Revisiting the 2022 priorities for the Washington Nationals

Screenshot modified from MLB Network

With MLB baseball in a deep freeze like the winter weather, baseball fans have little current events until the lockout is lifted. We set a list of priorities for the Washington Nationals baseball team at the end of September for the offseason. Few have been accomplished, so far, as December was basically canceled in terms of baseball moves.

One move can change each subsequent move and mostly all we have see is a new coaching staff installed, a free agent signing of Cesar Hernandez, and a reshuffling of the player development system in the Nats’ minor leagues.

Priority #1: Get Juan Soto extended on a long-term contract. Easier said than done and unless general manager Mike Rizzo and the Lerner ownership group are willing to commit to approximately 15 years and a half-billion dollars for Soto, this probably won’t happen. There won’t be a Ronald Acuña bargain deal. Scott Boras is the agent for Soto so there probably won’t be a deal — unless a new deal is proposed for record breaking money which would start at Mike Trout money of $426.5 million. Odds on anything getting done is probably 10%, so enjoy the next three years of Soto’s team control with the Nats. We took a look at what a Soto contract could look like.

✅ Priority #2: We have written about this for years that the poor development of prospects within the Nats’ system has been troubling, and the way the team drafts would catch up with them. And it has to now be fixed.

UPDATED on November 22: Mike Rizzo moved De Jon Watson into the key role of Director of Player Development as they simultaneously removed Mark Scialabba from that position which he held since 2013, and reassigned Scialabba to a different position in Rizzo’s front office, keeping his Assistant General Manager title.

Rizzo will also expand the number of people working in the development system. What might have looked like a shuffling of the deck chairs on a sinking ship is actually much more than that. Yes, Watson was in a different position in the Nats’ front office, but he held this same position in player development with the Dodgers before he joined the Nats back in 2017 as an Assistant GM under Rizzo.

Recently in a conversation with The Athletic (subscription required), Watson said he has hired new personnel.

“It’s going well,” Watson told Maria Torres of The Athletic on the hiring of personnel. “We’re just about at the end of it. I’m just trying to close up a couple of pieces. One on the nutritional side … That’s been a big one for me and kind of digging through to make sure we’re getting the right person for us, that’ll fit in our house and our philosophy and all that stuff. So we’re working through that and just the conversation of building that out.”

“I’m down to just a couple of other development coaches, extra staff members for the clubs to help them process through some of the information and get the kids prepared for their competition.”

Add to this that Joe Dillon‘s own LinkedIn account says he came back to the Washington Nationals in November 2021 as the team’s Hitting Coordinator in player development. Dillon was the Nats assistant hitting coach in 2018 and 2019 then took the job as the Phillies hitting coach until they parted ways after the 2021 season.

Additionally, The Athletic wrote that the Nats have “hired a trio of special assistants to the GM in Willie Fraser, Mike Pagliarulo and Greg Hunter, who will evaluate major- and minor-league players as well as special assignments. Fraser was last a scout for the Miami Marlins, while Pagliarulo was the Marlins hitting coach from 2017-19. Hunter was previously a scout with the Mariners.”

Britt Ghiroli from The Athletic tweeted out that Rizzo hired John Mirabelli as a special assistant. Mirabelli was 22 years with Cleveland in their front office. According to the Guardians, Mirabelli was their Special Assistant to Baseball Operations.

Priority #3: Before the lockout, nothing got done with any fixes for the bullpen. The only three players you figure are locks for the bullpen are Tanner Rainey, Kyle Finnegan and hope Will Harris has fully recovered from his thoracic outlet surgery. Harris is bought and paid for in the final year of his contract but remains a question mark due to the TOS.

The team will give their many arms on the 40-man roster a shot at making the team, but expect at least three free agent arms to be signed in the off-season including a closer. While some are hoping for a complete overhaul with five new bullpen arms, it just does not make any sense. You also have to wonder if the team looks within for a lefty reliever and decides to convert Seth Romero in the short-term to a bullpen arm. The team could also evaluate Matt Cronin during Spring Training.

Priority #4: Sign a front of the rotation starting pitcher. Easier said than done as this will cost a lot of money but because there is much unknown about Stephen Strasburg who wasn’t scheduled to even start throwing until November after his thoracic outlet surgery, and of course there were the performance issues with Patrick Corbin. The team really needs a “sure thing” near the top of the rotation. Most of the starters we named previously were already signed by other teams prior to the lockout. The Nats did tender a contract to Joe Ross, so it is very possible that the team won’t spend big on starting pitching and stick with who they have.

✅ Priority #5: Extend the contract of Alcides Escobar if the price is right. He is a great fit either as a starter or utility bench player. He would certainly bridge the gap to the youth in the minors like Armando Cruz who is still two to three years away if it happens, and of course there is Brady House who is still 18 years old.

I’ve seen all I need to see with Carter Kieboom to know that he is either going to be a late bloomer or a bust. His defense is not good enough, and he is the lowest rated defender if you extrapolate for a full season using Statcast’s OAA which is a minus-13 outs above average. Add to that the .214 batting average and his Fangraphs -0.4 WAR for the one-third of the season he has actually played and you have an easy upgrade. The team could try to re-acquire Josh Harrison or even get Matt Duffy who is a half-time player and has put up a +1.1 WAR. The issue with both is that you would want a lefty to platoon so how’s about Brad Miller. That’s why Harrison makes more sense as he can play more than one position. Get Miller and Harrison. Easily this could be a +2.0 WAR swing here without breaking the bank.

Priority #6: This might not be the popular decision based on results but I would stick with pitching coach Jim Hickey for at least another year ✅  , and I would try to tie-up hitting coach  Kevin Long  long-term. ✖️

Priority #7: Make a concerted effort this winter to get pitchers working on their “stuff”. No starting pitcher should ever be promoted if they do not have a good changeup.

“Obviously, you have to throw strikes,” pitching coach Jim Hickey said when he was hired. “Obviously, you have to change speeds. … I’m a huge believer in the changeup. I don’t force anyone to throw changeups. A lot of guys don’t like the changeup because it’s not a sexy pitch. It’s not a huge swing-and-miss pitch for a lot of guys. But there’s a lot of outs in there, and there’s a lot of efficiency in there, and at the end of the year, there’s a lot more innings in there as well.”

No Jim, you force them to throw good changeups. Watching Josiah Gray and Patrick Corbin throw a few changeups is not the same as having a ‘plus’ changeup. This is an issue here and always has been sans Scherzer and Strasburg. Those two pitchers came to the Nats with great changeups. Hickey said it right, guys don’t like the changeup because it’s not a sexy pitch. You’re the boss, mandate it! Starting pitchers must have at least three ‘plus’ pitches.

Priority #8: Spend money. In the short-term, the only way to fix this sooner than later is to spend. By our count based on the current CBA formula, the Nats 2022 payroll is at $135 million with projected arb-eligible salaries. Spend to $185 million in total, and give Rizzo $50 million to spend this winter, and hopefully more.

Priority #9: If you have the money, try to upgrade the corner outfield and that will also lengthen the options at DH. Kyle Schwarber would be at the top of my list. That allows you to play Yadiel Hernandez in leftfield and DH. It also lengthens the bench if Ryan Zimmerman does not return for 2022. While getting Schwarber back would really solidify this offense, but he is most likely priced out of the Nats range. Maybe you look at someone like Joc Pederson too. An upgrade on offense and defense would be nice.

Priority #10: Win. This feels like 2022 is going to be a transitional year in this re-tool as Rizzo calls it. But there is no reason to wave the white flag and tank. There’s no reason for tanking. The team added so many players to the farm with trades and Brady House in the draft and the team will pick the highest they have picked since 2011 when they drafted Anthony Rendon at 6th overall. Remember, 2010 was the last of the tanking years before the team took off. Goals should be similar this off-season and 2022 should feel like 2011 all over again.

These priorities will change and evolve. The good news is there are no tough choices with free agents leaving. There has already been a purge. Changes were needed. Rizzo will always have to make some tough choices — and it comes with the job. The team has to add and really see what they have in Strasburg and Corbin. It is quite possible we see mid-season additions like Cade Cavalli to the rotation.

With the trade acquisitions of Josiah GrayKeibert Ruiz and Lane Thomas, the team is so much further along than we thought when the team went into sell-off mode in July of 2021.

Think of a line-up of:

  1. Lane Thomas CF
  2. Alcides Escobar SS ✅
  3. Juan Soto RF
  4. Josh Bell 1B
  5.  Kyle Schwarber LF
  6. Keibert Ruiz C
  7. Yadiel Hernandez/Ryan Zimmerman DH
  8. Cesar Hernandez 3B
  9. Luis Garcia 2B

Starting rotation:

  1. Stephen Strasburg RHP
  2. Josiah Gray RHP
  3. Patrick Corbin LHP
  4. Joe Ross RHP
  5. TBD

With a good bullpen, that is an 81 win team, kind of like the 2011 Nats who went 80-81 that season. They did that with a starting rotation of Jordan ZimmermannJohn Lannan, 36-year-old Liván HernándezJason Marquis, and only 11 games from Chien-Ming Wang and 5 from Strasburg. It is possible.

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