On Tuesday, the Washington Nationals made a rather predictable move. No matter what it may mean to the rest of the Nats’ offseason shopping list, signing Escobar to this extension made sense for several reasons.
- At $1 million, bringing Escobar back was extremely cheap. That’s less than twice the league minimum,
- Just as importantly, the length of the contract works out perfectly for the Nats. Escobar is a solid glove-first infielder, but he isn’t the kind of guy the rebuilding Nationals should be signing to a multi-year deal or anything. There’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal.
- The Nats entered the offseason without a big league ready shortstop in the organization. As of Tuesday, their projected starters at second base (Luis García) and third base (Carter Kieboom) each have less than a year of service time under their belts. It’s also fair to say that neither García nor Kieboom have really established themselves as clear starters heading into the offseason. Escobar could very well provide value at other positions.
One of the beautiful things about a deal like this is that it doesn’t really offer much in the way of assurances. It’s assumed that Escobar will head to West Palm Beach with the confidence that he’s going to be on the big league roster. That’s about all that this contract would seem to ensure, though. Teams don’t generally sign veterans to a 1 year, $1 million deal to start every day.
Do the Nationals consider making a move for one of the big four shortstops?
Since the Nationals’ offseason has already begun, there are plenty of options to speculate about on the free agent market while we wait for the playoffs to end. There are a lot of holes on this roster heading into the offseason, many of which we’ll address in the next few weeks. One would also like to think that the Nationals, who did end up saving a bit of money with their deadline deals, might be willing to make a splash in free agency if the right player(s) were available. It has been widely speculated that the Nats may splash the cash on one of the big shortstops who are slated to hit the open market. Those shortstops are (age in parentheses):
- Javier Bàez (29)
- Carlos Correa (27)
- Corey Seager (28)
- Trevor Story (29)
All four of those players are expected to cash in this winter. We’ll profile each of them individually over the next couple of weeks, but at least three of them (well.... you’ll see how I feel about them when we profile them) would be a fixture in the middle of the lineup and likely bat behind Juan Soto.
Signing a big middle of the order bat would help both the performance on the field and help the club’s performance at the box office. Rebuilds take time, and 2022 could be another long season. Bringing in a star player in free agency helps to keep the fans (us!) interested sometimes. Ownership may not love the cost of acquiring one of these players, but bringing in a high profile new face does have a tendency to build excitement and keep attendance numbers up.
The Escobar signing shouldn’t preclude the Nationals from going after a big bat at shortstop this winter. He signed for 35-year-old utility man money, so signing a Bàez, Correa, Seager, or Story would merely mean that he’d provide cover for Garcia, the new shortstop, and Kieboom. Barring dramatic improvements from Garcia and Kieboom, there should be plenty of opportunities to go around for Escobar all over the infield. The likelihood is that Escobar’s signing is more likely to end Jordy Mercer’s tenure with the Nationals than their interest in signing a free agent shortstop.
Should the Nats be spending big money on a shortstop this offseason though?
It’s entirely possible that what happened with the Nationals at the trade deadline this summer was inevitable, but years of going for it certainly ensured that this summer’s fire sale was necessary. Those moves where the Nationals went for it weren’t exclusively trades* which depleted the farm system though. Free agent signings that were tied to draft pick compensation also helped to prevent the Nats from reloading the farm system with more upper tier prospects.
* Given the pitching performances this past season, how would a rotation of Robbie Ray, Lucas Giolito, Dane Dunning, and Nick Pivetta sound? Reynaldo Lopez, Jesus Luzardo, and Wil Crowe could fight for the fifth spot with the others supporting Blake Treinen in the bullpen.
In hindsight, though, the most damaging move the Nationals made was clearly getting nothing for losing Bryce Harper. OK... They technically got a draft pick that was supposed to be between the fourth and fifth round. That ended up being the secondary pick that they had to give up as compensation for signing Patrick Corbin. Even if the Nats had mainly just gotten some lottery picks for Harper, the organizational depth would be helpful at this point.
During their run over the past decade, the Nationals have forfeited three first round picks (Rafael Soriano, Daniel Murphy, and Max Scherzer), two second round picks (Jayson Werth & Patrick Corbin), and that compensation pick for Harper that would have been after the fourth round (Corbin cost them two draft picks because they were over the luxury tax threshold in 2018). Of those big four shortstops, it’s safe to assume that Correa, Seager, and Story will all receive qualifying offers from their teams. Javier Baez is ineligible to receive a qualifying offer as he was traded during the season. One of Baez’s former teammates with the Cubs, Kris Bryant, would also be an intriguing option for the Nats to think about who won’t be tied to a draft pick. Unfortunately, Bryant doesn’t play shortstop, so we’ll talk about him at a later date.
On the positive side, the pick that the Nationals would have to forfeit if they sign a free agent (who rejects a qualifying offer) wouldn’t be until the second round. The trades that the Nationals made this July did provide nice infusions of both younger players that can challenge for playing time at the big league level and players who will help the organizational depth in the farm system. That said, making moves that are going to cost a team a draft pick in an early round are moves that usually make more sense when a team is going all in rather than rebuilding.
While the Nats appear to have a long road ahead of them, it seems safe to say that they’re going to be active this offseason. The farm system did see significant improvement after the trade deadline, but there’s certainly not a surplus of players that are clamoring for big league callups. Both the rotation and bullpen were in a shambles down the stretch. The offense showed significantly more promise, but there definitely have to be questions about whether some of the less experienced hitters can repeat their performance next season. The Nats will need the farm system to produce to help them rebuild, but they won’t be able to rely on the farm alone.