Free agency opens in less than two weeks — and will really get going at the Winter Meetings in Nashville on December 4. That is just 42 days from now. Washington Nationals owner Mark Lerner said that he will leave the decision to spend with his general manager Mike Rizzo. With that said, it looks like the onus is on Rizzo to do what he needs to do to improve the team and sign free agents.
After the Washington Nationals won 69-games in 2010, Mark’s father, Ted Lerner, greenlighted a nine-digit contract for Jayson Werth — the largest in franchise history at the time. After the Nats just won 71-games this season, you have to wonder if Rizzo sees it as the right time to start increasing payroll significantly.
While Lerner did say he personally didn’t know if this year is the right time to go after a big fish free agent, he said it was Rizzo’s call. For those worried about the Nats’ spending, they made a few offers to Juan Soto that reportedly ended with a $440 million deal with NO deferrals. That was less than 1½ years ago. For the right player, the Nats will spend. The issue might be that Rizzo doesn’t want to forfeit a draft pick around No. 50 to sign a free agent with a qualifying offer (QO) tag. Three top free agents, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Jordan Montgomery, and Jeimer Candelario are not eligible for QOs. That is the aisle that Rizzo should be shopping in. The competition will be tough.
Expect that Blake Snell, Aaron Nola, and possibly even Rhys Hoskins will have QOs on them. The expected QO figure will be around $20.5 million for this year. If the Nats sign any QO’d free agents, they would forfeit their second-highest pick of the 2023 draft which like I wrote above will be around No. 50 plus the Nats would lose $500,000 from their bonus pool during the next international signing period. Those are some significant penalties. Doubtful Rizzo wants to go there.
There are significant holes to fill — and some will be filled internally — and some through new acquisitions. The latter requires lots of money for the players who will move the needle. Rizzo has always said that he builds his teams around starting pitching, and that would make 2023 another failure — because as a whole — the starting pitching was horrible. On the other hand, the team did improve .95 runs per game in starting pitching over last year when the Nats were last in MLB. Thank the much-improved defense for a big assist in the ERA improvement.
This season, the starting rotation finished with a combined ERA of 5.02 for 6th worst in MLB. If you adjust for defense, they would have been worse. The bullpen had an MLB worst in K/9 by a large margin, at 7.86 K/9 because they just could not miss enough bats. Thanks to a better than average defense, the bullpen ERA was fourth from the worst at an identical 5.02 as the starters. Call that consistently bad. And don’t think this bullpen was overused as a group as they ranked 14th in usage with only 599.0 innings pitched which equated to an average of 3.69 innings per game.
Everyone wants to see the Nats acquire one power bat. Home run power is not the total answer, especially when you look at the Diamondbacks and Marlins. Both of those teams were a mere 15 home runs better than the Nats, and Arizona and Miami both made the playoffs — and the Diamondbacks are two wins from the World Series. Of course the Braves were eliminated in their first round, and they set records for home runs this year. But the Phillies have bashed their way into being a game ahead of the Diamondbacks in the NLCS. The key goes back to team balance. Better pitching is where it has to start for the Nats as a priority. That is getting back to basics. You have to think the Nats can get at least 15 more home runs by coaching up their players, and a few tweaks to their roster.
There are no easy fixes to a rebuild. The Nats made amazing progress this year. What they do this offseason could shape the future of this franchise. While the team certainly did some roster clean-up, addition by subtraction, last week, they still have more moves to come.
The 2024 team should be built to contend from a 71-win team this year. Nobody is asking for a $200 million payroll. But spend enough to improve the starting rotation at the very least. Manager Dave Martinez, in three different media sessions around the end of the season, had talked about “playoffs and playoff contention.”
While Martinez is optimistic, he is saying the words that many in the fan base are saying about improving to be a contender. Nobody wants to lose. Accepting a level below mediocrity is like accepting failure when you know you have a choice. Last year, Rizzo promised a better defense and delivered on that promise. All of the pitchers, except MacKenzie Gore, benefitted from that improved defense. It was also clear that the analytics and defensive positioning finally took a big step forward.
Also, this is where the Lerner ownership has to back up their talk about it being “the right time.” Timing is very subjective — but one thing is clear that this is the time to take a step forward just like Ted Lerner did after the 2010 season. That team improved 10-wins from 59 the prior season. These Nats improved by 16-wins from 55 wins last year — and just finding +14.0 WAR this offseason might make these Nats a playoff contender. Okay, it isn’t easy finding additional WAR. An 85-win team could be a true contender.
Big WAR costs money so a lot of that +14.0 WAR would need to happen internally. That is how the Cincinnati Reds did it with internal moves and top prospect promotions. The Nats are getting close with James Wood, Dylan Crews and Brady House. Add those three players plus two free agents giving you an average of +2.0 WAR each, would add-up to +10.0 WAR, and the only twist on that logic is that some of those top prospects won’t be on the roster for a full season. The other +4.0 WAR would have to come from internal improvement of current players. By the way, here is a list of top free agents.
Again, talk is cheap. Put your money where your mouth is and sign your Werth equivalent from the free agent starting pitching pool this offseason. Give Martinez the tools he needs, and the ability to build the best starting rotation he can assemble since 2019. With any luck, the playoffs won’t just be the talk, rather a reality to shock the baseball world.
In many ways this 2023 team overachieved, or at least they finished where Martinez thought they could be in 2023. The team just needs a better roster for 2024, and that is on Rizzo for the roster construction, and the coaching staff to “coach up” the players.
In theory, it all looks good with some cautious-optimism. But since we deal in reality, we will see what Rizzo does. He is finishing his build-out of his new front office in the draft group and player development department. After that, his full focus can be on free agency.