The Washington Nationals have clear priorities for this 2021 season. But the Nats won’t sniff the postseason if the starting rotation repeats their failures of 2020 when they had a Nationals’ franchise worst 5.38 ERA from a starting rotation that cost over $100 million in total for 2020. This year, FanGraphs is projecting a rather mundane 4.39 ERA for the starting staff. Sorry, that will not cut it. You might as well fold the tent if the Nats cannot pitch better than the ERAs in that graphic (above).
Let’s be clear, the Nationals are not paying Stephen Strasburg a salary of $35 million to pitch to a 4.08 ERA. The same could be said for Max Scherzer who will earn $30 million this year, and Patrick Corbin will collect $24.4 million. New pitching coach, Jim Hickey, will have his work cut out for him. You can do the math with Joe Ross‘ $1.5 million contract for 2021, the Nats already have $90.9 million invested in those four pitchers with one spot open in the rotation.
#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.✓
- #2 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.
#3 get a legitimate righty bat for the lineup behind Juan Soto. Did the Nats accomplish this when they traded for Josh Bell?Maybe.
- #4 a 4th starting pitcher in the rotation to add a good arm in Anibal Sanchez‘s spot for the 2021 rotation. THE LIST IS LENGTHY! Our top name on the list is Jake Odorizzi who happened to pitch under Hickey in Tampa.
- #5 the team needs to upgrade the catcher defense while adding a bat who can drive in some runs too. Obviously J.T. Realmuto is still available but we know from a source that general manager Mike Rizzo had set his sights lower on Jason Castro and Tyler Flowers and from what we understand — neither were too impressed with the dollar numbers bandied about. Could Rizzo pivot back to Realmuto? While unlikely, the fit is still there, and Realmuto could play 60 games behind the plate and 75 at first base if there is a DH to shift Josh Bell to the designated hitter and Kyle Schwarber to take some reps at 1st base. Again, highly unlikely.
#6 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. That could make sense and cost mid-level prospect(s) as Pitt looks to lessen their payroll. Bell has two years of team-control remaining. Because Bell is a switch-hitter, he could be the bat behind Soto and fill that need in the #3 priority.✓ #7 Extend Josh Harrison now and build a bench around him and Andrew Stevenson.✓ #8 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.✓
- #9 the analytics group and hitting coach Kevin Long have to fix Victor Robles. He came into the 2020 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 in 2019 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.
#10 the team will need a lefty reliever and that could be a player from within the system like Matt Cronin. It is also possible that Sean Doolittle re-signs on a market rate deal. The Nats did sign lefty Sam Clay who manager Dave Martinez was singing his praises.✓
- New Priority: Add a right-handed third baseman or an upgrade to second base and shift Starlin Castro to third base. Justin Turner is still available, and the Nats have kicked the tires on a trade for Eugenio Suarez, and had internal conversations about Kris Bryant. A year ago we had sourced information that they discussed Jose Ramirez who had a tough 2019 season as a possible trade target. If all else fails, just work on improving the lineup and the defense and consider 2020 Gold Glove second baseman Cesar Hernandez and add a big bench right-handed bat in Adam Duvall.
Yes, it was going to be difficult to part ways with so many players who were part of the success of the 2019 World Championship team. 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. There of course will be roster competition from players like Jake Noll, Luis Garcia, and Carter Kieboom, but the hopes have to be that Rizzo can upgrade to the point where Noll, Garcia, and Kieboom are depth pieces in Rochester or Harrisburg.
The AAV payroll is just under $177 million with room to add some key pieces dependent on the Lerner’s final budget.
Priorities change and like most teams, to fill the holes will require lots of money. There are some inexpensive fixes. There are expensive fixes. We gave suggestions from both list from the reasonable to the pricey.
The goal here is to get this team to the postseason. The Braves are projected at 87 wins and the Nats are at 84 wins. If you believe in the paper projections, the Nats need to find 4.0 more wins. Again, that will take money, creativity, and execution.