What do the #Nats need to do this off-season?

From @Nationals Twitter

The off-season has officially arrived, and the first news of free agents signing with teams and trades being made is expected to start breaking within days. It’s a time of the year fondly (and not-so-fondly) called “Hot Stove season”, as we continue to gather around baseball’s faint embers to tide us over until the start of spring training.

The Washington Nationals had the largest free agent class of any team in baseball this winter. But oddly enough, they’re also one of the best-positioned teams for 2018, as they are expected to enter the coming season with virtually their entire core intact. That’s because of those 12 free agents from the 40-man roster, only one appeared in at least half the games of the 2017 season (Adam Lind); the 38-year-old veteran outfielder Jayson Werth led the rest of the pack with 70 games played, followed by setup man Matt Albers (63), utilityman Howie Kendrick (52), backup catcher Jose Lobaton and mop-up reliever Joe Blanton (both 51), and left-handed relief specialist Oliver Perez (50). Werth, Albers, Kendrick, Lobaton, and Perez all appeared in the National League Division Series as well, while Blanton was left off the playoff roster.

Here is the projected 2018 Opening Day lineup, assuming Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy, who underwent knee surgeries this year (Eaton in early May, Murphy in late October), are healthy to start the season:

  1. Adam Eaton – LF
  2. Trea Turner – SS
  3. Bryce Harper – RF
  4. Ryan Zimmerman – 1B
  5. Daniel Murphy – 2B
  6. Anthony Rendon – 3B
  7. Matt Wieters – C
  8. Max Scherzer – P
  9. Michael A. Taylor – CF

The Nats will have a new manager next year, as Dusty Baker and most of his coaching staff will not return after their contracts expired following the NLDS loss to the Chicago Cubs. Dave Martinez was hired to replace Baker, and he will be the Nats’ second first-time manager this decade (after Matt Williams, who managed the club in 2014 and 2015 before he was fired). The coaching staff is gradually taking shape, and we expect more news on that in the days and weeks to come.

While the Nats keep their positional core, rotation, and back of the bullpen intact into 2018, their projected roster does contain a few holes, if you look at RosterResource. It seems unlikely the Nats will start the year with subpar hitters Adrian Sanchez, Rafael Bautista, and Pedro Severino holding down important bench roles. Erick Fedde, who suffered a season-ending arm injury in early September, is currently penciled into the fifth starter spot, leaving no real pitching depth in the minors beyond Austin Voth, who struggled through a career-worst season that saw him demoted from Triple-A to Double-A midway through the year. The likes of Shawn Kelley and Matt Grace are currently projected to hold down bullpen spots despite below-replacement-level 2017 campaigns that saw both miss the playoff roster.

Some teams are going to be looking to sign high-priced super sluggers or relief aces this season. The Nats probably won’t be among them. But the ballclub nonetheless has some questions to answer as it heads into the winter months.

A new catcher

This is certainly the Nats’ most immediately obvious need. Matt Wieters unsurprisingly picked up his player option for the 2018 season and will be paid $10.5 million despite a dreadful season this year that saw him hit just .225/.632, terrible numbers that were in fact buoyed by a red-hot April, and slump toward the bottom of league ratings for pitch-framing and catching baserunners on steal attempts.

Among backup options: Lobaton mercifully reached free agency and is considered unlikely to return after a career-worst campaign. Severino performed dismally across 59 Triple-A and 17 MLB games, seeing both his offense and defense regress as he slipped down the Nats’ prospect charts. Raudy Read showed an impressive power surge at Double-A but cemented his reputation as being defensively suspect with a passed ball and a generously scored wild pitch in just 11 MLB innings.

The big question at backstop for the Nats this off-season is this: Is Wieters still trusted enough to be the starting catcher in 2018? The answer here guides the team’s approach in finding a second catcher to work with Wieters.

If Dave Martinez and Mike Rizzo agree to stick with Wieters as the everyday catcher, Rizzo will likely pursue Lobaton-type options on the free agent and trade markets; there is a chance he could even stick with internal options, giving Severino, Read, and perhaps non-roster catching prospects Spencer Kieboom and/or Taylor Gushue a chance to earn the job out of spring training, upgrading if necessary at the July trade deadline. Backup catchers looking for jobs this winter include Rene Rivera (who finished the year with the Cubs), Nick Hundley (formerly of the San Francisco Giants), and A.J. Ellis (formerly of the Miami Marlins).

Management could also decide that despite his $10.5 million salary, Wieters isn’t any more than a highly paid backup himself in 2018. This would open the door for an expensive catching tandem as Rizzo seeks to add a top free agent like Alex Avila (who finished the year with the Cubs), Welington Castillo (who opted out of another year with the Baltimore Orioles at $7 million), or Jonathan Lucroy (who finished the year with the Colorado Rockies). Another route could be looking to acquire a younger catcher via trade who would take up less payroll space, but acquiring someone like Marlins stud J.T. Realmuto could be prohibitively expensive in terms of the young talent the Nats would have to include in such a transaction.

There are some intermediate options between these two poles. The Nats could decide to stick with Wieters as their regular option but give him significantly more days off than Baker did this season, necessitating a more capable backup than Lobaton or perhaps even a third player on the roster capable of catching a few games per month, as Martinez’s Cubs did at several points in 2017. The Nats could also decide to set up a platoon at catcher; although Wieters is a switch-hitter, he is considered to be better from the right side, so he could take the short side of a platoon and start games in which the other team has a left-handed starter, as well as enter games to pinch-hit against tough left-handed relievers. Avila is easily the most notable left-hitting catcher in the game right now, although the likes of Rob Brantly could be available via trade, and there are switch-hitters (including Gushue) who are much better batting left-handed.

Another starting pitcher

On paper, the Nats could slot Fedde or fellow pitching prospect A.J. Cole (who is out of options following the 2017 season) into the bottom of their rotation and await the return of Joe Ross, who underwent “Tommy John” surgery midway through the year. But paper and reality seldom match up well, and after deals in 2016 and 2017 that sent starting pitching prospects like Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Tyler J. Watson, and McKenzie Mills elsewhere for MLB talent, the Nats face a situation in which their only real rotation prospects behind Fedde are a year or more away. (The closest prospects of note might be Sterling Sharp, Grant Borne, and Jaron Long, all of whom rank outside the Nats’ top 30 prospects as listed by MLB Pipeline. Voth and, further down in the system, Joan Baez are moving in the wrong direction.)

Here’s a number to keep in mind: 11. Sound smart with your friends. It’s the number of pitchers who started a game for the Nats in 2017. At least four of them (Jeremy Guthrie, Joe Ross, Jacob Turner, and Edwin Jackson) are now, respectively, retired, rehabbing from UCL replacement surgery, a minor league free agent, and a major league free agent. A fifth, Fedde, is also working his way back this off-season from a forearm flexor strain. A sixth, Grace, is on the bubble for 2018 as he is out of options following a rather pedestrian campaign, and he’s not really a rotation option anyway.

Conventional wisdom suggests the Nats will have to pursue a starting pitcher this winter, and past practice suggests the Nats would probably pursue a starting pitcher this winter even if they didn’t have to. (They made a big splash trading for Doug Fister before the 2014 season, then a bigger splash signing Max Scherzer before the 2015 season. Before the 2016 season, they were linked to names like Mike Leake and Wei-Yin Chen before ultimately rolling the dice on Bronson Arroyo, who ended up getting hurt in spring training. Before the 2017 season, they attempted to swing a major trade for Chris Sale and dabbled in the market for Tyson Ross before eventually giving Guthrie a shot, which didn’t exactly pan out.)

Of course, the big question to frame this search is: Are the Nats in need of a #5 starter, or a #2/3 starter? There’s no shortage of the former, but the latter is in much more meager supply, meaning teams that want the services of Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta will likely have to overpay.

It’s difficult to handicap the starter market this winter. The Nats will surely be linked to Arrieta, a client of super-agent Scott Boras — Washington leads the major leagues in the number of players represented by Boras — irrespective of how genuine that interest is (Arrieta’s decline since his Cy Young Award campaign in 2015 has been swift, comprehensive, and dramatic). Past reports, including one as recently as July, have tied the Nats to Darvish as well; Rizzo was not shy about expressing interest in the star hurler, now 31, when he was a young Japanese phenom looking to make the jump to the major leagues.

Although the Nats would seem to have little payroll space, considering how close they are to the luxury tax threshold already, the Lerners have been known to open the pocketbook to back up Rizzo’s attempts to swing for the fences (to wit: the nearly successful pursuit of free agent closer Kenley Jansen last winter). But if ownership and/or management judge neither of the top two starting pitchers on the market to be worth the money and years they are likely to command, there are lots of other pitchers that the Nats could consider signing out of free agency.

A quintet of interesting names are, in no particular order, Lance Lynn (formerly of the St. Louis Cardinals), Alex Cobb (formerly of the Tampa Bay Rays), Miles Mikolas (formerly of Japan’s Yomiuri Giants), Jhoulys Chacin (formerly of the San Diego Padres), and Jaime Garcia (who finished the year with the New York Yankees). None of these pitchers are elite, but they stand out somewhat from the rest of the field.

Lynn, 31 in May, posted a strong ERA in his return from Tommy John surgery this year, although his peripherals are less appetizing; he has been quite consistent in his career and would likely be a #3/4 starter in most rotations. Cobb is probably the most talented pitcher of the five, but the 30-year-old has been limited by injury issues, setting a career high this year with 179⅓ innings pitched, so there are questions about his durability. Mikolas, 29, showed some flashes of promise but ultimately bombed out of the majors in his early to mid-20s, and he’s now seeking a comeback after three dominant years in Japan; the questions here, as always with players coming from the Asian leagues, are how closely, if at all, did the Nats scout him in Japan? and will his Japanese ball results translate in MLB? Chacin, who will be 30 by Opening Day, had a solid season this year, but the knock on him has always been that he issues about half as many walks as he records strikeouts, a ratio that is pretty bad even for a #5 starter on a contending team. Garcia, 31, has been a solid mid-rotation starter for close to a decade but comes with the same durability and stamina concerns as Cobb, as he’s only topped 170 innings in a season twice in his lengthy career.

There are also some more veteran options who could be considered on short-term deals, like Miguel Gonzalez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Matt Garza, and even R.A. Dickey, as well as reclamation projects like Chris Tillman, Tyler Chatwood, and Wily Peralta, but the Nats will likely end up aiming higher than giving pillow contracts to players looking to rebuild their value in 2018. Teams with less lofty aspirations than the World Series next year can pursue those names.

Reunions with Turner and Jackson could be considered, although neither pitched well enough in 2017 to merit more than a split contract, a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training and a major league option. Ditto Mat Latos, who pitched competently but not spectacularly for the Nats in 2016, eating some innings toward the end of the season. Deals like that could give the Nats a bit of depth to start the year without needing to make big trades to add pitching prospects, although Mike Rizzo could consider testing the waters to see if he could get the kind of return for Michael A. Taylor or Brian Goodwin that he got after the 2014 season for Steven Souza Jr.

Bullpen help

Every team, every winter, is in the market for relievers. Fortunately, the Nats have Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson standing at the back of their bullpen, so it’s not likely they will be major players for closers like Wade Davis and Greg Holland, although they could stick their toes in the water.

What stood out about the Nats in the NLDS — well, one of many things that stood out, most of them bad — was that Baker and the pitching staff seemed to have no real answer to the Cubs’ tough lefties in the middle to late innings. Sammy Solis got beat over and over again; Perez was burned by a bloop single off the bat of Anthony Rizzo that ended up being the game-winner in Game 3. Now Solis is out of options and Perez is a free agent. RosterResource projects Enny Romero, who was one of two players who was on the NLDS roster for the Nats but did not appear in the series, and Matt Grace to be the bullpen’s lefties (along with Doolittle, the closer), but Romero has reverse platoon splits (meaning he is actually more effective against right-handed batters) and Grace is a replacement-level player who could very well lose his roster spot before Opening Day.

It seems logical, then, that Mike Rizzo will pursue the type of reliever who can beat Anthony Rizzo (no relation) this winter. One name that immediately leaps to mind is Mike Minor, who was fantastic for the Kansas City Royals this year after missing two seasons due to injuries. The tall southpaw will be 30 on Opening Day and figures to be one of the most sought-after relievers on the market this winter. Tony Watson, 33 in May, was unimpressive as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ closer but finished the year strong after being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers; he will also be a big name among left-handed relievers. Other free agent lefties of note include 2013 National Fernando Abad, screwball pitcher and failed starter Hector Santiago, and ex-closer Jake McGee.

There’s also the trade route. Brad Hand was dangled at the trade deadline, but no team would meet the San Diego Padres’ lofty asking price. The Nats were rumored to have interest then and could again pursue the outstanding lefty, who could pair beautifully with Madson and/or Koda Glover as a bridge to Doolittle in his age-28 season. Due to Hand’s youth and elite results, though, the Padres would likely demand a significant prospect haul for him. The price tag for 26-year-old Felipe Rivero, who has blossomed into one of the game’s best closers since the Nationals traded him to Pittsburgh in 2016, would be even higher.

The Nats could also pursue right-handed relief help, with pitchers like Bryan Shaw, Pat Neshek, Addison Reed, Seung-hwan Oh, and 2017 National Matt Albers likely to be among the hottest non-closer names among right-handed relievers this winter. However, that seems like a lesser need, especially with Austin L. Adams and Wander Suero emerging this year as legitimate contenders for bullpen roles from within the organization.

Utility pieces

While stocking the bench is of lesser value than the other three items on Mike Rizzo’s shopping list this winter, it remains a clear fact that Adrian Sanchez and Rafael Bautista —serviceable depth options at best — probably shouldn’t be the heirs apparent to Stephen Drew and Howie Kendrick next season.

The Nats bid adieu to Adam Lind after his excellent turn as their backup first baseman and left fielder this season, not wishing to pay $5 million for a bench player. That’s probably suggestive of their strategy in addressing the bench this winter, with a limited budget and more urgent needs.

Jose Marmolejos could finally get a chance to make his name in the major leagues at age 25, as he is serviceable at first base and in the corner outfield and had an excellent season in Double-A this year. Neftali Soto, 29 in February, is reportedly considering playing in Japan next year; if he stays with the Nats, though, the utilityman could earn a bench role following a superb offensive year in the high minors. Wilmer Difo is likely to return in his familiar capacity as a utility infielder, and new manager Dave Martinez could give him more opportunities in the outfield after he debuted on the grass this season. Brian Goodwin is part of a logjam of outfielders that the Nats may seek to clear by making some trades this winter, but if he is still a Nat come Opening Day, the left-handed swinger looks likely to occupy the role of fourth outfielder. Andrew Stevenson didn’t impress in limited major league action at age 23 this year, but the speedster seems likely to get another chance next year, whether or not he makes the 25-man roster out of spring training. If the Nats acquire another catcher, they could decide to capitalize on Raudy Read’s offensive skills by moving the defensively rough catching prospect to a new position, which could give them another bench option and possible tertiary catcher at some point in 2018.

Beyond the internal options, as in every off-season, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a utility infielder or fifth outfielder fishing for a contract. The Nats could pursue a reunion with Jayson Werth, despite his age and severely diminished range, to give them a right-handed option off the bench; they could also conceivably explore the possibility of bringing Kendrick back, although the 34-year-old may prefer a starting role somewhere else. And those are just two of the many names out there who might be able to bolster the 2018 bench.

Triple-A affiliate

This one might not get resolved until next season is well underway, and it’s not something that’s going to be anywhere close to the top of Dave Martinez’s mind, but it’s worth mentioning. The New York Mets bought the Syracuse Chiefs this year and plan to begin operating them as their Triple-A affiliate starting in 2019. That means the Nats will need to find a new home for their Triple-A squad.

Here’s a spreadsheet of current Triple-A affiliates and the status of their player development contracts. The trick for the Nats will be in finding an affiliate that is closer than, say, Las Vegas, which the Mets are glad to be getting out of. Possibilities include Nashville (currently affiliated with the Oakland Athletics, who seem like a logical parent club for Las Vegas after 2018), Norfolk (currently affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles, who would probably be furious to see it fall to Washington), and Durham (currently affiliated with the Tampa Bay Rays). A more outside-the-box option could also be to affiliate with the West Virginia Power, currently a Pirates Class A affiliate in Charleston, and move them to the International League; for years, Charleston was a Triple-A city, and its proximity to Washington, D.C., makes it rather attractive.

Again, this is something that’s hard to handicap and is really handled on a different side than signing or trading players. But it’s definitely something the Nats need to get moving on this winter before they end up with whatever is left over in 2019.

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