One of the busiest people in Washington, D.C. is not a politician or a lobbyist although Mike Rizzo’s job entails a lot of skills that those on Capitol Hill need to be effective just like the general manager of the Washington Nationals. Rizzo has been lobbying for players and avoiding vetoes on his way to building a better team than he had in 2018. Rizzo got a vote of confidence from team ownership and signed the #1 free agent pitcher this off-season when he inked Patrick Corbin to a massive $140 million deal. Add that deal to his acquisitions of former closers Kyle Barraclough and Trevor Rosenthal, and starting catchers Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes, and this past weekend Rizzo re-acquired the powerful left-handed first baseman Matt Adams.
How many more moves Mike Rizzo has left could be dependent on the cash he has remaining to spend. After the Adams acquisition, the CBT payroll is at $179 million which is $27 million under the $206 million CBT cap for 2019, however, the Nationals have to also account for bonus incentives that are not included in that number leaving Rizzo with probably only $20 million to spend at most — unless he gets creative with his payroll. The team already shed over $9 million in projected payroll when they traded Tanner Roark, but they need to replace Roark’s spot in the starting rotation now. Is there enough cash remaining to sign two more veteran starting pitchers and a top second baseman and a left-handed reliever and do all of this without going over the cap?
“I’m comfortable with our offense and the ability to score runs and win games,” Rizzo said. “I like the roster that we have currently. I think we’ll score runs in a different manner. We’ll play the game in a different manner than we did last year, probably, but I still think that the upgrade at different positions, and the upgrade in defense will help us play the game better.”
The Nationals also have a decision ahead to whether Victor Robles or Michael Taylor is the starting centerfielder on Opening Day in an outfield that looks like it will not include Bryce Harper although there are many who are still holding out hope that he returns to the Nationals.
“Granted, and I’m not going to say we’re losing Harp, because the door is still open,” manager Dave Martinez said. “If he’s not back, I like the way we’re set up.”
Here is the issue with the Bryce Harper situation — the payroll is close to busting its limit and if the Nationals exceed the CBT salary cap again in 2019 they would by penalized by a 50% payroll tax on the excess which leads to some math that if the Nationals paid Harper $30 million a year and the Nationals were hypothetically $28 million over the cap they would pay a $14 million cap tax penalty which would make Harper’s hit $44 million to the bottomline. How intent Is the Nationals ownership on bringing Harper back at this point in time? As they say, sit back and we will see.
“If there was a definite every day second baseman that we liked that we thought was an upgrade, we would certainly consider that,” Rizzo said at the Winter Meetings. “If it was more of a kind of a hybrid role, we would consider that. We’ve left ourselves open to a lot of different types of options, a lot of different ways to build the bench and the back of the roster.”
The need for a hybrid second baseman who could play first base for instance is no longer a priority after the signing of Matt Adams. There is still the question of the health of Howie Kendrick who is returning from a serious achilles tendon surgery that has limited Kendrick to zero-gravity running only and light running so far. The Nationals do have top prospect Carter Kieboom in the wings, but they could use a second baseman who bats lefty and the list luckily is lengthy as you can see the chart we penciled up.
As things stand today, this could be the Opening Day roster and line-up, and you can immediately see some of the soft spots in this roster. For what it is worth, Fangraphs projects this roster as a 91-win team:
I. Starting Rotation (5)
II. Bullpen (Pick 7)
- Wander Suero RHP
- Koda Glover RHP
- Matt Grace LHP
- Sammy Solis LHP
- Justin Miller RHP
- Kyle Barraclough RHP
- Trevor Rosenthal RHP
- Sean Doolittle LHP
III. Starting Line-up (8)
- Adam Eaton RF LH
- Trea Turner SS RH
- Juan Soto LF LH
- Anthony Rendon 3B RH
- Ryan Zimmerman 1B RH
- Victor Robles CF RH
- Howie Kendrick 2B RH
- Yan Gomes C RH
IV. Bench (5)
At December 17th, Mike Rizzo still has plenty of time to fill his holes with an excess of second basemen on the market, veteran Ian Kinsler jumped to the Padres for a 2-year deal netting him $4 million a year which shows how far the market might have softened. That Nats starting line-up would look much more formidable with Jed Lowrie batting 6th or even Derek Dietrich who could work in a platoon. The line-up when Zimmerman starts is very right-handed so the last roster spot should go to a lefty second baseman even though Rizzo is rumored to be looking at the right-handed DJ LeMahieu and supposedly made an offer to Kinsler.
“Starting pitching and defense wins a lot of games,” Martinez said. “I mean there’s going to be days where you don’t hit — you score two or three runs. If our starting pitching is pitching the way it’s capable of pitching, we’ll win those games. It’s very important, and we’re out there looking, and I’m sure Mike [Rizzo] will get something done. Right now, we’ve got three or four good starting pitchers. Yeah, we could add one more, maybe two, who knows, but I know Mike is working diligently to get another guy.”
The starting pitching market is the toughest spot to upgrade. With few candidates who look like no-brainers, the majority of what remains is a lot of aging pitchers, reclamation projects, injury-prone, and pitchers who have their share of question marks. Truth be told, all the teams are looking at the same pool, and the Nationals cashed-in on Patrick Corbin leaving only Dallas Keuchel as the last of the top free agent pitchers remaining. Keuchel appears to be out of the Nationals price range at this point in time even though there are rumors tying him to the Nationals. There is also the possibility the Nats look to Japanese pitcher Yusei Kikuchi.
Rumors broke this week which we confirmed that the Nationals were trying to sign left-handed starter Wade Miley who was not an iron man in the regular season although he was excellent in the post-season pitching his Brewers’ team into the NLCS with a 1.23 ERA over 14 2/3 innings. As of today, the Nationals and Miley’s agent were a few million apart according to our sources. Other strong pitching candidates tied to the Nationals appear to be Mike Fiers and Anibal Sanchez. There is also the feeling that Rizzo could look again to Jeremy Hellickson on a short-term deal, and Rizzo appears interested in Yusei Kikuchi who will be posted by his team in Japan, and he will be traveling to the U.S. this week.
Rizzo has had a great off-season, and time will tell what else he does so you all can give your best guesses as we have been doing very well anticipating his moves this off-season so far.