There are, roughly speaking, two schools of thoughts about the Washington Nationals at this juncture.
Although the long, dark winter without baseball is nearly at an end, the off-season has moved very slowly for free agents. Yu Darvish, projected as the top free agent available this winter by MLB Trade Rumors and others, finally signed with a team on Saturday (the Chicago Cubs, on a six-year pact worth $126 million). Now baseball fans, analysts, clubs, players, and agents are anxiously waiting to see if this is the spark that’s needed to light the Hot Stove.
Conceivably, pitchers like Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, and Jake Arrieta could sign now that Darvish has set the market and one of their suitors is off the board. Other top free agents like Eric Hosmer, J.D. Martinez, and Mike Moustakas could follow, especially if teams emulate the Cubs and offer that extra year at a lower average annual value.
The Milwaukee Brewers and the Philadelphia Phillies are among the teams known to be seeking a major addition to their rotation. Others, such as the Minnesota Twins, New York Mets, and New York Yankees, could conceivably wade into the high end of the remaining pitching market. Still more, including the Baltimore Orioles and the Miami Marlins, simply need to stock up on enough back-end arms to limp their way through another unpromising season.
But where does that leave the Nats?
General manager Mike Rizzo said at a Hot Stove event earlier this month that A.J. Cole is the team’s fifth starter. That’s how things stand at present. Of course, we know that the situation can change. And, as Rizzo reminded us at that same event, he often makes moves that no one expects.
I’m going to Spring Training on Friday, and we will show up with the team we have right now. This is a team that I feel is capable to play deep into October. That’s the good thing. The great thing is we’re never satisfied here — I’m ultra-competitive. Davey [Martinez] is ultra-competitive. We’re going to want to get the best we can get out there. If there is a deal that makes sense free-agent-wise or trade-wise, you know, we are aggressive enough to pull the trigger and make a deal. So anything that improves us from this day forward we’re going to look into and explore it, and as we often do we do things that nobody is thinking about. –Mike Rizzo
We’ve heard Rizzo say before that he likes the team he has. It hasn’t always stopped him from making moves.
Again, there are two schools of thought. One is best expressed by Fangraphs’ Travis Sawchick, who described an upgrade at the catcher position as a “glaring need” for the Nats in December:
Every extra edge in the postseason is significant for a team that has World Series aspirations. And it’s the Nats’ catcher position that was the weakest among all non-pitcher position groups among contenders last season. As we wait for the stove to warm, it’s something to consider. –Travis Sawchick
Others have opined on another perceived need, albeit it is somewhat less glaring than the Nats’ extreme weakness at catcher. MASN has run hot-and-cold on the Nats’ rotation picture, but the sports network suggested in November that the team could use at least one addition:
Erick Fedde is the future, but the top pitching prospect underwhelmed in the first three starts of his big league career and then was shelved for all of September with a forearm strain. The Nationals can’t commit to the 24-year-old yet, not until he re-establishes himself at Triple-A over a prolonged stretch. A.J. Cole, though he probably exceeded some expectations this year, still is viewed by most as rotation depth that can be called on in-season when needed. However, here is one hang-up with Cole in 2018: He’ll be out of options and thus can’t be sent to the minors without first clearing waivers. So all of that leaves the Nationals needing to look elsewhere for rotation help this winter. –Mark Zuckerman
And then there’s the second school of thought. It’s the one Rizzo has expressed in his public statements, echoed by some writers who either take the GM at face value or have reached their own conclusions about the state of the roster. MLB.com’s Jamal Collier wrote earlier this month that indications are that the Nats are unlikely to sign another free agent this winter:
In fact, Washington seems very content with the current roster it has assembled. That will include entering camp with A.J. Cole as the projected fifth starter, Pedro Severino as the backup catcher and with a number of bullpen arms with recent injury trouble to fill out their middle relief core. Still, this team won 97 games a year ago, and is in position to be one of the favorites in the National League this season. So while the Nats will still be looking for deals with potential value as free agents continue to sit unsigned, unless something falls into their lap that is too good to pass up, I don’t expect them to capitalize on the market this year. –Jamal Collier
Of course, there’s a fuzzy middle to these points of view.
Like Collier, The Washington Post‘s Jorge Castillo also seems to think the Nats are pretty much set after bringing back setup man Brandon Kintzler, utility infielder Howie Kendrick, and minor league signees Edwin Jackson and Ryan Raburn, as well as signing Matt Adams as the backup first baseman. Still, he also noted last month that Rizzo could always make an opportunistic addition:
The Nationals don’t need to acquire another major leaguer before Opening Day. They re-signed Brandon Kintzler to pitch the seventh inning. They signed Matt Adams and Howie Kendrick to fill their bench. They have options for the fifth spot in their starting rotation. They are National League East favorites with their current projected roster, and acquiring help during the season is always an option. But the Nationals have a history of pouncing late when they deem the price right. –Jorge Castillo
So, are the Nats done? Should they be done?
While Rizzo said earlier this month that A.J. Cole is the fifth starter, he has also talked up the possibility of Erick Fedde in the rotation, leading MASN’s Zuckerman and others to conclude there will be a spring training competition for the job. Cole may be the frontrunner, but Fedde and the likes of Edwin Jackson, Tommy Milone, and perhaps other minor league pitchers with invitations to major league camp will be vying to make their case as well.
In 2012, the Nats looked primed to head into the season with John Lannan in the rotation. But ultimately, it was young fireballer Ross Detwiler who claimed that last open spot, impressing management enough to give him the nod and leaving Lannan, twice Washington’s Opening Day starter, at Triple-A. If that seems like ancient history, flash back to spring 2017, when Joe Ross appeared to be the easy choice for fifth starter after top prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez were traded to the Chicago White Sox. But instead, the Nats took a chance on veteran Jeremy Guthrie. That proved a very short-lived experiment indeed. But Ross still struggled to lock down that rotation spot, with the Nats quietly demoting him in May and briefly employing the likes of Cole and Jacob Turner in the rotation while figuring out how to get him back on track.
Ross isn’t available right now. He finally broke back into the rotation in late May, seemingly for good, only to end up undergoing “Tommy John” surgery after experiencing an alarming dip in velocity and struggling with his command in July. The Nats hope he’ll be back later this season, but no one knows for sure how quickly (or completely) he’ll recover.
That leaves the team in a tough situation.
Cole is out of options, meaning he will either break camp with the team or need to be exposed to waivers in order to be sent back to the minors, assuming he isn’t traded or placed on the disabled list in the meantime. The Nats used him as a swingman down the stretch in 2017, sometimes having him start and other times using him for multiple innings out of the bullpen.
There are pros and cons to Cole. His overall results were encouraging last year, as he amassed a 3.81 ERA (or 117 ERA+) in the majors and won three of his eight decisions. But the peripherals remain deeply concerning. Cole’s walk rate rose while his strikeout rate fell, leading to a very poor 1.63 K/BB ratio. That increase in walks contributed to a garish 1.50 WHIP, well above par for a major league starter (1.33 as of 2016, per Fangraphs). Home runs remained an issue (1.4 HR/9), contributing to an above-average 5.20 FIP. Opponents amassed a .262/.799 slash against, with the average left-handed batter essentially turning himself into Freddie Freeman against Cole with a .320/.975 line. And while Cole’s 52 innings in the majors gives us a decent, if not massive, sample size to judge his numbers, across 93⅓ innings at Triple-A Syracuse — in his fourth season at that level, in a league generally regarded as pitcher-friendly — he got crushed to the tune of a 5.88 ERA, 1.75 WHIP, and .307/.829 slash line against.
Even still, Fedde comes with less to recommend him. He likely wasn’t helped by an ill-advised experiment that saw him shift to the bullpen, then return to the rotation less than a month before being called upon for his major league debut. But no matter how you slice it, a 4.76 ERA at Triple-A plus a 9.39 ERA across three MLB starts doesn’t exactly scream, “Put me in, Coach!” At least his peripherals in the minors leave more room for positivity. Despite his mediocre ERA, Fedde posted a respectable 1.16 WHIP and 3.43 K/BB across 90⅓ minor league innings as both a starter and a reliever.
Jackson, Milone, and other possible non-roster invitees like Logan Darnell and Jaron Long represent what should probably be considered emergency depth. Jackson is certainly the most notable among them, having held down the fifth starter job for almost half of 2017 after Ross’ season-ending injury. But despite holding his own in August, Jackson imploded in September, the 34-year-old skidding to a 5.21 ERA on the season after giving up a horrendous 24 earned runs in 22 innings that month. He pitched his way off the playoff roster and had to settle for another minor league deal this winter.
So, do the Nats cross their fingers and hope that Cole takes another step forward — that his improved results in terms of runs kept off the board last August and September are the shape of things to come — and that someone like Fedde or Jackson will be effective if they need to step up in Cole’s place or fill in for an injured starter?
We come back to the two schools of thought: the one that says this is the last year the Nats have Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Gio Gonzalez under contract, they still haven’t gotten out of the first round of the playoffs, and they can’t afford to gamble on players who haven’t really earned their way onto the roster, and the other that says the Nats already project to be above the luxury tax threshold, they already have a rotation headlined by two of last year’s top three Cy Young Award vote-getters (including the [now-three-time] award winner) and a take-no-prisoners lineup studded with All-Stars, and they’re well-positioned enough in a weak division to give a lackluster role player or two an opportunity to prove they don’t need to be upgraded at the trade deadline.
And here’s the squishy middle again. While Rizzo has said publicly that he likes the team we have, reports have repeatedly linked the Nats to a number of potential free agent and trade targets that would bolster the rotation. Within hours of the Darvish news breaking, an MLB.com article quoted an unnamed rival executive calling the Nats “a legitimate suitor for the remaining free-agent starters.”
Darvish is off the board. Reports never really connected him with Washington. But rumors still swirl around a prospective fit with Jake Arrieta. The 2015 Cy Young Award winner is a client of Scott Boras, who represents a significant portion of the Nats’ current roster and enjoys a friendly relationship with team ownership. Although Arrieta has come back to Earth following that stellar 2015 campaign, his 3.53 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 2.96 K/BB this year over 168⅓ innings still suggests a capable pitcher who would likely slot in as the Nats’ third starter, bumping Cole either off the roster (unlikely) or into a bullpen role. Of course, the question is whether Arrieta continues on a decline trend for the duration of what would likely be a four-, five-, or even six-year contract. He’s 32 next month. What does a 35-year-old Arrieta look like? And how much will he be making that season?
Two more options: Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn. Both bounced back from missing all or most of the 2016 season due to Tommy John rehab to enjoy fine 2017 campaigns. Both also have a bit of cause for concern in their peripherals, with WHIPs about on par with Arrieta’s; in particular, Lynn’s 4.82 FIP and 1.96 K/BB start to look slightly Cole-esque, while Cobb’s 6.4 K/9 doesn’t appear to qualify him as ace material. Still, Lynn and Cobb have their proponents. Fangraphs’ Matthew Mocarsky made a compelling argument in November that Cobb could be “ready to join the [Rich] Hills, [Trevor] Bauers, and [Lance] McCullerses of the world and ride a high breaking-ball-usage rate to breakout success” in 2018. And while FanRag Sports’ Evan Davis wasn’t quite as effusive in his own valuation of Lynn last week, he marveled at the right-hander’s “metronomic consistency” and suggested he “just might be the key for a team to calm the rough seas of yesteryear.”
Lesser lights still out there in free agency include lefties Jaime Garcia and Jason Vargas and righties Andrew Cashner and Jeremy Hellickson. Although they wouldn’t step into the middle of the Nats’ rotation, they could serve as an upgrade over Cole in the fifth starter slot, moving him into a long relief/spot-starter role to improve the team’s depth. While each of these four come with their own causes for concern, it’s still worth noting that Garcia was valuable enough for contending teams to be traded not once but twice at the deadline, Vargas was an All-Star last year in his own comeback from Tommy John surgery, Cashner somehow managed a 3.40 ERA despite a very ugly 1.34 K/BB ratio, and Hellickson’s down year came after a better-than-solid 2016 campaign.
And then there’s the trade market. Reports have tied the Nats to Jake Odorizzi of the Tampa Bay Rays. While Odorizzi endured a 2017 to forget, in which he rated as a replacement-level player with a middling 4.14 ERA and a dire 5.43 FIP inflated by a 1.9 HR/9, he was quite good in 2015 and 2016. He’s only 28 next month, too. More speculatively mentioned as fits are the likes of southpaws Sean Manaea of the Oakland Athletics, Patrick Corbin of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Danny Duffy of the Kansas City Royals. Much more out-of-the-box trade options could include Los Angeles Angels righty Nick Tropeano, expected to return from Tommy John surgery early in the season to a team that no longer has an obvious place for him to play, or old friend Jordan Zimmermann of the Detroit Tigers, who has scuffled badly since joining his new team on a player-friendly contract but could conceivably fare better back in Washington (along with a significant amount of cash to help cover his outstanding salary, of course).
The luxury tax is also a consideration for any roster additions. The Nats will pay a 30% overage on any 2018 salary above the luxury tax threshold, so a $20 million AAV would actually cost $26 million this year. So is the qualifying offer that Arrieta, Cobb, and Lynn all received and rejected, meaning any team that signs them will forfeit at least one of their top five draft picks (for the Nats, their second- and fifth-round picks) in 2018. So unless they snap up a lesser free agent like Garcia, Vargas or Hellickson, the Nats wouldn’t be able to avoid giving up value from their farm system (as they would in a trade) by signing a free agent to reinforce their rotation.
The backup catcher
Even before the unfortunate news last week that top Nats catching prospect Raudy Read tested positive for the steroid Boldenone, earning himself an 80-game suspension, Rizzo repeatedly referred to Pedro Severino as the team’s backup catcher.
It’s both easy and difficult to see why Severino has been handed the job. Like Cole, the 24-year-old Dominican native is out of options, so he can’t be stashed at Triple-A Syracuse and called up and down at will this year like he was in 2015, 2016, and 2017. And also like Cole, there’s a lot in Severino’s profile that doesn’t inspire confidence that he is ready to become a full-time major league ballplayer, options or not. Although he managed a .271 batting average at Triple-A in 2016 (again, in what is considered a pitcher-friendly league), a paucity of walks and a near-total lack of power kept his OPS that season at a decidedly modest .653. In 2017, that below-average slash line cratered further to .242/.623. Severino’s performance was so lackluster that upon returning from a stint on the disabled list, he found himself competing for playing time against Spencer Kieboom, who had originally been promoted from Double-A as his injury replacement but ended up performing considerably better than Severino across a comparable number of games (47 vs. 59). While some fans took solace in the fact that the light-hitting backstop had performed significantly better in very limited major league action in 2015 and 2016, he had no such luck in 2017, being dominated by major league pitching to the tune of a pitiful .172/.433 slash line. He also struggled on defense, allowing more passed balls (eight) in his 59 games at Triple-A than the Syracuse Chiefs’ other catchers combined.
Here come those divergent schools of thought again. There’s the one that says the Nats have made it to the playoffs for the past two seasons in a row despite having Jose Lobaton as their backup catcher — how much worse could Severino really be, and even if he is just as bad (or worse), how much would that really hurt the team in the long run? And there’s the one that says the Nats have already committed to spelling primary catcher Matt Wieters more often this year, Wieters was already one of the worst everyday hitters in the major leagues last year, and the club’s poor catching has already played an outsize role in two straight National League Division Series losses (in 2016, when primary catcher Wilson Ramos tore ligaments in his knee days before the playoffs and Lobaton/Severino proceeded to go 3-for-19, albeit with a critical home run from the former, in the playoffs; in 2017, when Wieters was charged with a passed ball, a throwing error, and catcher’s interference in one pivotal, excruciating inning and then Lobaton was picked off first base to end the eighth inning a few frames later in Game 5).
There’s one real clear-cut option to upgrade the Nats’ catching tandem this winter: J.T. Realmuto. The Miami Marlins have embarked upon a painful teardown under new ownership during the off-season. Trade rumors have repeatedly tied the Nats to Realmuto, likely Miami’s best remaining player. But the deal has stalled, apparently over an impasse between the two clubs over which of the Nats’ top prospect(s) would headline the transaction, and on Saturday, South Florida-based SiriusXM sports reporter Craig Mish reported the Houston Astros were entertaining the idea of trading for the soon-to-be-27-year-old:
Source : Houston Astros have engaged in trade discussions for JT Realmuto. OF Kyle Tucker is the ask by Miami. Astros are considering. 50% chance Realmuto is dealt before opening day.
— Craig Mish (@CraigMish) February 10, 2018
Realmuto would immediately become the Nats’ (or the Astros’) primary catcher if a trade can be swung. A well-rounded hitter who is one of a rare breed, a catcher with speed, Realmuto has the potential to truly blossom in friendlier confines than the cavernous Marlins Park, as TalkNats’ own Steve Mears explored in December. Realmuto, who slashed .278/.783 with 17 home runs and eight stolen bases in 2017, would likely relegate Wieters to a backup role. It’s also possible Wieters could be traded or even granted his release if it proves difficult to manage him in that capacity. Either way, Realmuto would figure to need much less bench time than the fragile Wieters.
The Realmuto deal could be destined to join the many rumored Nats trades that never got off the runway, though — last winter’s Andrew McCutchen saga, the vetoed Brandon Phillips trade the winter before that, and more. If that happens, there are a few other options before Rizzo.
Yasmani Grandal could be a fit if the Los Angeles Dodgers are willing to trade him. Always a formidable presence in the lineup, the powerful but strikeout-prone Grandal was effectively supplanted by Austin Barnes as the Dodgers’ catcher during the 2017 playoffs. Barnes acquitted himself well, leaving him as the presumptive 2018 starter for L.A. The Nats could also reunite with old friend Wilson Ramos, who returned earlier than expected from rehabbing his knee injury with the Tampa Bay Rays last year. Ramos wasn’t anything special in 2017, but he showed flashes of his former excellence down the stretch, and the cellar-dwelling Rays have been slowly trading away pieces this winter, including franchise icon Evan Longoria. The Nats could even try to land Ramos in a package with teammate Jake Odorizzi to boost both their catching and their starting pitching.
A less obvious fit would be Yan Gomes of the Cleveland Indians, who has declined precipitously since an outstanding 2014 but appeared at times last year to be moving in the right direction; there’s speculation that the Tribe could move Gomes to clear the way for top prospect Francisco Mejia. He or James McCann of the Tigers could at least provide the Nats with a more proven bat and experienced leader to pair with Wieters behind the plate. Speculatively, the Astros could also market Evan Gattis if they win the Realmuto sweepstakes, although the burly 31-year-old is not regarded highly behind the plate.
The free agent market for catchers has pretty much passed the Nats by. Welington Castillo went early to the White Sox. Late last month, Alex Avila signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The one unsigned catcher of note is Jonathan Lucroy, who could be seeking a one-year pillow contract after a humdrum .265/.716 season split between the Texas Rangers and Colorado Rockies. Despite those hitter-friendly confines, Lucroy plunged from a career-high 24 home runs in 2016 to just six in 2017, his lowest ever total over a full season. Pitch-framing metrics also show a sharp decline for Lucroy. He would still be an upgrade over Severino, but the Nats may be rightly wary of repeating the mistake they made in signing another once-great, declining catcher last winter.
Within the Nats’ own pipeline, Read is clearly not an option to begin the year anymore. Emerging prospect Taylor Gushue needs more time in the minors. The almost-27-year-old Kieboom, who impressed at Triple-A with a decent .275/.723 batting line, now appears to be Washington’s top depth option behind Severino, even though he was outrighted from the roster last spring. But the clearest threat to Severino’s place on the Nats’ bench is Miguel Montero, who signed a minors pact with the Nats to compete for a spot on the Opening Day roster. Montero was released by the Cubs last year after publicly criticizing the team’s pitching staff for allowing too many stolen bases and then struggled badly when picked up by the Toronto Blue Jays. But if Montero can return to offensive output closer to his .286/.805 slash line with Chicago last year than his abysmal .138/.489 line as a Blue Jay, he looks like a clear improvement over Severino — that is, if he can keep his mouth shut when a microphone is in front of it.
Only time will tell…
Does Mike Rizzo have more moves up his sleeve? If this off-season passes without another acquisition, it will be the first winter in Nats history in which this ballclub did not make a trade with another team. But Rizzo, who says he likes the team he has, could end up deciding that the best move to make is none at all.
Buckle up. This Hot Stove is starting to get warm, and spring training is just around the corner…