We asked readers to spend the Lerner’s money to build the 2021 Washington Nationals roster. Several people participated, and many more critiqued the suggestions. The one name that came up the most in the discussions was an inexpensive choice at first base for Mitch Moreland, and there were also some very creative ideas across the board. We heard about signing James McCann at catcher and trading the incumbent Yan Gomes for instance. We all liked the idea of utilizing new pitching coach Jim Hickey for input on potential pitchers. Also, many suggestions with the offense involved getting creative with platoon ideas. The strategic need for this team was a big bat in the lineup after Juan Soto. That is a tough task.
If the Nats did sign Moreland who has platoon splits, the Nats would want to marry him up with a suitable platoon partner. The Nats could go with Ryan Zimmerman or Asdrubal Cabrera to face lefties in a strict platoon. Both would be cheap, and both have strong track records against lefty pitching. This is the classic move of the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Others suggested Carlos Santana as a free agent acquisition who was a 2019 All-Star and led the AL in walks in 2020. Santana is a switch-hitter who hit well in 2020 against LHPs but only .179 with a .193 BABIP against RHPs. All together, Santana had more walks than strikeouts in 2020. He definitely took his walks, but not enough hits or power in 2020 which would be a low risk/high reward type of deal to sign him. The ultimate would be to sign both Moreland and Santana and hope for the best.
This is where the early money was on Marcell Ozuna. Analysts and fans saw Ozuna as a decent fit for the Nats especially with many believing the NL will have a DH in 2022 and possibly in 2021 by a compromise between MLB and the MLBPA. The issue with Ozuna is that it would be challenging to repeat what he accomplished in the shortened 2020 season, and salary demands will probably be near $80-$100 million on a 4-5 year deal. Yes, Ozuna had a Top-10 MVP season of his own for Atlanta and will be in high demand.
Other ideas would be to go with the best LF available in an all-around player in Michael Brantley who punished right-handed pitchers with a .331 batting average and a .927 OPS, but Brantley struggled against lefty pitching at a .231 batting average and a poor .638 OPS. He turns 34 next year and would be demanding a 2-to-3 year deal. The other issue is he would not be the ideal hitter behind Juan Soto unless it was against a righty starter. Other suggestions would be to platoon him with Kevin Pillar who smashed lefty pitching at .342/.390 /.579/ .969. The conundrum is Brantley alone does not solve the spot after Soto and would most likely have to bat fourth-to-sixth in the Nats order.
The most expensive idea would be to sign George Springer who has a qualifying offer attached to him as well as the most expensive projected contract for any position player in this free agent class. Springer could certainly hit after Soto in the lineup and would be a nice pickup if general manager Mike Rizzo had the money to spend while willing to part with his second round pick that he would have to forfeit if he signed Springer. Probably not.
A less expensive choice similar to the Brantley idea would be Joc Pederson. All he does is step up in the big moments, but is another platoon type of bat which is how the Dodgers used him. Pederson had a poor 2020 campaign in the regular season. He is a young player at 28 years old and would be intriguing if he could shine like we saw in his 3 World Series appearances where he has a career 1.041 OPS. Even Pederson’s 2018 and 2019 regular season stats would work. Again, the issue is you would have to get someone like Pillar to platoon with him. This could be a good Plan B or Plan C. Again, it does not solve the issue of who bats after Soto.
If the Nats did not get Springer or Ozuna, they might need to look at going for Brantley or Pederson in a platoon, with Santana as a bat after Soto. Certainly that would work against LHPs, but risky against RHPs where Santana has been known to struggle. That answer could be also acquiring Moreland. That sets up two platoons and maybe three if the Nats decided to go with Luis Garcia and Josh Harrison in a platoon. That is generally more than the Nats have ever done in the past, and they have generally been opposed to playing platoon bats as a regular assignment. New-school thinkers like the Tampa Bay Rays did it throughout this postseason, and the Dodgers did several platoons in their 2017 and 2018 World Series seasons and in leftfield in the latest World Series.
#4 Starting Pitcher
We could all wish upon a star that the Washington Nationals would sign Trevor Bauer who is far and away the best starting pitcher in this free agent class and it will not happen. Even the next tier of pitchers are not all that appealing with Masahiro Tanaka and Kevin Gausman listed on MLBTR’s list as the next best available starters. That tells you how thin the pickings are. Others have suggested Jake Odorizzi who is intriguing and he is at the top of the list too and coming off of a great 2019 season and then had some fluke injuries in 2020.
There are plenty of reclamation projects named like Anibal Sanchez, Chris Archer, Robbie Ray, and Taijuan Walker on the top of the next tier. Nobody mentioned Corey Kluber, and he would be on that list also. Those are your standard reclamation projects and risky because if they fail you then have to rely on Nats internal depth to fill-in. Most likely one of them will pay-off handsomely, but which one? In the middle of that pack you have the aging Charlie Morton. There is Marcus Stroman who has been pitching on reputation more than great stats and the Mets still hung a Q.O. on him which will make him much less attractive. Add to the list another tier of J.A. Happ, Drew Smyly, Jon Lester, Jose Quintana and Rick Porcello. All of them have had plenty of good years but also plenty of inconsistency.
With Kurt Suzuki headed to free agency, Yan Gomes appears to be the main starter for the Nats. Besides Gomes, it is Tres Barrera as the only other catcher on the 40-man roster after Raudy Read was DFA’d and assigned to the minors. We could throw out a whole bunch of names and readers here mentioned everyone from Max Scherzer‘s former catcher with the Tigers, Alex Avila, to James McCann. Others mentioned a reunion with Wilson Ramos or Suzuki. The big prize is J.T. Realmuto who is too expensive for the Nats, but we all know general manager Mike Rizzo tried many times to trade for him in his younger years. Mike Zunino is now a free agent and could possibly fit. For the first time, Yadier Molina is a free agent although that is also highly unlikely. Other ideas are Robinson Chirinos, Jason Castro and Tyler Flowers.
Lefty bullpen arm
Because of all of the money spent on the other positions, it seems like the lefty for the bullpen could be filled internally by Seth Romero or Matt Cronin, or the team could look to Sean Doolittle in a free agent deal. There certainly are others like Brad Hand who would be a luxury item that the Nats most likely could not afford in these tough economic times. There are others for less like Roenis Elias who was recently DFA’d by the Nats and chose free agency.
The Nats have to add players. Some of them will be upside signings who will fit the budget. Other signings we can hope will be proven stars who will get the Nats back to the playoffs. The budget will be tight and there is a reality to the situation. This will be a year for Rizzo to work his magic. Most teams are dealing with the same constraints, and baseball has never experienced anything like this.