The Washington Nationals struck quickly on the first full day of the Winter Meetings in San Diego, re-signing World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg to return their all-world rotation from 2019.
Strasburg didn’t come cheap. He’ll make $35 million per year (although adjusted for deferrals, his average annual value is closer to $32.7 million) for the next seven years, taking him into age 38 with the only major league team he’s ever known. According to TalkNats’ own calculations, that places the Nats about $38.5 million shy of the competitive balance tax threshold. And while the Nats haven’t confirmed they won’t exceed that $208 million limit, indications are they’ll try to stay under it, perhaps even by several million dollars to give them in-season flexibility.
The obvious question is now: What do the Nats do at third base?
As just about every fan of the world champion Nats knows, Strasburg was one of two superstars who departed via free agency after the Nats won the World Series. The other happens to leave a vacancy at the hot corner that the team will be challenged to fill.
So who might Nats fans see at third base this season? Let’s round them up.
Contract: One year, $6.25 million
Fun fact: He hit both the go-ahead home run in Game 5 of the National League Division Series and Game 7 of the World Series in 2019, the first player in major league history ever to do so in the same postseason
- He can rake, with a .344 batting average this season that led all major league hitters with at least 300 plate appearances and a more-than-respectable .966 slugging percentage.
- He’s already under contract, having just re-signed with the Nats last week on a one-year deal.
- He’s familiar with the personnel, including the Nats’ incumbent shortstop, left fielder, and coaching staff.
- He’s not a full-time player, by his own admission, having made just 70 starts during the regular season (and just 63 in the field), so he’s not likely to start everyday or even necessarily most days.
- He’s not really a third baseman, with just 33 major league games at the position, nearly half of which came in 2019, and the defensive metrics will bear that out.
Contract: One year, $1 million
Fun fact: Appearing as a pinch-hitter, he made the last out of the Nationals’ 2016 campaign, swinging and missing at a breaking ball in the dirt from Clayton Kershaw in Game 5 of the NLDS
- He’s already signed for cheap, having agreed to a one-year deal that avoids arbitration with the Nats.
- He switch-hits, making it difficult to play pitching match-ups with him. His splits hitting from either side of the plate are practically identical, too.
- He adds some speed to the lineup, with two seasons with stolen bases in the double digits despite only playing part-time.
- He’s a very weak hitter, with a career 73+ OPS and just a .628 OPS in the major leagues this season. A switch-hitter, he’s displayed no tendency to hit left-handed or right-handed pitching especially, with a nearly identical OPS versus both for his career.
- He spent most of this season in the minor leagues, reflecting his lack of value to the major league roster; Baseball-Reference calculates he was worth a full win below replacement level in his time with the major league team.
- He’s not really a third baseman, with just 35 major league games played at third base; his utility to the Nats, such as it is, rests in his ability to adequately play nearly every position on the diamond.
Contract: Pre-arbitration, two minor league options remaining
Fun fact: He was the Nationals’ top pick in the 2016 draft, taken 28th overall, and joined his older brother Spencer in the organization upon signing
- He’s a consensus top prospect, ranking as the 20th-best prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline. Historically, the Nats have been aggressive in promoting high-performing top prospects to fill gaps on the roster.
- He’s already in the organization making the league minimum, since he’s still a rookie; he debuted earlier this year after being added to the major league roster, and he’ll retain rookie status through at least the 2020 season.
- He’s demonstrated some power at the highest levels, homering twice during an 11-game cameo in the major leagues and hitting 16 homers in each of the past two minor league seasons. In all, he posted a .902 OPS in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League (AAA) this past season as a 21-year-old.
- He has no proven ability to play third base at the professional level, with no major league appearances at the position and just 10 games there in the minor leagues to date; in those 10 games, he committed four fielding errors in 32 chances for a .875 fielding percentage.
- He suffered a power outage at the plate in the second half, homering just three times across July, August, and September before the minor league season came to an end.
- He has little major league experience, appearing in 11 games during an injury to the starting shortstop before being sent back down; notably, the Nats did not recall him after rosters expanded in September, and he wasn’t present for the team’s playoff run.
Kendrick could get some starts at third base, but it seems unlikely that will be his primary position, and it’s possible the Nats will restrict him to the right side of the infield only as he heads into his age-37 season. With his light bat, if Difo even makes the Opening Day roster, he’ll very likely only spell the starter at third base on occasion or fill in if there’s an injury. There’s uncertainty as to how likely Kieboom is to make the Opening Day roster, but especially with his very limited experience at third base, with ugly results at the Triple-A level, it seems like a stretch to pencil him in as the Nats’ starting third baseman in 2020.
There doesn’t seem to be a clear internal candidate for the job at this point, although it’s possible that between these three players, the Nats could choose to set their sights lower in looking for an “everyday” starter, with the expectation being they will share time with some combination of Kendrick, Difo, and/or Kieboom during the season.
The free agents
Contract: N/A, but rumored to be seeking a deal richer than Nolan Arenado‘s eight-year, $260 million contract extension with the Colorado Rockies
Fun fact: The sixth overall draft pick in 2011, he has spent his entire career to date with the Nationals, toggling between second and third base until settling into the latter position full-time starting in 2016
- He might be the best third baseman on the planet right now, winning the National League Silver Slugger Award this year and placing third in NL MVP voting. At the very least, he’s the best third baseman on the market this winter, both offensively and defensively. This past year, he hit .319/1.010 during the regular season, led MLB in runs batted in with 126, and was a Gold Glove Award finalist.
- He’s beloved in Washington, D.C., having played for seven years with the Nats and turning in a bravura performance in the playoffs, with key home runs in Games 6 and 7 of the World Series. Fans would rejoice at having him back in the fold.
- He knows all the personnel, and he would slot right back into the position he has played nearly every game with the Nats from 2016 onward, providing seamless continuity at the hot corner.
- He’s going to make bank this winter, with super-agent Scott Boras reportedly seeking a seven-year guarantee at more than $260 million. That pencils out to more than $37 million per year, which would virtually consume the remaining payroll space below the CBT threshold for the Nats. A seven-year deal would take Rendon into his age-36 season.
- He might not want to come back, if the Nats’ prioritization of Strasburg is in any way indicative of their thinking about Rendon. The Nats reportedly made several extension offers to Rendon during the season, but negotiations never gained serious traction, and baseball reporters have consistently suggested that while the Nats would like to bring back Rendon, they’re not confident they’ll be able to do so.
Contract: N/A, but rumored to be likely to receive a four-year deal that could approach or possibly exceed $100 million
Fun fact: In his first season with the Toronto Blue Jays after being traded from the Oakland Athletics, he won the American League MVP in 2015, then placed fourth in MVP voting the following year
- He’s clearly the second-best free agent third baseman this winter, with a .900 OPS this season for the Atlanta Braves and a 136 OPS+ for his career. While he wasn’t a Gold Glove candidate, his defense graded out as above-average.
- He lives up to his nickname “Bringer of Rain”, with 37 home runs this past year, which was somehow just third among Braves players during the 2019 season. The Nats are in the market for a right-handed power bat, and Donaldson fits the bill.
- He’s one of just a couple of players who would likely be perceived as a worthy replacement if Rendon leaves, with his former-MVP pedigree and status as one of the five best free agents available this winter. The Nats are PR-conscious and know that even with Strasburg re-signed, losing Rendon would prompt some backlash in the press. Adding Donaldson would ameliorate that in a way few other acquisitions could.
- He wants a lot of money, befitting his gleaming resume and limited depth in the third base market. He won’t challenge Rendon’s total outlay, but with multiple teams interested in one or both of the top two free-agent third basemen, he could still approach $30 million per year, especially if he can’t secure a fourth guaranteed year. That would leave the Nats just a few million dollars below the CBT threshold, with more offseason shopping yet to be done.
- He’s a health and regression risk, due both to his age (he just turned 34) and his history of injuries, including a recurring calf injury that limited his playing time in 2018, a shoulder injury that affected his throwing that year as well, and a hip injury that affected him in 2016. A four-year deal would take him through his age-37 season.
- He’s not a particularly high-average hitter, posting a modest .255 batting average over the last two seasons. That means he will rely on walks and extra-base hits to keep his offensive value up — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth noting.
Contract: N/A, but rumored to be considering both multiyear and one-year deals
Fun fact: He and his Team Netherlands teammates were knighted after winning the Baseball World Cup in 2011, and he has gone by “Sir Didi Gregorius” since then
- He’s a proven high-quality hitter, with a three-year run with the New York Yankees from 2016 to 2018 in which he hit .277/.791 in a premium defensive position, topping 20 home runs in each of those years.
- He’s well known and respected as a clubhouse leader, maturing into that role with the Yankees during his time there. A polyglot, he speaks both English and Spanish, among other languages.
- He could be a great value this offseason, as he’s generally projected for a rebound campaign but will probably top out at about $15 million per year, if that.
- He wasn’t very good this past year, battling injuries and scuffling to a .238/.718 batting line that more closely resembles Yan Gomes‘ down year than it does, say, Rendon or Donaldson’s.
- He doesn’t have great on-base skills, never reaching 50 walks in a single season and posting a career on-base percentage of .313. Even during that strong three-year stretch from 2016 to 2018, his OBP was just .319.
- He’s not actually a third baseman at all, with just two major league games played at third base and none in the minor leagues. Shortstops are generally considered to have the athleticism to play just about anywhere, but signing a player to learn a new position is risky, and it may well not hold any interest for Gregorius.
Fun fact: He’s only of only 15 players in major league history to have turned an unassisted triple play, accomplishing the feat on May 12, 2008, while playing second base for the Cleveland Indians
- He’s been a part of the team, playing for the Nats in 2014 but more recently (and crucially) for the championship team in 2019. He knows the personnel, and Mike Rizzo clearly likes him enough to have acquired him twice midway through contending seasons.
- He switch-hits, giving him versatility and making it hard for opposing managers to match up with him. He has power from both sides of the plate as well.
- He can play multiple positions, which could make him valuable in meshing with Kendrick, Kieboom, and likely another acquisition to fill out the infield, much as he combined with Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman, and Brian Dozier in 2019.
- He’s likely to sign for relatively cheap, although it’s not clear how much or whether he’ll get a two-year commitment.
- He’s not really a third baseman, something that’s becoming a running theme with otherwise respectable candidates on this list; to date, the Texas Rangers are the only team that’s ever employed Cabrera primarily as a third baseman, and he endured one of the worst runs of his career before the Rangers DFA’d him in August 2019. His fielding marks at the position are, unsurprisingly, subpar. As with Difo, his utility is largely in his versatility.
- He’s an inconsistent hitter, turning in a marginal .235/.711 slash line with Texas before turning it on to the tune of a .323/.969 line with the Nats this past season. The risk is not knowing which Asdrubal Cabrera will show up.
- He’s also getting older, as he is about a month Donaldson’s senior. On a shorter-term deal, this may not be a very big issue, but it still makes him a candidate for regression.
Contract: N/A, non-tendered by the Milwaukee Brewers
Fun fact: He was given the colorful nickname “Mayor of Ding Dong City” by a beat reporter during his time with the Boston Red Sox
- He’s probably going to sign for cheap, lacking in leverage after the Brewers jettisoned him from their roster rather than give him a raise through the arbitration process this winter. A minor league contract isn’t completely out of the question, although it seems he’s had interest from teams including the Red Sox already.
- He’s had three seasons with an OPS above .800, out of five in his major league career. Across 2017-18, he put together a strong .258/.844 slash line.
- He has some positional flexibility, having split time between first and third base for the Red Sox and also seeing some action at second base for the Brewers. As with Cabrera, this could make him a good complement to the existing roster.
- He was really, really bad this past season, and no one really seems to know why. He cratered to an appalling .157/.551 slash line and ended up spending a chunk of the season at Triple-A, where he at least hit quite a bit better, albeit in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League as a five-year major league veteran. He had an early wrist injury, but he was apparently healthy for most of the year.
- He’s a pretty ordinary hitter on aggregate, with a slightly above-average OPS+ of 103 and a career .243 batting average. Those numbers are dragged down by his abysmal 2019 campaign and a humdrum sophomore season in Boston.
It’s unkind to cry poor on behalf of the Nats, considering the world champs have been one of the most free-spending franchises of the decade, only barely squeaking in below the CBT threshold in 2019. That being said, Strasburg’s signing squeezes the budget just enough to make another mega-deal this winter seem ill-advised if not implausible.
Rendon would clearly be the best player to take third base for the Nats in 2020, if money weren’t an object. Donaldson would clearly be the second-best option, again, if money weren’t an object. It is possible the Nats say “damn the torpedoes” and throw the rest of their money at Rendon or Donaldson. In that case, they would likely have to be content to fill out the rest of their holes in-house or with low-risk minor league signings.
Beyond that, the other options are unorthodox at best. Gregorius and Cabrera aren’t third basemen by trade and seem more likely to sign as middle infielders, wherever they may end up. Shaw is a rebound candidate, but after his inexplicably horrendous 2019 season, he’d be a big gamble, especially stepping into the gigantic shoes of Anthony Rendon. Gregorius is likely to land a starting job somewhere, but Cabrera or Shaw could fit on the bench in Washington or elsewhere. In other words, if the Nats sign one of them, expect them to keep looking around as long as they have money left over.
The trade candidates
Contract: Three years, $21 million (two years remaining)
Fun fact: A former teammate and close friend of 2019 National Brian Dozier, he’s credited with teaching Dozier to speak (and sing) in Spanish
- He’s been a solidly above-average hitter for the past three seasons, with a 111 OPS+ and a .266/.809 slash line. In the past two seasons, his OPS has been above .800.
- He added some new power in 2019, tying for the the major league lead with 10 triples and also hitting 35 home runs. He was a 20+ home run hitter previously, but this power surge was new and unexpected.
- He switch-hits, making it tough to game-plan around his versatile bat in the lineup and allowing him to figure into multiple configurations.
- He’s affordable for the next two seasons, having signed a team-friendly deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks after being traded there from the Minnesota Twins.
- He wouldn’t come cheaply, as the Diamondbacks haven’t declared themselves sellers and Escobar’s contract isn’t exactly burning a hole in their coffers. With two years of team control on an average annual value of $7 million — a downright bargain for his production — Escobar figures to command at least one blue-chip prospect in trade, and that’s if Arizona is even willing to entertain offers.
- He definitely prefers home cooking, with a 40-point gap between his home and away batting averages for his career and more than a 100-point dropoff in OPS this past season when he played on the road. This can be a red flag when considering how a player will take to a new team and a new ballpark.
- He’s a pretty average fielder at third base, which certainly beats being a bad fielder at third base. But it’s noteworthy that he moved over to third base mostly because his defensive value declined as a shortstop to the point where he was essentially unplayable there.
Contract: Seven years, $100 million (two years remaining) plus a $15 million club option that could vest up to $20 million
Fun fact: Corey Seager‘s older brother, he was an All-Star in 2014, the year before Corey debuted in the major leagues; since then, Corey has been an All-Star twice and Kyle has yet to repeat
- He’s a generally solid offensive player, with a career OPS+ of 113 and two seasons in which his OPS+ topped 125. He’s only been a below-average hitter in one season, and he’s never hit fewer than 20 home runs in any of the eight full seasons he’s played.
- He’s the most expensive player on a small-market team with a trade-happy general manager, meaning he’s almost certainly available this winter, even if there hasn’t been much trade talk surrounding him yet. Assuming he is, his acquisition cost should be markedly lower than Escobar’s.
- He’s an above-average fielder, a former Gold Glove Award-winner at third base who gets consistently favorable marks for his glovework.
- He is probably at least a little overpaid for his production, as although his average annual value of $14.3 million isn’t unreasonable, his backloaded contract means he’ll make $19.5 million in 2020. This is also the main reason the Seattle Mariners could move him for a modest return this winter.
- He’s consistent except when he’s not consistent, like in 2018, when his bat did a vanishing act and he slumped to just a .221/.673 line over 155 games. Even in 2019, he was on track for a gargantuan second half, until his August slash line of .323/1.116 abruptly gave way to a .202/.675 September.
- His batting averages aren’t very good, like Donaldson’s but to a significantly worse extent. His career batting average is .256, and he hasn’t reached a .250 batting average in any of the past three seasons. As such, he needs to take his walks to keep his OBP up, and when he connects, he needs to do damage.
Contract: Third-year arbitration-eligible, projected at one year, $18.5 million
Fun fact: He’s a longtime friend of former National Bryce Harper, with both hailing from the Las Vegas area
- He’s a really, really good offensive player, winner of the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2015 and NL MVP in 2016. He’s never had a season with an OPS below .800, and in three of the five, it’s topped .900. He’s only been below 30 home runs in one of those five seasons, and in that season, he hit 28.
- He has a superstar quality, and along with Donaldson, he’s probably one of the only players on this list or any other that would be seen as a nearly equivalent replacement for Rendon. The complaints about the Nats getting worse by letting Rendon go would quiet down very quickly if Mike Rizzo traded for Bryant.
- He’s likely to be traded this winter, as the Chicago Cubs are motivated to clear salary space, and the relationship between team and player has reportedly deteriorated as Bryant has pressed a grievance against the Cubs for manipulating his service time at the start of his major league career. That means the Cubs are likely motivated sellers, although for a player of Bryant’s caliber, they should have other suitors — including the Philadelphia Phillies, who signed Harper last winter.
- His defensive ratings have declined somewhat, as he rated out well at third base early in his career but earned negative marks in 2018 and 2019. It could be a blip, or it could be an early warning sign of a bad trend in the field.
- He might be a free agent after the 2020 season, if he wins that grievance hearing. It’s unlikely, but the element of uncertainty has complicated trade talks, according to reports. The matter should be resolved soon, at least.
- He’s going to cost a mint in prospects, even if the Cubs actively attempt to trade him. He turns 28 next month and is a perennial MVP-caliber player, not to mention a former MVP. He’ll likely come with two years of team control. And competition could be substantial, as teams that miss on Rendon and Donaldson are likely to see him as their preferred fallback. The Cubs would almost certainly start by asking for at least two of Kieboom, Victor Robles, and top pitching prospect Jackson Rutledge, and it wouldn’t be prima facie unreasonable for them to demand all three.
- He’s going to cost a mint in money, since he’s projected to make $18.5 million after arbitration this winter and he would be eligible for a fourth round of arbitration as a “Super Two” player if he doesn’t win his grievance. The worst of the AAV hit would come just as the Nats could ill afford it, in 2021. Seager notwithstanding, he’s the third-most expensive option on this list.
Contract: Pre-arbitration, team control through 2023
Fun fact: He was drafted eighth overall by the Kansas City Royals in 2013, and no, as far as anyone can tell, he does not appear to be related to Brian Dozier
- He’s young and cheap, and acquiring him would effectively add to the Nats’ positional “core” in a way none of these other pickups would, save for the homegrown Rendon. This would be an investment in a long-term asset to pair with Trea Turner on the left side of the infield.
- He was a well above-average hitter this past season, breaking out with a .279/.870 batting line and 125 OPS+. As was mentioned earlier, Escobar tied for the major league lead with 10 triples — tied, that is, with Dozier, who also contributed 26 home runs for Kansas City.
- He’s on a team that doesn’t look like it will contend anytime soon, so the motivation for the Royals to keep him could easily be outweighed by a strong offer to give the organization a few more building blocks. While there hasn’t been talk of trading Dozier, it’s not an unthinkable scenario as it would be for a team that is contending or looks close.
- He’s probably not going anywhere, since all of that being said, he’s a pre-arb player who has yet to really establish his true value as a major leaguer. The Royals should be in no rush to part with him unless they are bowled over by an offer, and it’s hard to know what that valuation would be at this point.
- He’s a butcher on defense, with deeply negative marks at third base. The Royals have experimented with moving him to less demanding positions, thus far with mixed results.
- He’s unproven, with just two more-or-less full seasons in the majors, one of them quite good and the other (in 2018) not very good at all. With a player of Dozier’s age and with his first-round pedigree, the smart money says that 2019 was a breakout year and he will be an above-average major leaguer going forward. But the annals of baseball history are littered with players who had one good season and then fizzled out. That’s why it’s hard to properly assess Dozier’s value at this point.
Contract: Pre-arbitration, team control through 2023
Fun fact: As a rookie in 2018, he broke the Yankees’ all-time record for most doubles by a rookie, which had been set by Joe DiMaggio
- He’s very young, and if Dozier would add to the Nats’ positional core, Andujar would potentially remake it. Acquiring Andujar would give the Nats a player who turns 25 early in the 2020 season, not much older than their star Dominican outfielders.
- He has a high ceiling, placing second behind only Shohei Ohtani in American League Rookie of the Year Award balloting in 2018. It’s easy to dream on tools like Andujar has.
- He could be on the trading block, something that can’t usually be said for star-caliber players on the right side of 25. Trade rumors have been swirling around Andujar for months, and the market could be set to heat up now.
- He was hurt all season and barely played, appearing in just 12 games. He finished the 2019 season on the 60-day injured list after undergoing major surgery on his throwing shoulder.
- He’s a really poor defender at third base, which is part of the reason the Yankees seem poised to move on from him. He grades out very poorly and has committed 18 errors in just 143 career games at third base in the major leagues.
- He’s not likely to be traded for anything the Nationals have to offer, since the Yankees are trying to win now and so are the Nats. The most recent rumors suggest the Yankees could dangle Andujar for All-Star-caliber pitching if, having missed out on Strasburg, they also fail to land Gerrit Cole. The Nats have All-Star-caliber pitching, obviously, but trading it for Andujar after apparently sacrificing Rendon to bring back Strasburg would be a strange move to say the least.
The trade market looks somewhat promising, but none of the options on offer represent an ideal fit. In terms of plausibility, the top tier clearly looks like Escobar from Arizona and Seager from Seattle. Bryant could be an option as well, but he’s likely out of the Nats’ price range, considering the depleted state of the Washington farm system. Dozier and Andujar are difficult to properly value, and it’s not clear that the Nats have anything that could tempt Kansas City or New York to trade, nor is it clear that they would be sound investments.
If the Nats fill their third base need via trade, realistically, the choice is between getting a very good player by giving up a package that would likely include Kieboom and/or fellow top infield prospect Luis Garcia, or getting a fairly good player for a significantly lighter package by taking on more salary. That tends to be the way things go with the trade market.