The Washington Nationals had a great time on Friday. Perhaps you heard?
— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) December 7, 2018
Yes, two-time All-Star and Nats top pitching target Patrick Corbin is now officially a member of the team. He was introduced to media at a press conference also attended by rotation-mates Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and both the longest-tenured National, Ryan Zimmerman, and the hereto shortest-tenured National, Yan Gomes (who made his first public appearance at Nationals Park since being acquired from the Cleveland Indians in a trade one week ago).
General manager Mike Rizzo has been involved in a flurry of activity since the Nationals’ season ended at a disappointing 82-80 record back in September. He didn’t even wait for the playoffs to end to make his first move, snapping up Kyle Barraclough for international bonus money in a swap with the division-rival Miami Marlins. Within just a few weeks, he had signed Kurt Suzuki, the Nationals’ once and future backup catcher, and Trevor Rosenthal, a former closer for the St. Louis Cardinals who missed the 2018 season due to injury. Over the past week, he added Gomes and Corbin to the Nationals roster.
It’s tempting to look at the Nats and say, “Well, that must be it, right?” They’ve strengthened their three biggest weaknesses of the 2018 season: underwhelming production from their catchers, difficulty in holding late-game leads, and inconsistent starting pitching. As previously noted, the combination of Gomes and Suzuki projects to be far superior to what Matt Wieters and a trio of light-hitting backup catchers provided in 2018. Barraclough and Rosenthal both come with command- and health-related question marks, but they’re also strikeout machines who are both still just 28 (fun fact: they were actually born less than a week apart, both with their 29th birthdays in late May) and have experience not just setting up, but closing. Corbin is coming off a year in which he finished fifth in National League Cy Young Award balloting, pitching to a 3.15 ERA with a slender 1.05 WHIP and an outstanding 5.13 K/BB despite playing his home games at hitter-friendly Chase Field in Phoenix.
“We feel good about the team we have,” Rizzo declared during Friday’s press conference. It’s a refrain he’s spoken many times before. It’s also one that has never constrained him from making big, bold moves. Rizzo may like the team the Nats have, but you can bet he also likes a whole bunch of players he’d be happy to see don the curly W. And in fact, Rizzo added just moments later, “I don’t consider us ‘done’ at all.”
There are still some spots on the Nats’ projected roster that look pretty fuzzy. Right now, RosterResource projects the bench to include infielder Adrian Sanchez and the bullpen to include right-hander Austin Voth.
Ideally, the Nats would like a stronger infield option who could perhaps split time at second base with 35-year-old Howie Kendrick as he comes off an Achilles injury, as well as a powerful left-handed bat to spell the frequently injured 34-year-old Zimmerman at first base. Those could either be two separate acquisitions or, perhaps, one player with the positional flexibility to play both spots. (The idea would be to move light-hitting Wilmer Difo into a utility role rather than having him potentially platoon with Kendrick.)
The Nats would also probably like to have at least one more major league-caliber starter, who could potentially push Joe Ross to the ‘pen as he continues to build strength after 2017 “Tommy John” surgery (or free them up to trade workhorse Tanner Roark, whose salary is projected to rise to nearly $10 million through arbitration). Adding another veteran reliever wouldn’t go amiss, either, especially with chronically underperforming southpaw Sammy Solís penciled into a middle relief spot right now.
One player the Nats still have on their wishlist but seem to have removed from their shopping cart, at least for the moment: Bryce Harper, their homegrown superstar outfielder. The Nats reportedly made Harper a ten-year offer with an average annual value of $30 million, which would have been a record-setting contract extension for a pending free agent in American sports, toward the end of the season. Harper turned it down flat, rejected the Nats’ obligatory one-year qualifying offer as well, and is now searching for his next team in free agency. In an interview Friday, managing principal owner Mark Lerner certainly made it sound like the Bryce Harper era in Washington, D.C., is over:
“Well, when we met with them and we gave them the offer, we told them, ‘This is the best we can do.’ We went right to the finish line very quickly,” Lerner said. “And we said, ‘If this is of interest to you, please come back to us and we’ll see whether we can finish it up.’ But we just couldn’t afford to put more than that in and still be able to put a team together that had a chance to win the NL East or go farther than that.” […]
[Danny] Rouhier asked if Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, decided now that they’d be willing to accept Washington’s initial offer, “Is that now precluded based on what you guys have done and might do coming up?”
“It very well may be,” Lerner said. “We’ll have to sit down and figure it out. If he comes back, it’s a strong possibility that we won’t be able to make it work. But I really don’t expect him to come back at this point. I think they’ve decided to move on. There’s just too much money out there that he’d be leaving on the table. That’s just not Mr. Boras’ MO to leave money on the table.”
The Nats could be playing possum, as some have suggested other potential Harper suitors like the Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees may be doing. But taking Lerner at his word, it appears that the Nats are done chasing their former star.
The infield options
Right now, the Nats basically have four options for fixing the infield. You can quibble with how these are laid out, but in the end, it boils down to a few different strategies.
Option #1: Add a star second baseman plus a backup first baseman
This is the most aggressive plausible option. (The most aggressive implausible option would be for the Nats to add both an everyday second baseman and an everyday first baseman, pushing both Kendrick and Zimmerman to the bench. The Nats are too committed to Zimmerman, a productive if streaky hitter when healthy and still an adequate, if below-average, defender at first base.)
There are a number of free-agent second basemen who are everyday-caliber players on the market and who are likely seeking guarantees of three years or more. This list includes former NL batting champion and three-time Gold Glover DJ LeMahieu, with whom the Nats have reportedly had “preliminary talks”; All-Star Jed Lowrie, who has posted an OPS above .800 over more than 150 games in each of the past two seasons despite playing home games in pitcher-friendly Oakland-Alamada County Coliseum; and old friend Daniel Murphy, who had a dismal finish to his two-and-a-half-year tenure with the Nats as he battled back from knee surgery but caught fire down the stretch after a trade to the Cubs.
Of these targets, LeMahieu seems the most plausible, and not just because the Nats have already been linked to him. Lowrie will be 35 in April, meaning a three-year contract would include his age-37 season — a rather advanced age for a middle infielder. Murphy, never known for his glovework, rated atrociously in the field in 2018 — one reason why the Nats don’t seem interested in a reunion, MASN has reported. LeMahieu, 31 in July, would provide the Nats with solid offensive production while bringing a sterling glove to the team.
There are three main points of concern with LeMahieu in particular: His offensive numbers have declined in each of the past two seasons; he’s been buoyed by playing his home games at Coors Field in Denver, a hitters’ paradise; and he’s tipped to get a sizable payday in free agency, with MLB Trade Rumors suggesting he could get a three-year deal (although he’s officially projected for two years, $18 million). But a LeMahieu signing would certainly represent a continuing commitment by Rizzo to building a behemoth to reclaim the NL East in 2019. It would also represent a true course correction from prioritizing slugging numbers out of the second-base position to prioritizing sound defense, which could help all of the Nats’ pitchers not named Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, Stephen Strasburg, Sean Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, and Kyle Barraclough — you know, the ones who don’t just strike out the world and leave their fielders with little to do.
There are other options on the trade market. The most obvious is probably Scooter Gennett of the Cincinnati Reds, although he may or may not be traded as the Reds also consider trying to tool up for 2019 by adding top free agents like Dallas Keuchel and A.J. Pollock.
First base in this scenario is addressed by a separate player, unless the Nats surprisingly bring back Murphy or another second baseman who can also play first. The top option in free agency for the Nats may be Justin Bour, whom Washington has seen plenty of with the division-rival Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies. Bour is from Northern Virginia and has already been speculatively linked to the Nats.
Other options for first base include the likes of Lucas Duda, with whom the Nats are also familiar from his time with the division-rival New York Mets; Matt Adams, who had an up-and-down season with the Nats before being fenced to the St. Louis Cardinals for cash in August; and Logan Morrison, who bombed with the Minnesota Twins after a spectacular 2017 season and could likely be had on a cheap bounceback contract. There are others, both via free agency, trade, and possibly posting, with 27-year-old Japanese slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo reportedly requesting that his team make him available to MLB teams this winter. (The Nats rarely pursue talent via the posting system.)
The through-line for any first baseman the Nats are likely to consider this winter is that he should be a left-handed swinger, the better to spell Zimmerman against tough right-handed pitchers and to provide a pinch-hitting option against right-handers on manager Davey Martinez’s bench. The Nats have faithfully followed this formula over the past four seasons, with Clint Robinson in 2015 and 2016, Adam Lind in 2017, and Adams in 2018. Sound defense is a secondary objective, and positional versatility is decidedly tertiary, although all three of the aforementioned players also saw plenty of time in the corner outfield, with unspectacular results.
Option #2: Add an everyday-capable second baseman plus a backup first baseman
This is the less flashier cousin to the first option. Instead of pursuing a potential All-Star like LeMahieu, Lowrie, Murphy, or Gennett, the Nats opt to add a player who can handle regular duties at second base but isn’t likely to “block” top prospect Carter Kieboom.
Carter Kieboom, the younger brother of Nats catcher Spencer Kieboom, impressed in the Arizona Fall League and is widely expected to make his major league debut in 2019. A shortstop by trade, Kieboom acquitted himself well given starts at second base this fall, and he seems to know his future is at the less heralded but nonetheless important position:
“I think my focus is going to be more towards second base,” he said.
“I haven’t done it in a few years, so I think there’s a little bit more work to be done there in terms of readiness, but I’m going to take a lot of reps at shortstop still, do the same stuff I do every offseason at short, and then at the same time I’m going to add a little more focus to second base.”
If the Nats believe Kieboom is close, and they want to conserve their resources this offseason, they could sign someone like Josh Harrison. Released by the infamously stingy Pittsburgh Pirates early this winter, Harrison endured a dip in his offensive production this season, but he’s a career .277/.725 hitter with experience at multiple positions, including in the corner outfield. The 31-year-old is also just a year removed from a 16-homer All-Star season. The Nats have already been linked to Harrison by multiple reports.
Other options in this vein run the gamut from pricey to buy-cheap.
On the high end is Marwin Gonzalez, who might arguably fit into the “star” mold but is probably better classified as a superutility player capable of slotting in as an everyday second baseman. On offense, Gonzalez had a very strong 2017 season sandwiched around rather pedestrian 2016 and 2018 campaigns. Working in his favor, he is still only 29 (he turns 30 in March) and he can play literally anywhere on the diamond except catcher. However, he seems likely to get a big contract, with MLBTR projecting a four-year pact with an average annual value of $9 million.
On the lower end are potential bounce-back buys like Brian Dozier, Neil Walker, and Brad Miller. There’s no guarantee they’ll be average offensive players, let alone above-average, coming off of rough seasons this year. But while they will likely still get major league deals unless the market bottoms out altogether, they will almost certainly command just a single-season commitment.
Toward the middle are players like Harrison; Derek Dietrich, freshly non-tendered by the penny-pinching Marlins; and old friend Asdrubal Cabrera, most recently of the Phillies. Dietrich and Cabrera are both bat-first options with some defensive versatility; in fact, both could conceivably handle duties at first base, although Dietrich has only limited major league experience at the position and Cabrera has none. Dietrich is a left-handed batter and Cabrera switch-hits, checking a box for the Nats. But neither is well-regarded as a fielder; Baseball-Reference estimates Dietrich was worth more than two wins below replacement on defense alone in 2018 for the Marlins, and Cabrera hasn’t posted a positive defensive WAR since 2012, when he was an All-Star for the Indians.
A less-discussed potential acquisition via trade would be Jurickson Profar of the Texas Rangers, a 25-year-old former phenom who finally managed to put together a full, healthy, productive season this year. There have been suggestions the Rangers may market Profar and left-handed starter Mike Minor, although it’s unclear what they would want in return. The previously mentioned Gennett is a free agent after the 2019 season; Profar is a free agent after 2020.
Basically, the idea behind this option is to keep Difo, who is a fringe major leaguer at best, and Kendrick, who may or may not be 100% ready on Opening Day, from playing second base every day during the first half of the season, without installing someone in the position who would likely be considered immovable if the Nats decide it is time to promote Kieboom to the majors.
Option #3: Focus on first base
This scenario doesn’t necessarily preclude adding a second baseman. But it could be the Nats just make a few minor league signings for depth, bringing a few journeymen to major league camp in spring training to compete with Difo, Sanchez, and Matt Reynolds for bench spots, or possibly take a flier on a second baseman in the Rule 5 draft this month (something they haven’t done in years, it should be noted).
Doing this frees up more cash to throw at pitching or hold in reserve for potential midseason additions. It would be a vote of confidence in Difo, Kendrick, and either Sanchez or Reynolds to hold down the fort for now. It would also be a signal that the Nats see Carter Kieboom, who is also likely to get a major league invite to spring training next year, in their near-term plans.
The Nats had a quandary back in 2016 when shortstop prospect Trea Turner was tearing up Triple-A, because they didn’t want to relegate Danny Espinosa, a former top prospect who had finally tapped into his power reserve that season, to a bench role. Their solution was to give Turner a one-month crash course in center field at Triple-A, then bench underperforming center fielders Ben Revere and Michael A. Taylor while giving Turner the everyday job. Turner, sharp and highly athletic, acquitted himself decently. But he hasn’t played in the outfield since, with the Nats appearing to acknowledge the need to get him back to his natural position as they finally traded Espinosa that winter. They may want to avoid the same sort of awkwardness in 2019 by simply keeping Kieboom’s path to an everyday role at second base clear.
Meanwhile, the Nats would still pursue a backup first baseman, and there’s nothing stopping them from signing one who could also fill in at other positions. The list of lefty-swinging free-agent second basemen who look like they’re ready for a full-time shift to first base is short — it includes Murphy, who will likely seek an everyday role somewhere, and Dietrich, whose resume at the position is thin — but it’s a possibility.
Option #4: Status quo
You can make the argument that adding to the infield mix is a luxury for the Nats, not a necessity.
Under this plan, the Nats would do their usual shopping for depth, but basically, they would stay out of the infield market unless the price on someone they’ve scouted comes down by a lot. Maybe they could get Lind back on a minors deal?
This scenario doesn’t seem very appealing at first blush, but the Nats could find themselves backed into it if they end up spending the rest of their money on other needs, i.e. rounding out the pitching staff or unexpectedly bringing back Bryce Harper. There is no law that says the Nats need a dedicated backup for Zimmerman. There is nothing preventing them from using their existing depth to round out the bench, whether it’s with 40-man roster players like Sanchez and/or Reynolds or they add non-roster minor leaguers to the mix, like Arizona Fall League participant Jake Noll, former top prospect Drew Ward, or two-time Minor League Player of the Year Jose Marmolejos.
The pitching options
The Nats have a similar range of possibilities when it comes to rounding out their stable of pitchers to begin the 2019 season. As with the infield options, not all of these seem equally likely, but they’re at least hypothetically plausible.
Option #1: Add a mid-rotation starter and don’t trade from pitching depth
Corbin is a very flashy addition and likely a substantial upgrade to the Nats’ pitching staff. But in terms of the Nats’ balance sheet of major league starting pitchers this offseason, they’re a net zero, having traded young right-hander Jefry Rodriguez to Cleveland as part of the Yan Gomes deal. Subtracting Rodriguez and adding Corbin is still a big net gain for the Nats in terms of expected wins above replacement, but they’re no further away from the doomsday scenario under which a prospect like Kyle McGowin, Sterling Sharp, or Wil Crowe is pitching every fifth day in the major leagues, whether he’s ready for the job or not, because of injuries.
Last offseason, the Nats were the object of some scorn when Rizzo publicly insisted he was happy going into the season with sputtering former top prospect A.J. Cole as his fifth starter. (As it turned out, the Nats added former American League Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson on a minors deal during spring training, then quickly promoted him to the starting rotation after Cole predictably bombed in April.) Arguably, as things now stand, the Nats are set to enter 2019 with no more certainty at the bottom of the rotation than they had heading into 2018.
Joe Ross turned heads when he first broke into the majors in 2015, taking a rotation spot away from Doug Fister. He turned in a strong first half in 2016, but injuries forced him onto the disabled list for much of the second half; when he returned, he had markedly diminished stamina, and he struggled over the first half of 2017 in between the majors and Triple-A before finally undergoing Tommy John surgery in July. He returned late in the 2018 season but only pitched 16 (official) innings, losing both his decisions and allowing nine earned runs in three starts.
Meanwhile, Erick Fedde graduated from prospect status this year, but he was mostly ineffectual over eleven starts, only once completing six full innings and pitching to a 5.54 ERA with an ugly 1.53 WHIP. The Nats are still waiting for him to take the next big step forward. It hasn’t happened yet, and he’ll be 26 in February.
The argument motivating this potential course of action is that Fedde needs yet more seasoning in the minors, with the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League posing a new challenge to him if he returns to Triple-A; and Ross, having not pitched effectively as a starter in the majors since the first half of 2016, might be better served with a move — whether temporary or permanent — into the bullpen. Ross would likely represent an upgrade over Voth as a long reliever, or his velocity could play up in shorter, higher-leverage stints.
Meanwhile, the Nats would retain Roark while relegating him to the role of fifth starter. (It’s worth remembering, of course, that fifth starters pitch every five days, same as the other four guys in the rotation.) Roark’s results the past two seasons haven’t been great, hovering around a 4.50 ERA — but he’s given the Nats something important, and that’s innings. Roark has made at least 30 starts in each of the past three seasons, and in none of them has he pitched fewer than 180 innings.
There are all sorts of stats to measure player performance. But the one indisputable thing that every team needs is a way to cover the 1,458+ innings they need pitched over the course of a full season. Roark has provided about one-eighth of those innings by himself over the past two seasons, and more in 2016. If you lose Roark, you need somebody to make those up, and it’s statistically unlikely that it will be a one-man job. Out of the 37 free agents currently listed as available starting pitchers by MLBTR, exactly two (Dallas Keuchel and James Shields) pitched more than 180 innings this past season, and precisely none pitched more than 180 innings in each of the last two seasons, let alone the last three.
So: Roark stays to eat innings. Ross goes to the ‘pen. Voth and Fedde start the year in the minors. This means the Nats make another addition to the rotation.
Speculatively, the Nats seem unlikely to pursue someone like Keuchel or fellow left-handed free agent J.A. Happ, the top remaining free-agent starters on the market with Corbin in D.C. and Nathan Eovaldi back to Boston. But they could still upgrade their rotation by signing a pitcher from a lower tier.
The best-regarded of the remaining free agents after Corbin, Keuchel, Happ, and Eovaldi is probably 35-year-old veteran Charlie Morton, whom the Nats know from his time in Atlanta and Philadelphia. Morton reportedly wants to pitch for a team close to his wife’s family in Delaware, which would seem to make NL East rivals Philadelphia and Washington the leading contenders, assuming he doesn’t want to go to the rebuilding and perennially dysfunctional Baltimore Orioles (now under new management). Morton’s career has had its peaks and valleys, but he’s prospered the past two years as a Houston Astro. Somewhat surprisingly, he was not given a qualifying offer from Houston, meaning he won’t cost any draft picks to sign. With a 3.13 ERA and 1.16 WHIP over 167 innings in 2018, he shouldn’t come cheap, but if location is a priority for Morton, the Nats may find a way to sign him without busting their budget.
Other speculative options include 32-year-old Derek Holland, who signed a pillow contract with the San Francisco Giants to rebuild his value after a dire year on Chicago’s South Side and ended up producing a very respectable 3.57 ERA, 1.29 WHIP campaign; Anibal Sanchez, 35 in February, whom the Nats watched pitch to a 2.83 ERA and 1.08 WHIP on a one-year deal with the division-rival Atlanta Braves; and Shields, 37 this month, who supplied the Chicago White Sox with 204⅔ innings of 4.53 ERA, 1.31 WHIP ball during the season. Holland is noteworthy in that he would give the Nats another lefty for the rotation, although of these three, at least, he seems the likeliest to get a two- or three-year commitment.
A dark horse here is Yusei Kikuchi, a 27-year-old left-hander out of Japan. Kikuchi has been posted by his Japanese team, the Seibu Lions, and should have a number of bidders. Evaluations of Kikuchi vary, with most pegging him as a fourth starter for a major league contender but some suggesting he could be better. Kikuchi is thought likely to end up playing on the West Coast, and as previously mentioned, the Nats have historically shown little interest in Asia. But Kikuchi is also represented by super-agent Scott Boras, whose ties to the Lerners are well known, and the Nats could be a sleeper in the Japanese hurler’s market, although it doesn’t seem very likely.
There are also good pitchers available via trade. Minor of the Rangers is one previously mentioned. The Indians, with whom the Nats linked up on the Gomes deal, are reportedly taking calls on top arms Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber. Madison Bumgarner may be available in San Francisco. Especially for the biggest names on the block, the Nats probably aren’t willing or able to put together a trade package significant enough to bring them to D.C. But they have been known to try for starters on team-friendly deals when money is tighter, as they did when they made a strong bid to acquire Chris Sale from the White Sox two Decembers ago.
The downside to adding a top starter and retaining Roark is that it’s the most expensive option here. On MLBTR, Morton is projected for a two-year, $32 million payday, which would basically wipe out the Nats’ remaining salary space in one fell swoop. Holland or Kikuchi would probably come cheaper on a per-annum basis, with MLBTR suggesting two years and $15 million for the former and a six-year, $42 million contract for the latter. But starting pitching costs money, and this course of action would probably preclude signing a top second baseman out of free agency.
Option #2: Replace Roark with a more effective starter
Roark has given the Nats innings, but they haven’t been great innings. He led the National League in losses this season and has had an ERA over 4 in three of his last four seasons. He’s also due a raise through arbitration, with MLBTR projecting that he’ll earn close to $10 million. If that number is accurate, that is a lot of money to pay for a back-end starter.
The Nats can arguably get close to Roark’s production in terms of workload while getting better performance for comparable cost if they go shopping. If Roark is traded to a team that needs an innings-eater, then freed of the encumbrance of his salary, the Nats could more safely pursue someone like Morton or maybe even Happ, whom MLBTR projects at the same $16 million average annual value as Morton. (The wailing and gnashing of teeth from Yankees fans if the Nats were to nab both Corbin and Happ would be, it must be said, delicious.) Alternatively, the Nats could go smaller to replace Roark and then save money for midseason — or spend it now.
This is sort of a “forked” option, as it leaves the Nats with a couple of needs to address. This approach would not push Ross to the bullpen, which would mean the Nats might still want to sign someone more proven than Voth/Solís to fortify that unit. Alternatively, or maybe additionally depending on how the money shakes out, they could go after a high-priced second baseman like LeMahieu or Lowrie.
There is a whole range of relievers on the market, as there always is. Some of the top names include right-handers Adam Ottavino, Cody Allen, and Joe Kelly, and left-handers Tony Sipp, Justin Wilson, and Zach Britton. The relief market hasn’t really heated up yet, and it’s always hard to predict, but it’s easy to spot players that might pique the Nats’ interest.
Option #3: Status quo
The Nats don’t need to sign another major league starter. The animals have gone two by two so far — Suzuki and Gomes, Barraclough and Rosenthal — but the signing of Corbin doesn’t necessarily have to be followed up by another addition. And the Nats don’t need to trade Roark. Right now, they’re operating comfortably within their self-defined salary constraints, and while they could add more or give themselves more breathing room for other acquisitions by dumping Roark’s salary, they don’t have to make those kind of moves.
This scenario still leaves the door open for the Nats to add to their pitching staff on the reliever side. And they could still bring in more veteran depth to work out at spring camp, like they reportedly have with former Marlins starter Henderson Alvarez. But basically, the projected go-to starting rotation now would be the starting rotation on Opening Day: Scherzer, Corbin, Strasburg, Roark, and Ross.
While doing little to nothing to improve the major league infield and bench seems unlikely, the status quo option for starting pitching seems very plausible. Like Cole, Ross is not a proven quantity at this point, but unlike Cole, he at least has a major league track record. The Nats were asking Cole to find a form he had never consistently displayed. With Ross in the rotation, they’d be asking him for a return to form. It may seem like semantics, but the distinction is real. We have seen Ross pitch like he belongs in a major league rotation. It’s just been a while.
Option #4: Trade Roark, trust Ross, and give the kids a chance
Remember how only two free-agent starters pitched more innings than Roark this past season? Well, up until Friday morning, that number was three, because new National Patrick Corbin provided the Arizona Diamondbacks with exactly 200 frames in 2018. The Nats could conclude that they have already replaced Roark’s production, Rodriguez’s production this year was fungible (any replacement-level pitcher brought up from the minor leagues could have provided it with about the same degree of efficacy), and it’s time for Roark to go.
There was never any real drama about whether the Nats would tender Roark a new contract, even if some websites (including this one) mentioned the possibility they might not. Roark has been a workhorse starter, and after all, there was no guarantee the Nats would land one of their top pitching targets. They’ve missed out on plenty of them before. But it’s fair to wonder: Had the Nats had a deal in place with Corbin prior to last Friday’s deadline to tender arbitration-eligible players a new contract, would they have tendered Roark?
Trading Roark now without plans to replace him would require Nats brass to have great trust in Ross to bounce back to his pre-injury form, as well as faith that between Erick Fedde, Austin Voth, Kyle McGowin, Sterling Sharp, and other minor league pitchers, either one would emerge as a credible fifth starter in 2019 or a merry-go-’round of young arms could replace the production of a dedicated fifth starter. That seems like a stretch — but if the Nats want to make a big splash on the positional side, such as by bringing Harper back, they might have to shed Roark’s salary to make the fit work. They could also use those dollars to continue strengthening the bullpen, such as by creating a “three-headed monster” with Doolittle, Rosenthal, and someone like Andrew Miller or Craig Kimbrel, the top available free-agent relievers.
This has been a characteristically long-winded rundown of where the Nats are at this point in the offseason. The Winter Meetings start this weekend in Las Vegas, and Mike Rizzo is usually good for some drama there (although he didn’t do much last time). There’s still too many short, cold days and long, colder nights in between now and the first crack of the bat down in West Palm Beach, Florida.
But the Nats have put themselves in a good position. It’s early yet, but it’s fair to say that the Nats are “winning” the offseason so far, striking quickly to upgrade at their three largest areas of weakness in 2018 and doing so without spending so much money they have nothing left. Washington has also avoided trading away any top prospects, give or take Daniel Johnson, whom evaluators generally ranked in the Nats’ organizational top ten but outside the league-wide top 100. That can either be interpreted as Rizzo keeping his powder dry for a huge, shocking acquisition, like he tried to pull off for Sale in 2016, or keeping a farm system he wants to continue building mostly intact for now.
What do you think the Nats should do next?