Best player available works for MLB Draft but does it work for signing free agents?

Photo by Andrew Lang for TalkNats

In the last offseason, Patrick Corbin was considered the top pitcher available in free agency. He was not considered the top free agent available, but was the pitching prize for sure. For general manager Mike Rizzo of the Washington Nationals, he had to fill some holes after outfielder Bryce Harper departed for free agency, middle of the rotation when Gio Gonzalez was traded, second base when Daniel Murphy was traded, and the catcher position that had a hole ever since Wilson Ramos went to free agency after the 2016 season. Rizzo added catchers Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes, Patrick Corbin, and Brian Dozier from outside of the organization last offseason as well as promoted Victor Robles internally. While most analysts felt the Nationals did enough to improve overall, nobody would say they replaced Harper with a similar player rather the sum of the parts were greater than the whole in WAR calculations. In fact, Fangraphs in their preseason projections picked the Nats to win the NL East. 

The Nationals of 2020 face a similar challenge in replacing the WAR that was vacated when Anthony Rendon departed. Similar to the Harper situation last year, Rizzo cannot look at adding one player to the mix to replace Rendon’s WAR rather improvement has to come from the sum of the parts, but those parts have to be added to positions of need not forcing square pegs in round holes by looking at players who do not fit Rizzo’s goals. For instance, the needs are at third base, second base, first base and the bullpen. The starting rotation, outfield, catcher and shortstop are set for 2020. Signing the best player available is Rizzo’s stated goal in the draft, but not in roster construction unless you believe you should sign an outfielder and shift Juan Soto to first base which many think is forcing change that is unnecessary especially when Soto was just named a finalist for the 2019 Gold Glove award.

“It’s always the best player available,” assistant general manager Kris Kline said in a prior interview on the team’s drafting and roster building philosophy. “… pitching is always a priority because that’s what wins championships in the big leagues, front-line pitching, if that’s available. Those are the guys that you covet. You build a championship team through the middle with catching, shortstops, centerfielder, and front-line pitching, but those guys are hard to find.”

You also don’t create holes to fix other holes in the swiss cheese approach in plugging holes by trading from your core players. So how does Mike Rizzo and his staff add enough WAR to stay competitive for 2020? That is the million dollar question.

Out of the box thinking is how you probably solve the WAR riddle and sports radio host Danny Rouhier posted the tweet (above) and is using the “best player available” theory (other than Josh Donaldson). While we have discussed adding Nicholas Castellanos before in a shift to first base due to his poor defense, we felt he would be too expensive at that position with so many other options open. That leaves the other part of Rouhier’s tweet to discuss about “desperation” from Mike Rizzo to replace Rendon. Personally speaking, I do not feel you have to be desperate when you are the World Series champs. There are a dozen other teams that might succumb to the pressure and make desperation moves. Rizzo needs to be methodical and not make mistakes that could impact future years to come. The Dodgers have employed that theory of winning and relevance by not chasing players and making desperation moves. Either you want to play for the Dodgers or not is how they think. Rizzo has seemed to grasp that theory also. Sure, the Nats paid dearly to retain Stephen Strasburg, but it never felt like desperation. Filling Rendon’s cleats will require some of that out off the box methodology though.

We have thrown plenty of ideas out there through trades, free agency, and the one internal candidate (Carter Kieboom) who could fill a hole. Last season, the Nats final Fangraphs WAR was +48.3. The Nats are currently at a +41.0 WAR and only need to add approximately +4.0 to +6.0 WAR to get to Mike Rizzo’s 90-win projection goal in the offseason. The Nats are approximately $38 million under the CBT spending threshold, and that should ensure that Rizzo should be able to add +5.0 WAR with that kind of money to spend. The best GMs find the hidden gems and the uptick in WAR potential.

We are 41 days until pitchers and catchers report so there is still time. No time for desperation, but certainly it is time to move forward.

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