If you are a free agent or a player who has demanded a trade, it has to be difficult to watch the days tick off the calendar with no activity. The hot stove has gone cold. Many teams have chopped payroll and some are clipping coupons.
The Washington Nationals were in an enviable position coming off a 97-win season while returning their top-four starting pitchers and their entire starting line-up from April 22nd. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo re-signed free agent Brandon Kintzler to replicate the back of his 2017 bullpen known as “The Law Firm” of Kintzler, Madson & Doolittle. Plus Mike Rizzo inked Matt Adams as his key lefty bench bat replacing the departed Adam Lind.
Mentioned #Nationals’ interest in #Marlins’ Realmuto in my latest notes column: https://t.co/XJ2mSqxD8G Team definitely wants to upgrade its catching, but does not want to part with Robles or Soto, sources say. Avila still possible as free agent.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 4, 2018
At the start of the hot stove season, TalkNats put together a list of players who could fit the Nats needs. With Adams and Kintzler officially acquired, the focus has mostly been on upgrading at catcher where the Nationals were the lowest rated in 2017 at a -1.1 combined WAR mainly with Matt Wieters and Jose Lobaton.
There is over a dozen free agent catchers still remaining along with making a potential trade for J.T. Realmuto who has reportedly been made available. TalkNats analyzed why Realmuto would be a great fit for the Nationals.
The other name mentioned the most as a free agent catcher and a fit for the Nationals is Alex Avila. He is not a defensive whiz by Fangraphs standards who rated him 37th last year. Where Avila’s value seems to be is that he has a knack for getting on-base, and he has done it his whole career. Unfortunately there are also many warning signs on Avila as his K rate was alarmingly high at 43.5% when he was traded to the Cubs last year. Avila also has had his struggles hitting his way on-base when he batted .191 in 2015 and .213 in 2016 before bouncing back last year to .239 last year. With that said, Avila has exhibited a knack for getting on-base during his entire career to a .351 career OBP and seems to have been getting better with age and had a .387 OBP for 2017 and also hit .316 as a pinch-hitter last season.
One comment made yesterday on TalkNats by Andrew Ross (Draz) was that Avila has struggled in the post-season with 124 plate appearances he has slashed .153/ .236/ .252/ .488. Because Avila is a free agent, he will be looking for a multi-year deal and he turns 31-years-old this month. Jon Heyman believes Avila will get a $12 million contract for 2 years and Heyman rated him as the 44th best free agent this off-season.
The top-rated free agent catcher is Jonathan Lucroy. He rates as the 11th best defensive catcher last year, but struggled with the bat with the Texas Rangers last year before his trade to the Rockies. Lucroy only got on-base with the Rangers last year at a .297 OBP. He will be 32-years-old this season and older catchers have been shown to be a risk.
If you believe the rumors on Wilson Ramos as a trade possibility, he could be an interesting fit for the Nats as he has one year remaining on the two year deal he signed last year with the Tampa Rays and Ramos is now 30-years-old. It would take the Tampa Rays to eat a big chunk of his reported full compensation of $10.5 million for the 2018 season.
If you dig into Ramos’ 2017 season, he only got 208 at-bats after rehabbing back from an ACL injury in his knee. Ramos still managed a .737 OPS for 2017 and really thrived hitting in Tampa where he his batting average was .299. He ended his season very strong slashing .317/.328/.600/.928 in September. If you believe his first 75 at-bats were his Spring Training, Ramos hit exactly .200 and his next 125 at-bats he hit .294. Yes, “The Buffalo” hit very close to his 2016 All-Star stats once he got his timing down. What is an advantage with Ramos is that he has a working familiarity with most of the Nats pitching staff.
An Outfield Upgrade for the Future
The Nationals were tied to a Christian Yelich in a rumor if you believe the Joe Frisaro report. Yelich has been an underrated outfielder for the Miami Marlins who had a +4.5 fWAR the past 2 seasons and has 5-years of team control remaining. Yelich, like Realmuto, has reportedly asked to be traded. Also like Realmuto, he does not hit well in Marlins Park. Yelich last year was even better hitting on the road slashing .299/ .385/ .484 /.869. As Nats fans also know, Yelich steps up in RISP (runners-in-scoring-position) spots slashing .298 /.395/ .534/ .929 and .289 in his career for his batting average. Yelich just turned 26-years-old last month and could prove to be a long-term answer if Bryce Harper leaves next year for another team via free agency.
Trade versus Free Agent
Most fans prefer the Nationals sign free agents to fill the remaining spots on the team rather than trade for players. Any trade would further deplete the depth in the Nationals farm system. Mike Rizzo certainly would need to work his magic on any acquisitions as he travails through the salary tax threshold as the other impediment in his way.
The Boras Effect
The other factor is Nationals principal owner Ted Lerner has been the Scott Boras rescuer late in the off-season and even after Spring Training has started. Whether it was Matt Wieters last year who signed on February 24th, Stephen Drew who was signed on January 26th last year, or Rafael Soriano on January 17 in 2013, the Nationals have helped Scott Boras before with his clients even just being tied to his players like the Nationals were with Prince Fielder who eventually signed with the Detroit Tigers.
Whether you believe Mike Rizzo is part of all of the Scott Boras negotiations with the Nationals or not — or everything is done directly with owner Ted Lerner is debated often. The best line on this might have been delivered by Peter Schmuck of the Baltimore Sun who wrote a piece on Chris Davis who is a Boras client, Schmuck wrote:
“Obviously, [Scott] Boras goes to ownership for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks: because that’s where the money is.”
Ken Rosenthal believes Greg Holland, a Boras client, will be signed by the Washington Nationals. The issue is Holland received a Qualified Offer and if the Nats sign him they will forfeit two draft picks which is very reminiscent of the Rafael Soriano signing that cost the Nationals a 1st round pick in 2013 and the Yankees in succession chose Aaron Judge and Ian Clarkin with comp picks they got for Nick Swisher and Rafael Soriano. The Nationals farm system took a hit because of forfeiting their 1st round pick that season and it was a super weak draft class for the Nats in 2013.
The Nationals have also been mentioned in Jake Arrieta rumors as he is a Boras top pitching free agent. Arrieta is also tied to a qualified offer and would cost the acquiring team draft pick(s). Time will tell if the Nationals sign any Boras clients.