The top-10 priority list for the Washington Nationals and the writing on the wall on Menhart’s departure!

Former Nats pitching coach Paul Menhart watched his starting pitcher; Photo by LEGNats for TalkNats

Way back on September 25th, we turned the page to the 2021 season and the off-season with a list for the Washington Nationals who have clear priorities for next year. We will take you through the updated Top-10 that saw our #1 priority signed-off on with the extension of Dave Martinez who received a multi-year contract last week. A week later, the team parted ways with pitching coach Paul Menhart.

While many were surprised that Menhart’s expired contract was not renewed, the whispers were there that someone(s) head was going to roll due to the worst starting pitcher’s ERA in the ENTIRE Nats history. That is right, much worse than the 2006-2009 seasons when starting rotations were put together with journeymen and reclamation projects known in those days as “dumpster dives.” The 2020 rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Anibal Sanchez cost well over $95 million which was higher than the entire payroll for the 2020 Baltimore Orioles team of $66.8 million.

“Obviously you guys know that I strongly believe in pitching and defense,” Martinez said last weekend. “But without starting pitching, it’s hard to win championships. We proved that in 2019, so Rizzo and I are going to have conversations.”

That quote (above) from Davey was probably the writing on the wall that Menhart was not coming back. We have been writing about the under-performing starting pitchers for weeks and posted the final starter’s ERA on September 29th.  For some reason, others in the media seemed to just figure this out. Like we said, the whispers were out there, and these numbers are real. Certainly the numbers are partially skewed with Strasburg missing for most of the season, but that was just part of the issue.

Getting the starting pitching fixed will be a challenge for the Nats new pitching coach and this of course is a top priority to get the rotation fixed. The 2020 starter’s ERA was 5.38 and was the worst starter’s ERA for the Nats going back to (2010 it was 4.61,  2009 and 2008 it was 4.97, 2007 it was 5.11, 2006 it was 5.37, 2005 it was 4.03) never. This was the team’s worst starter’s ERA —EVER—, and unseeded that horrible 2006 starting rotation of Ramon OrtizTony ArmasLiván HernándezMike O’Connor, and Pedro Astacio.

While there was most likely other reasons we have heard about the change at pitching coach, an anonymous source said “there was more than what meets the eye” which kind of told you it was other things and not worth speculating on what that could have been. Objectively, the starter’s ERA was horrific and the biggest issue with the team and their 2020 won/loss record was 15-27. To extrapolate for a full-season, that is a 41-73 (32 games under .500) from the starters, and that cannot be repeated.

We should hear some names emerge as we already heard Brad Holman‘s name as the top in-house candidate. Former Nats pitching coach Mike Maddux could also be available again, and then there is the curious case of Anibal Sanchez who could be a long-shot if he ever decided to go into coaching upon his retirement.

Some notes — and it is no secret, that teams are cutting payroll for 2021. The Phillies owner, John Middleton, already made it clear that his team will be lowering their 2021 payroll. Other teams that will not have a clear path to “fans in the stands” will most likely cut back on payroll. The Nats will probably spend around $190 million, but cashflow is more important than ever when revenues are down. At this point, I am not optimistic on spending on a catcher and believe Rizzo will look for a defensive upgrade at catcher behind Yan Gomes.

    • #1 Pick up manager Dave Martinez‘s option for 2021. While some want a long-term contract, ownership might want to wait for that. Davey has earned his 2021 season at the very least.
    • #1 Extend Trea Turner for the long-term. That would entail buying out his last two years of arbitration and the first 4-7 years beyond that. Once that is done, general manager Mike Rizzo will know what he has to spend in free agency. My feeling now is that if Turner would take deferred or backloaded money to ease the team’s 2021 cashflow shortfall, a deal is very doable and should be done now.
    • #2 get a righty bat for the lineup behind Juan Soto. Unless you want Soto walked 150+ times next year, you need a deterrent. Putting a name to a face, someone like Marcell Ozuna would fit the need especially if the NL has a DH next year or Soto shifts to rightfield. Of course Ozuna or someone like George Springer will cost big bucks, but I believe this is the one place Rizzo has to spend money for 2021.
    • #3 a 4th starting pitcher in the rotation to add a good arm in Anibal Sanchez‘s spot for the 2021 rotation. One name that fits is Kevin Gausman. There will be others and the cost will be $8 to $12 million.
    • #4 the team needs to upgrade the catcher defense while adding a bat who can drive in some runs too. The issue is several teams need catcher upgrades, and needs 1-3 will be prioritized to where the Nats will probably get an upgrade with a defensive catcher who will play 65 games a year. James McCann is a free agent who won’t cost J.T. Realmuto money, but now his name is getting a whole lot of press. Of course if the Nats don’t get Ozuna, they could shift cash to Realmuto who might solve all needs as he could hit behind Soto and play more time as a righty first baseman and DH. Of the 69 qualified catchers for defense, Yan Gomes ranked 62nd and Kurt Suzuki ranked 67th of all catchers. For comparison, Wilson Ramos ranked 28th best. All of this on FanGraphs. By the way, Suzuki will be a free agent after the postseason. On catcher framing using the factual data from Baseball Savant, Suzuki ranked last, and Gomes was only 4 spots from the bottom. All of this has to factor in to some of the pitching woes and must be upgraded. Two questions, would the Red Sox trade Christian Vazquez or how’s about 34 year old Alex Avila as a free agent to backup Gomes?
    • #5 an upgrade at first base has been needed for years. From 2014 to 2020 with the exception of 2017, the Nationals have been near the bottom of offensive production at first base. One suggestion is a “change of scenery” trade for Josh Bell from commentors on TalkNats.
    • #6 Extend Josh Harrison now and build a bench around him and Andrew Stevenson.
    • #7 Make the difficult decisions to non-tender Michael A. Taylor, Roenis Elias, and Javy Guerra. Decline the options of Eric Thames, Anibal Sanchez, Howie Kendrick and Adam Eaton. It is time as difficult as it must be. If you can trade Taylor before the non-tender deadline to Houston, go for it.
    • #8 the analytics group and scouts have to fix Victor Robles. He came into the season bulked up and standing up on the plate and had early success. Then he was hit on the wrist and backed off the plate like he did last year and his offensive stats spiraled downwards. Get him that “Thames” armor, step back up to the plate where you’re successful and protect your arms and wrist and hands with extra padding/armor. The plan might even entail Stevenson getting some platoon starts in CF.
    • #9 the team will need a lefty reliever and that could be a player from within the system like Matt Cronin or possibly Roenis Elias who should be non-tendered if you don’t extend him on a market rate 1 year deal. It won’t be Sam Freeman since he had TJ surgery. It is also possible that Sean Doolittle re-signs on a market rate deal.
    • #10 all of a sudden, the Washington Nationals are in need of a new pitching coach. This priority should get filled quickly compared to the others.

Yes, it is going to be difficult to part ways with so many players who were part of the success of the 2019 World Championship team.

“You look at each [player] individually and separately,” Mike Rizzo said last weekend. “I wouldn’t put a whole lot of weight into if they were with us in 2019 or not. To me, 2021’s a different season. The players have [all] responded differently. What type of injuries do they have? What’s the long-term prognosis of those injuries, and that type of thing. What does the system look like at that particular position to take over a veteran player? We take all of that into account when we create rosters.”

The Nats got real old right in front of our eyes. The team has a chance to get younger, more athletic, better defense, and actually create some flexibility with the payroll.

Paul Menhart was the mound whisperer; Photo by Sol Tucker for TalkNats

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