Like 29 other teams in major league baseball, the Washington Nationals could have really used the services of Japanese phenom and international megastar-in-the-making Shohei Ohtani. Among the items on the Nats’ to-do list this winter are finding a fifth starter for their rotation and figuring out how to replace lefty slugger Adam Lind on the bench. Ohtani would have ticked both boxes, as the 23-year-old is both a power pitcher who can and very likely will start in the big leagues and a power-hitting corner outfielder who reportedly models his left-handed swing off one Bryce Harper.
In essence, to find a player who can bring what Ohtani could have brought to the Washington ballclub, the Nats will need to find two players.
Ohtani was always a long-shot for the Nats. But The Washington Post‘s Chelsea Janes made it almost official Sunday night:
The Nationals have been told they are out of the running for Shohei Ohtani, according to a person familiar. No surprise there.
— Chelsea Janes (@chelsea_janes) December 4, 2017
So what’s next? Now that the Nats know Ohtani will be suiting up in a different uniform next year, they can look elsewhere to fill the gaps on their roster.
Other free agent starting pitchers
The free agent market for starters this winter isn’t great beyond Ohtani (who is technically posted by his Nippon Professional Baseball club, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters) and fellow Japanese superstar Yu Darvish, most recently of the deep-pocketed Los Angeles Dodgers. Other notables include Jake Arrieta, who won the 2015 Cy Young Award with the Chicago Cubs but has exhibited marked signs of decline since then; Alex Cobb, coming off a strong bounceback season from injury with the Tampa Bay Rays; Lance Lynn, who also turned in good results with the St. Louis Cardinals in his return after missing all of 2016 due to ulnar collateral nerve replacement surgery; and CC Sabathia, who won the Cy Young with the Cleveland Indians in 2007 and just completed yet another solid season with the New York Yankees at the age of 37.
The Nats seem unlikely to pay up for the likes of Darvish. Arrieta, Cobb, and Lynn have qualifying offers attached to them, meaning any team that signs them — other than the Cubs, Rays, and Cardinals, respectively — will forfeit draft picks next year. Sabathia has indicated his preference is to remain in pinstripes as he approaches retirement, although it is unclear how strong the interest from the Bronx is in retaining him.
If the Nats sign a free agent pitcher to add to their rotation, their best bet might actually be a less heralded Japanese import: Miles Mikolas, who has spent the past three seasons in Japan after washing out of the Texas Rangers organization. Mikolas was shaky in the major leagues before departing for the Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo at the age of 26, compiling a 5.32 ERA across 91⅓ innings with the Rangers and San Diego Padres, but he was excellent in Japanese ball, working exclusively as a starter to the tune of a 2.18 ERA over 424⅔ innings, posting year-over-year increases in his strikeout rate, and (this is a weird one) walking exactly 23 batters in each of his three seasons.
Mikolas is a free agent intent on returning to the United States this year. He figures to be in high demand. Teams that make offers to Mikolas will hope his results can translate from Japan to the major leagues, and that his showings with the Padres and Rangers are a thing of the past. It’s worth noting the Milwaukee Brewers struck gold when they took a chance on Eric Thames, another MLB washout who rehabilitated his career in Korea and then returned, rewarding Milwaukee with an .877 OPS this season. Teams that like Mikolas will hope he can be the pitching version of Thames.
Barring a Mikolas signing, which may be unlikely for a number of reasons — the amount of competition, the rarity of Nats free agent signings out of Asia, the possibility of a bidding war — the Nats could pick up an established bottom-of-the-rotation starter with a lower ceiling like Mike Fiers, Jaime Garcia, or Jhoulys Chacin, or another young but perhaps riskier reclamation project like Tyler Chatwood, Chris Tillman, or Drew Smyly.
Trading for a starting pitcher
The Nats are looking to keep payroll down in 2018. They’ve also hollowed out much of their pitching depth in attempts to bolster the major league roster over recent years. Exploring a trade for a young, cost-controlled starter makes sense as a way to limit payroll while building for the present and future.
There are some attractive trade targets out there. The Oakland Athletics haven’t quite been blown away by Sean Manaea, a former top prospect who endured an uneven age-25 season. The Nats might think new pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, who specializes in working with groundball pitchers like Manaea, could get the big lefty back on track. Cleveland struggled to figure out what to do with Danny Salazar this year. Twenty-eight next month, Salazar has wicked strikeout stuff, but concerns persist about his command and durability. The same is true of former first-rounder Tyler Skaggs, a Los Angeles Angels lefty who remains enigmatic and oft-injured at age 26.
In another tier altogether are Toronto Blue Jays ace Marcus Stroman and Tampa Bay star Chris Archer. Also a first-rounder back in 2012, Stroman is probably the better pitcher of the two. The 26-year-old had a strong season for a disappointing Toronto team this year, although the peripherals suggest he might have been a little lucky. Archer, 29, is one of MLB’s great workhorses, with three consecutive seasons of 200-plus innings. He’s been about a 4-ERA pitcher the past two years, but peripherals suggest he might have been a bit unlucky.
Of course, the problem with trading for a young, cost-controlled starter is that the other team rarely has an incentive to give one up. That means the Nats will likely have to overpay in the package it sends over to pry their prize away. Stroman and Archer in particular would command quite a haul. Manaea isn’t at their level, but he’s also yet to even reach arbitration eligibility, so Oakland could seek a big return for him as well.
Left-hitting bench bats
One-dimensional players are said to be a fungible asset in baseball. Nimble middle infielders who can’t hit a lick are always available. So are crafty relievers seeking to prolong their careers after flunking out of the starting rotation. And so are hulking musclemen who can sometimes play just passably enough at first base or in the corner outfield for National League teams to justify getting their powerful bats into the lineup.
The Nats struck gold in this latter category with Adam Lind in 2017. But Lind is a free agent, and unless he and the Nats can agree on a new contract this winter, Washington will need a replacement.
The obvious in-house choice is Jose Marmolejos, the Nats’ top first-base prospect, who is already on the 40-man roster. But while Marmolejos, 25 next month, had a solid season at Double-A Harrisburg this year, his power output is average at best for a first baseman. He’s also not well regarded defensively. Another candidate, if the Nats can convert him to at least occasional infield duties, is onetime top prospect Brian Goodwin. If Goodwin can sustain a big power surge from this season, he could easily hit enough. On the downside, he is a bit short for a first baseman at six feet tall (Marmolejos is 6′ 1″) and he’s never played there professionally.
If the Nats go outside for bench help, they could look to some old foes. Matt Adams was non-tendered last week by the division-rival Atlanta Braves. A burly first baseman with a powerful left-handed bat who can pretend to play left field, Adams profiles very similarly to Lind. Longtime New York Mets first baseman Lucas Duda fits a similar mold. While Duda doesn’t hit for much average, the Nats know when he barrels up a ball, it stays hit. A better-rounded option might be Yonder Alonso. The Nats haven’t seen too much of him, as he has spent most of his career on the West Coast — but they know his brother-in-law, Baltimore Orioles star Manny Machado. The real question is whether Alonso, never known as a power hitter before this year, can sustain his out-of-nowhere 2017 production.
This seems like a position the Nats will either fill in-house or address by signing a veteran free agent to a short-term deal. If they go the trade route, though, there are a handful of other options. One would be Houston Astros prospect A.J. Reed, who was high on the Nats’ 2014 draft wishlist. The 24-year-old mashed 34 homers in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League this year, but he looks blocked in Houston. Another: Justin Bour, a George Mason University product who plays for the rebuilding Miami Marlins. Bour is well-known to Washington and could provide great production off the bench. The question is whether Miami, even in the midst of a total teardown, would trade their arbitration-eligible first baseman.