“Rebuild” has become a feared word among fans of Major League Baseball in recent seasons. They see the likes of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles and dread the same fate where the goalposts for the end of their rebuilds keep moving further away.
So when the Washington Nationals decided to trade away some of their star players at the trade deadline, there was some unease among fans about whether this would end the same.
The truth is, around four months from the trade deadline, we don’t know yet.
Sure, the early signs have been promising. Some of the main prospects acquired have made good first impressions, such as Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz. But we still won’t know until they have more games under their belts whether these players, as well as others who will join the organization, will form a strong enough foundation for the team to compete again.
The elephant in the room for the Nationals though is Juan Soto’s eventual free agency which looms following the 2024 season.
When you have one of the best players in all of baseball, it’s going to be on the organization to either maximize the time that he’s on the team or try to assemble a competitive enough roster to convince him to stay long-term as his agent, Scott Boras, indicated earlier this month.
That seemingly puts the Nationals on the clock to ensure their rebuild is swift and allows them to compete again within the next couple of seasons before Soto potentially leaves DC.
“We’re going to do everything we can to become a championship-caliber club again,” GM Mike Rizzo told MLB Network a few weeks back. “We had a great run of eleven good, solid, competitive years where we were competing for championships, we won four division titles, a Wild Card, and a world championship in that ten-year period.
“We’re used to success here, and we’re going to battle and put together a team that will compete sooner rather than later.”
Given how many holes there still are on the major league roster right now, even with a strong offseason, competing might be a bit out of reach in 2022 for this Nationals team, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t do things this winter to set themselves up for future success.
It’s a worn-out example, but when the Nationals were in a similar spot back before the 2011 season, they came out of nowhere to reel in Jayson Werth on a seven-year, $126 million contract.
The following season, the Nats would go on to finish the season 80-81. A noticeable step forward from the team that had averaged almost 100 losses over the previous three years.
The Werth signing wasn’t one that was a piece that put them over the top. Instead it helped build a solid foundation to begin competing the following year when Stephen Strasburg returned, Bryce Harper received his long-anticipated call-up, and other aggressive moves followed ahead of the 2012 season that ended up putting the franchise over the top.
With that in mind, where on the field can the Nationals make a Werth-esque signing as part of the next foundation? There are two standout positions: Shortstop and third base.
At shortstop, Washington has some promising options in their farm system in Brady House and Armando Cruz, though House may end up moving to third. However, both seem at least three years away from making the big leagues, by which time Soto could be elsewhere.
At third base, Carter Kieboom looks set to start the 2022 season there but continues to look as though he’s not the long-term answer. And much like shortstop, any possible options in the minors, including House, are a long way away from making an impact in the majors.
So, if the Nationals are to pounce early on one of their key long-term holes, who are the top free agents on the market this offseason?
The third base market is all of a sudden pretty shallow, maybe even more so after Eduardo Escobar agreed to sign with the New York Mets over the holiday weekend. Now, the top remaining options are Kris Bryant and Kyle Seager at the hot corner.
Despite Marcus Semien agreeing to join the Texas Rangers on Sunday, there are still a plethora of high-end shortstop options in Carlos Correa, Javier Báez, Corey Seager, and Trevor Story.
Unless the Nationals can go under the radar and go get Kris Bryant, exploring their options at shortstop makes a lot more sense. They can read the market, see how it’s playing out, and maybe lock down one of their positions of need ahead of schedule if the price is right.
None of the remaining shortstop options will be 30-years-old entering the 2022 season and still project to be productive players for many more years. That should line up with when the Nats hope to be back to competing for division crowns and championships again.
That’s not to say that the Nationals have to get overly aggressive in pursuit of those players. With 2022 pegged as another season where the future is in focus, they can kick the can down the road and hope to find a different solution in a year or so — Trea Turner, anyone?
However, with several appealing options still available on the open market, the Nationals have the chance to make a big move for a player of their choice and set themselves up for the future...