The off-season from hell (although, aren’t they all?) just keeps dragging ever onward. One of the subplots we are obviously very interested in as Washington Nationals fans is whether Mike Rizzo will end up making a trade or two.
It may seem like time is running short this winter, with less than a month between now and the start of spring training, but a lot can happen between now and Opening Day!
This time one year ago, the Nats had yet to sign catcher Matt Wieters, relievers Joe Blanton and Matt Albers, starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, utility infielders Stephen Drew and Grant Green, and first baseman/left fielder Adam Lind, and yet to trade for reliever Enny Romero — all players who would suit up for Washington during the season, several of whom would wear the curly W all season long and contribute to the team’s regular-season success. Their roster figured to include the likes of catcher/first baseman Derek Norris, released during spring training, and first baseman/outfielder Clint Robinson, outrighted to the minors before Opening Day.
While Rizzo has said publicly that he is comfortable with the Nats going into the 2018 season with A.J. Cole penciled into the fifth starter spot, Pedro Severino backing up Wieters behind home plate, and Shawn Kelley playing an important role again in the bullpen, we know that Rizzo has a history of saying things like that while working in the background to upgrade his team’s weak spots. We also know he has a history of using the winter to make deals with rival teams. If Opening Day arrives without a trade having been made since the World Series involving Washington, it would be the first off-season in team history in which the Nats didn’t get a deal done.
Much media (and fan) attention has focused on a few big names. The Nats have been connected to the division-rival Miami Marlins as a possible suitor for catcher/first baseman J.T. Realmuto. They’ve also reportedly kicked the tires on Tampa Bay Rays ace Chris Archer and perhaps inquired after Arizona Diamondbacks ace Zack Greinke (for whom Rizzo almost traded in 2010). The problem with all of these players is that they are huge stars, and the teams that own their contractual rights are understandably demanding a lot in return if they decide to trade them.
So, what’s a general manager to do as he tries to build the Nationals team that will finally make a run in the postseason, in what could be his final year with the organization? As hard as it is, Mike Rizzo has to be prepared to move on if the price isn’t right — and find another solution.
Who are some other trade candidates Rizzo could try bringing aboard if he can’t match up on his top targets?
TalkNats has already written about the long-shot idea of the Nats trading for Francisco Mejia, one of baseball’s top catching prospects and a near-majors talent ranked along with 20-year-old Nats phenom outfielder Victor Robles in the upper stratosphere of minor league players. Swinging a deal for Mejia, especially without trading away Robles or another cornerstone piece like shortstop Trea Turner or closer Sean Doolittle, would be perfect. But if it’s not possible for Rizzo to shoot the moon and make what could end up being the trade of the decade with the Cleveland Indians, could he instead aim a little lower for what would still represent a meaningful upgrade over Severino or another catcher from the Nats’ organizational depth? Veteran Yan Gomes, along with his backup Roberto Perez, is essentially blocking Mejia at the major league level. Cleveland has too much money committed to Gomes to simply let him go, and he’s under contract through at least the 2019 season. Would the Indians be willing to trade Gomes, clearing the way for the Mejia era, for a modest return from Washington?
- He’s well regarded in how he handles a pitching staff. Like Wieters, Gomes is the kind of catcher who earns plaudits from his pitchers and coaches even when he’s not contributing much with the lumber. Leadership qualities never go amiss in a professional baseball player, but the three guys on the field you really want to be captain material are your center fielder (who is expected to direct and call off the other outfielders when needed), your shortstop (who often takes a major role both in coordinating the infield defense and liaising with the pitcher), and your catcher (a vital part of whose job it is to keep the pitcher’s head screwed on straight and make sure he doesn’t have to think too much out there on the mound). Gomes is captain material. He’s a big part of the Indians’ pitching success, helping guide the team to an incredible 22 straight victories last season. He calls a great game and is popular in the clubhouse.
- He has a howitzer for a throwing arm. Gomes is one of the very best backstops in the business at controlling the running game. Last year, he gunned down 42% of attempted base-stealers while allowing just four passed balls (in which a pitch that should be caught or blocked behind the plate instead gets away and allows a baserunner to advance). He also picked off three runners that couldn’t dive back quickly enough. Again, if you’re looking for the je ne sais quoi behind the Indians’ remarkable regular-season success last year, don’t overlook Gomes’ contributions. Nothing kills a team’s momentum quite like having a man on base erased by a strong throw.
- He has some bounceback potential. There’s no point in denying it: Gomes has had three successive seasons of lousy offensive output. But look a little closer. Gomes has dealt with some injuries over the past few years, missing significant time in 2015 and 2016 with a knee sprain and a separated shoulder (ouch) respectively. Although he avoided a DL stint in 2017, his average still came in at .232, not much better than Wieters’. So where’s the room for optimism if he couldn’t get that average up even over a healthy season? Take a look at his on-base percentage — never known for taking many walks, Gomes posted his highest-ever total of bases on balls and managed an OBP over .300 despite his low average. That suggests a smart hitter who adjusted to having lost, perhaps, some bat speed by finding other ways to get on base. While 31 walks still isn’t very many, it’s something to build on, and if Gomes can find a way back to his hot hitting of the 2012-14 seasons somehow while maintaining that improved plate discipline, he could end up having a major bounceback. Some other peripheral tidbits: He really picked it up down the stretch, with a .294/.882 slash after Sept. 1 plus two hits and two walks in eight postseason plate appearances. His BABIP bounced back into the .280s, but that’s still well shy of his 2013-14 BABIPs above .300. Both his soft- and hard-contact rates ticked up slightly from 2016.
- He’s not that cheap for a backup. Gomes will make $5.95 million in 2018 and is under contract for $7 million in 2019, with a $1 million buyout for his 2020 season. That’s not a bad deal for a starting catcher, nor for the 1.3 rWAR that Gomes supplied last year, but it’s on the steep side for a backup. Any trade could get hung up over money if Rizzo insists upon the Indians covering some of that salary, as he well might.
- He really hasn’t been a good hitter in a while. There were some positive signs out of Gomes’ 2017 campaign, but no matter how you slice it, while an OPS just above .700 is better than some alternatives the Nats could muster, it’s still not very good. Gomes won the American League Silver Slugger Award in 2014 with a .278/.785 slash, but he’s slashed .215/.643 since then, with his offensive woes in 2016 such that the Indians memorably staged a faux-chicken sacrifice ceremony in the clubhouse in the hopes of getting him going again. The Nats already committed some serious dough to a declining veteran catcher in the hopes he’d have a bounceback year, and instead, Wieters cratered even further with Washington in 2017.
- There’s no way of knowing how he’d take to a backup role. Gomes has been a starting catcher ever since the start of his tenure in Cleveland in 2013, and while it’s famously a position that demands strict management of playing time to avoid fatigue and injury (turns out squatting on one’s haunches for three to five hours, catching usually well over 100 baseballs thrown through the air at upwards of 75 mph, and occasionally getting whacked with a backswing, foul tip, or bounding 58-footer can be kind of rough on the body), many players enjoy getting into a repetitive rhythm. For players, moving from an everyday role to playing two or three times per week can be challenging, throwing off their focus and ability to settle into a groove. This might not matter to Gomes, but then again, it might.
No firm trade rumors have emerged this off-season linking the Nats to their most frequent trade partners, the Oakland Athletics. It’s been suggested, both on TalkNats and elsewhere, that the Nats could try to acquire big left-hander Sean Manaea from Oakland to augment their rotation. But Manaea, although he’s struggled with consistency in the majors, is a former top prospect whom the A’s likely value highly. Odd as it may seem, the quixotic A’s could be more willing to entertain trade talks surrounding their de facto ace (in the absence of Sonny Gray, fenced to the New York Yankees last summer), Kendall Graveman. Aside from looking like he could be Trea Turner’s older brother (they’re from neighboring states, even!), Graveman could be a good fit for the Nats with his hard sinker and fine control.
- He exhibited improved velocity last year. Fangraphs took note of the way Graveman seemed to be getting extra mustard on his already-firm sinker, gassing it up into the high 90s at times. The Nats could have developed their own homegrown right-handed starter who flings bowling balls down at the knees, but they instead converted Blake Treinen to relief after adding Doug Fister and then Max Scherzer to their major league rotation, and now Treinen closes games for Graveman in green and gold. Graveman might be what Treinen could have been. Getting a do-over is an attractive proposition, and Graveman’s higher heat could be a key selling point for Washington.
- He isn’t valued as highly by his ballclub as he thinks he should be. This is kind of the plainspoken way of explaining what happens when player and team can’t agree on a salary bump and instead head to formal arbitration. Graveman is the only A’s player whose 2018 salary has yet to be determined, as he asked for $2.6 million and the A’s final reported offer to this point is $2.36 million. Cases ending up in arbitration can breed ill will between player and organization; Rizzo has been known to trade players who win their arbitration hearings against the team. Especially if Graveman wins his case (and a $2.6 million payday is still fairly modest for a team’s best starting pitcher in his first year of arbitration eligibility), the A’s may be interested in moving on for the right price. (It doesn’t hurt that righty Andrew Triggs, who lost half his 2017 season to a torn hip labrum, is expected to be ready to vie for a rotation spot in spring training this year.)
- He doesn’t give out many free passes. One of the keys for Rizzo in evaluating pitchers seems to be control. The Nats put in the effort to acquire and develop Tanner Roark as a minor league reclamation project in 2010 in part because he didn’t walk many batters in the minor leagues. They also targeted Joe Ross in the famous 2014 three-team trade that brought Turner to Washington in part because the Nats liked his ability to command his pitch arsenal. Graveman might not strike many batters out, but he also limits his walks well, with a career 2.6 BB/9. Compared to some other options out there for the rotation who habitually struggle with bases on balls, Graveman looks very attractive in this regard.
- He’s had some shoulder problems. Nothing major for Graveman, but for an organization that has already gone through the unpleasant experience of shelving starting pitchers like Ross and Stephen Strasburg due to balky shoulders, not to mention being forced to convert the injury-prone Sammy Solis to relief, the fact that the A’s righty landed on the disabled list twice in 2017 with a strained shoulder is a definite negative. The Nats are looking for stability in a rotation that is extremely talented but hasn’t had much success staying healthy, with even stalwart Scherzer missing time to neck problems last season. Graveman, who has only topped 120 major league innings in a season once (186 frames in 2016), might not be the best bet in that department.
- His strikeout rate is downright poor. For his major league career, Graveman strikes out fewer than six batters per nine innings, a stat that will surely keep him from being considered among the great young pitching talents in baseball regardless of how he performs otherwise. Graveman relies on getting groundballs and soft contact and letting his defense do the work. The problem is that aside from Gold Glove-caliber defender Anthony Rendon at third base, the Nats don’t have a stellar defensive infield (Trea Turner rated as roughly average at shortstop last year, although his ceiling is certainly higher than those of Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman, who rate as subpar defenders at second and first base respectively), which is something that bedeviled Treinen last year before he was shipped to Oakland as part of the deal that brought Doolittle and setup man Ryan Madson to town. The Nats love strikeout pitchers. That’s not Graveman’s game.
- He’s not even the most interesting starting pitcher in Oakland. That honor belongs to the aforementioned Manaea, whose changeup shows signs of becoming one of the nastiest pitches in baseball. Jharel Cotton and Daniel Mengden, 26 and 24 respectively, are also fascinating young arms. The A’s have built up a stable of potentially very useful young starters mostly via trade, and the fact that Graveman might be the man they’re most willing to part with isn’t a great selling point for the Nats. If Rizzo could pick one of Oakland’s pitchers, all other things being equal, it almost certainly wouldn’t be Kendall Graveman.
Suppose the market for starting pitchers is so overheated this winter that Rizzo can’t get any traction in trying to make deals for the bigger names. Archer, Greinke, Manaea, Jake Odorizzi, Patrick Corbin, Danny Salazar, Julio Teheran, Dan Straily — none of them are available without giving up someone like Robles, Juan Soto, and/or Carter Kieboom. Well, Rizzo isn’t paid to simply give up. What about making a deal for someone whose 2018 assignment looks unclear — someone like Seattle Mariners lefty Ariel Miranda, a late-developing Cuban import who looks like he could find himself in the bullpen or back in the minors to start the season because of a fairly robust Seattle depth chart? In this scenario, or one like it, Rizzo isn’t picking up a household name to round out the rotation, but he is making a move — albeit somewhat of a risky one — to ensure the Nats have the starting depth to get through a long season.
- He’s probably better than his results suggest. It’s easy to look at Miranda’s 5.12 ERA last season and quickly decide to pass. But his 1.27 WHIP wasn’t nearly that bad, and it’s clear that much of Miranda’s problems were due to the long ball, with a 2.1 HR/9 rate. Well, new pitching coach Derek Lilliquist is a top-flight instructor when it comes to coaxing more groundballs and limiting hard contact. While there’s no guarantee Lilliquist or anyone else can bring Miranda around, it could well be worth a try.
- He’s a lefty with a different arsenal. The Nats have just one left-handed starting pitcher in the majors and not many in the minors (the closest is probably Grant Borne, who ranks outside the organization’s top 30 prospects). Miranda would offer a different look — not just from the right-handers, but from fellow southpaw Gio Gonzalez, a softer thrower who relies heavily on a nasty curveball, while Miranda likes to mix in a splitter and slider to throw batters off. He’d be one of the few splitter-throwers the Nats are likely to employ in 2018, and their only lefty who makes regular use of a slider. In terms of keeping opposing hitters from getting comfortable seeing the same stuff over and over again, Miranda checks a lot of boxes.
- He’s probably gettable in spite of being a pre-arb player. Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto loves to make trades, and although he just acquired Miranda in 2016 in the trade that sent starting pitcher Wade Miley to the Baltimore Orioles, he’s looking at a presumptive starting five that might not have room for Miranda, who logged 160 innings for Seattle in 2017. Dipoto’s trade-happy ways and the Mariners’ crowded rotation picture potentially provides an opportunity to get a cheap fifth starter with the right trade package this winter.
- His home run rate came despite a very pitcher-friendly home park. If Miranda had been getting socked for so many homers as a Colorado Rockie or a Baltimore Oriole, there would be a lot more room for optimism. But the Mariners’ home at Safeco Field is fairly cavernous, leading to legitimate room for concern about what might happen to Miranda’s home run rate playing half his games in a neutral park instead. He might not allow a huge number of baserunners, but the Nats saw firsthand how bad it can be when a pitcher can’t stop giving up home runs in 2017, when Kelley got bombed into the annals of baseball history.
- He’s not at all a proven option. Last year was just Miranda’s first full season in the major leagues, and it didn’t go all that well. The Nats will want a workhorse fifth starter who can eat innings and still be a viable option to start games in October. Miranda hasn’t come close to proving he is that guy, even if his results dramatically improve in 2018. He’d be a serious gamble.
- He might be more expensive than we would like. Miranda will make close to the league minimum salary in 2018, and because he can be optioned to the minors, there’s not much downside for Seattle in keeping him around. If he figures out how to keep the ball down and limit home runs in 2018, forcing his way into the rotation or a bullpen role, that’s great. If he doesn’t, he can serve as minor league depth. Because Dipoto is Dipoto, he could entertain trade offers for Miranda anyway, but Rizzo would hardly have him over a barrel. There’s no pending arbitration hearing or MLB-ready top prospect knocking at the door that would make Dipoto feel like someone is forcing his hand. It all comes down to how well Rizzo and Dipoto might match up on player valuation.
Beyond these three, there are myriad other prospective trade candidates, including those TalkNats has previously explored. What will Rizzo do? The only surprising move he could make would be to make no moves at all.