When we try to project a 2023 roster for the Washington Nationals, much of it will depend on the new ownership for the team and how they want general manager Mike Rizzo to approach free agency. If the team is eager to spend, the place to start a re-build is to take care of the team up-the-middle and that is ◊ catcher, pitcher, shortstop, second baseman, and center fielder.
Fortunately, the Nationals have some names to pencil in with Keibert Ruiz at catcher, C.J. Abrams as a middle-infielder, and a complicated mix at starting pitcher.
The team’s MVP if you go by FanGraph’s WAR is Ruiz. He will be the №1 catcher going forward and team control through the year 2027. Filling in behind him could go to Riley Adams, Tres Barrera, or Israel Pineda. The team could make a move in the off-season to add Pineda to the 40-man roster and drop Barrera who turns 28 next month.
This is where things get complicated. As of today, Erick Fedde is rated the team’s top starting pitcher per FanGraphs. If you trust FanGraphs on their FIP-based WAR, Patrick Corbin is the team’s №2 pitcher, and personally I don’t buy it. Yes, great defense makes a pitcher look better, but analytics through positioning will also greatly affect a pitcher.
This also assumes moving Corbin to the bullpen, and trying to find a new №1 pitcher from free agency. That would put Paolo Espino and Cory Abbott into depth spots for this team, and yes, Joan Adon too if he shows he can throw more than just fastballs. Starting both Gore and Cavalli on the 2023 Opening Day roster would keep their team control through the 2028 season.
Of note, Gray is now throwing a 2-seam sinker, and the hope is that Fedde can add a good changeup in the off-season and that Gray can make a sinker a key pitch in his arsenal. The great pitchers make adjustments and Fedde and Gray must evolve to improve.
As to finding a №1 pitcher on the free agent market, there will be tons of competition for a top pitcher. Here is the pool of pitchers and many are either tied by club options or player options.
With the change of Abrams to shortstop over Luis Garcia, the runs scored by the opposing team has changed significantly. Looking at Abrams eight games with the Nats, the opposing team scored 3.5 runs per game versus 7.375 runs per game with Garcia at shortstop in the eight games before Abrams took over. Take that small sample size for what it’s worth, and use the eye test and it is easy to see how well Abrams has performed versus his predecessor. Manager Dave Martinez already announced that Garcia will return from IL next week as a second baseman. Garcia, as a shortstop, has the lowest rated defender per Statcast’s OAA in all of baseball by a large margin. Defense matters.
But what if you went to the strength of this free agent market and pursued a top shortstop? That would allow Rizzo to shift Abrams to second base where he has shined in the past, and move Luis Garcia who is not a good defensive second baseman — and move him to left field. While Trea Turner would be a fine add, there is also Dansby Swanson who only earned $10 million this year.
The 2023 second baseman projects to be Garcia unless the Nats get bold in free agency and upgrade at shortstop and shift Abrams to second base.
The annual question is whether the Nats should go forward with Victor Robles? Now seems the time to turn the page and try to trade Robles, and pursue a better defender in free agent like Brandon Nimmo who should be at the top of the Nats’ wishlist for the off-season. Nimmo would add better defense and also more offense. As usual, the center field list of free agents is not deep. The Mets don’t want Nimmo to leave. One interesting possibility is that the Nats keep Robles and wait for Robert Hassell III to be ready as the team’s top prospect. Hassell just got promoted to Double-A and he just turned 21 a week ago. Could Hassell be ready at any time during the 2023 season?
Adding players during free agency is never a sure thing as the competition will be high for key players up the middle. For starting pitchers, Nathan Eovaldi, Carlos Rodon, Chris Bassitt, and Sean Manaea would seem to be the free agents who could fit for the Nats.
This team has very few “sure things” for the 2023 season, and they need stars producing at WAR values of 3+ and the only place they will find those in the near-term is in free agency. On roster construction, it is addition by subtraction as you replace the negative-WAR players. Interestingly, Ildemaro Vargas and Joey Meneses have both been productive in their Nats’ debuts — but the sample sizes are small.
If the team could add that front of the rotation pitcher, a shortstop, and a center fielder, this team could quickly return to be competitive with a greatly improved defense and offense, and a pitching staff that can compete in 2023. With a CBT payroll at $106.8 million that includes Robles and Luke Voit who is also arbitration-eligible, the team could save their salaries and put the team at a CBT payroll of $98.99 million and $134 million under the CBT cap of $233 million for 2023.
That will give the new ownership plenty of room to send a signal that the team will grow payroll and upgrade significantly. The caution to the wind is that you can want to spend and players can say “no” to your offers. So here we are to hope and wish in free agency or to just accept who the team currently has under team control.