in free agency, especially with it being a club-friendly market, given the pandemic’s budgetary strain — teams simply won’t be willing to cough up huge dollar amounts. I’d like to see them get a big bullpen arm, but there’s not an obviously strong candidate for that role. So let’s say they focus on starting pitching again and go for the prized commodity: Trevor Bauer.
BF: Sean Doolittle returns to the Nationals to be their lefty in the bullpen. Without much of a market this offseason after a tumultuous 2020 season, the fan-favorite comes back on a one-year prove-it deal with a player option as he hopes to rediscover his 2018-form.