What a transitional 2022 could look like for the Nats!

Photo by Jimmy John for TalkNats

The Washington Nationals are projected to be on the hook for about $128 million in CBT payroll for next year if they roll with the players they control now and make no free agent moves. This also assumes the CBA does not alter the minimum salaries for next year or any other aspects of salaries, fringe benefits, and 40-man costs. Juan Soto and Josh Bell could receive around $17 and $10 million respectively as arb-eligible players, and right now, they will be the third and fourth highest paid employees on the team.

Of course that $128 million number is if the Nats make no moves for free agents, and that is unlikely. We are calling the 2022 season a “transitional” year as the team finds its footing and figures out who/what they have when/if Stephen Strasburg can return off of the 60-day IL from his thoracic outlet surgery. He is the key to so much for the future of this team. But TOS is a low success rate that could put Strasburg’s future as the team’s biggest question mark.

With $35 million invested in just Stras, and another $24 million invested in Patrick Corbin who is pitching like a DFA candidate at a near 6.00 ERA, that is a lot of maybe. Of course Corbin won’t be DFA’d due to his large contract with almost $72 million owed going forward, and you have to hope with some improved defense behind Corbin that he can improve. FIP says he can and should improve with better defense. 

Reliever Will Harris is owed $8 million for next year with his return being questionable due to his own thoracic outlet surgery. The Nats find themselves with nearly $70 million invested in those three pitchers who are huge question marks. In sports, that is known as potential “dead money” and general manager Mike Rizzo has done as good of a job as any avoiding those catastrophies in the past.

“We have to get our ducks in order, and we have to make good, intelligent trades, and deals to retool this thing, to get back in the hunt, and win some more championships. That’s our goal,” Rizzo said last week.

Yes, Rizzo has been using that “retool” word and claims this is not a rebuild. One recent divergence from Rizzo is that he has shown a quicker response recently to struggling players. He optioned both Tanner Rainey and Wander Suero to the minors as the pair of relievers have struggled. In the past, Rizzo has seemed to give nine lives to players like Henry Rodriguez, Danny Espinosa, and Michael A. Taylor. We are not sure how many lives Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom have used up. Robles at times has earned demotions multiple times, but Rizzo has kept him in the big leagues. For Kieboom, he has not been the same since his Friday night error in the 9th inning in Atlanta. One thought is he just cannot handle the game when the pressure is raised.

But you have to figure Rizzo will pencil Robles in for centerfield in 2022 and hope he figures something out. Right now he is batting around a buck 99. While flirting with Mendoza, you have to think long-term this team needs a centerfielder and Lane Thomas could get some time split with Andrew Stevenson who hits from the left side. But ultimately, the Nats CF of the future might come from free agency or a trade down the road, and that takes nothing away from Thomas who is set for free agency after the 2025 season.

So what big moves could Rizzo make for 2022? Obviously there are theoretically dozens of combinations, but in a transitional year, maybe you try to fix the top of the order. Two free agents who would fit are Kyle Schwarber and Marcus Semien. Interestingly enough, Semien began his career as a third baseman, and with the DH most likely coming to the NL, why not look at Schwarber again on a deal to tie him up for a few years.

At this point, you have to hope the newly acquired Keibert Ruiz forces his way onto the Opening Day roster, but certainly Kieboom could do the same in Rizzo’s mind like 2020 and 2021 when he was the favorite coming into those seasons. Of course prior to Opening Day this year, Rizzo did not see enough and eventually after the COVID mess was dealt with Kieboom was sent to Triple-A. For right now, it might be smart to hedge and bring back Escobar on an inexpensive one-year deal.

2022 Opening Day lineup:

  1. Kyle Schwarber LF/DH
  2. Marcus Semien 3B
  3. Juan Soto RF/DH
  4. Josh Bell 1B
  5. Keibert Ruiz C/DH
  6. TBD SS
  7. Luis Garcia 2B
  8. Victor Robles CF

The bench could be Yadiel Hernandez, Andrew Stevenson, Tres Barrera, Riley Adams, and Carter Kieboom. Yes, there is no Ryan Zimmerman who indicated he might not want to play on a team that wasn’t ready to win. This is something to see how this develops. If Zim does not come back, the tall Riley Adams should get some reps at first base, and this is where the work that Schwarber had done with the Red Sox at first base adds to his value.

This could set up a real interesting run after the 2022 season for Trea Turner in free agency, or maybe not. You just never know what will happen. Turner will be 29 ½ if he hits free agency. Chances are that the Nats’ shortstop of the future will come from a trade or free agency. Remember, the Nats got Turner from a trade with the Padres. They have a Turner clone that is blocked by Fernando Tatis Jr. Remember this shortstop name: C.J. Abrams, a toolsy high-schooler from the 2019 draft. At 20, he is already at Double-A, and four years younger than the average Double-A player. Why not some deja vu? In a retool you have to make moves, when you have needs like Rizzo did with Steven Souza Jr. that netted Turner as well as Joe Ross.

2022 Opening Day starting rotation:

  1. TBD
  2. Josiah Gray
  3. Joe Ross
  4. Erick Fedde
  5. Patrick Corbin

This is where the rotation could be interesting, top pitching prospect, Cade Cavalli, projects to be a 2022 mid-season call-up with Jackson Rutledge not too far behind him.

There are other players who will compete for spots next year. These “retool” years can be interesting as we discussed yesterday.

“We have a plan in place. Timetables are tricky,” Rizzo said last week. “We are ready to build that next championship caliber club. We are positioned much better today then we were before the trade deadline to contend for a long period of time.”

The plan is in place. How long will it take to get back to the next championship is an unknown at this point. Be patient and let Rizzo do his thing.

While Rizzo said other team’s replicated “The Plan” the Nats had in motion from 2009-2011 when he was Assistant GM and Stan Kasten was the team’s president. It was actually called “The Plan” when Stan Kasten introduced it to season ticket holders after the 2006 season at a team event.

“The worst possible thing is to sustain mediocrity,” Mike Rizzo said on a ZOOM call last week with season ticket holders. “We had a tough decision to make. …We didn’t feel like we were one player or two players away from winning a World Series at that time. … We felt no shame in taking a step back to take two steps forward in the near future to build this thing back up the right way.”

In 2009, the Nats were still in “tank mode” and in 2010 they had to deal with an injured Strasburg who tore his UCL that season, and the injury set everything back. But the team shocked baseball when they signed Jayson Werth to a nine-figure contract after that 2010 season. The Werth contract carried a huge premium to coax him into signing with the Nats who lost 93 games that prior season. That contract signals a new beginning for the Nats.

Here they are once again dealing with a Strasburg injury that clouds the future and makes this season feel a lot like 2010. The Nats no longer need to make a splash as big as they did with Werth, but a good signing or two in this off-season would make fans feel much better about the future.

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