As we move past Thanksgiving, most teams have not added new acquisitions to their MLB roster, and the Washington Nationals are one of them. There is a lot of work to get done to get to a Spring Training roster, and general manager Mike Rizzo has less than 80-days to get there. We wait for any news that can move the Nats up from the 68.4 wins that FanGraphs is projecting today with that ghastly 22.3 WAR number.
While many don’t like the WAR numbers, it is still the gold standard for projecting the strength of a team’s roster, and along with strength of schedule, you get to the win projections. Sure, you can show time and again that FanGraphs was not close. The Nationals blew past the 65 win projection to finish at 71 wins this past season. Several Nats players beat the WAR projections while some finished worse. That’s why they play the games.
Here are two ways to improve those numbers: beat the estimates by improving internally — and make positive acquisitions. Internally, two numbers that stand out in the FanGraphs projections is Dylan Crews at negative WAR at -0.2 with 224 plate appearances, and Josiah Gray regressing to a 5.20 ERA and a +1.1 WAR. On Crews, MLB.com tabbed Crews as a 2024 Rookie of the Year candidate. Maybe the FanGraphs numbers motivated Gray to get into the Cressey Performance Center early this year. Cressey and Driveline are considered to be the two best pitching labs for offseason work.
Making free agent acquisitions that move the needle up — costs lots of money. Trading for good players costs you good players in return. While it doesn’t seem to be the optimal time to trade top prospects in the way the team acquired Adam Eaton, it does seem to be a good time to go the free agent route and acquire some top pitching and some good bats.
The team is in very good shape with their projected Opening Day payroll with the current Arb estimates from MLBTR, the Nats payroll would be $105,543,333. By the way, the average Opening Day payroll in Major League Baseball for 2023 was $160.4 million. Can the Nats get to league average by adding $55 million in new payroll for 2024? The issue for the Nationals right now is they have over $58 million in questionable payroll with Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. Do you realize that $58 million is within $2 million of what the Orioles spent on their entire payroll last year? Find another team that has two players with that much payroll tied up, and so little return.
Before Rizzo spends a dime, he has to circumnavigate those two large icebergs in his payroll. If there is any good news, nearly $33 million will come off of the payroll after the 2024 season when Corbin, Trevor Williams, and Victor Robles all become free agents. Strasburg’s $35 million comes off of the payroll after the 2026 season. If the key is cashflow, the Nats could get creative and backload contracts to pay out after the 2026 season. That might be the way to acquire any players this year on long-term deals.
” … and be ready to go with [the goal to] try to get back into playoff contention.”— manager Dave Martinez said towards the end of the season
There really are plenty of free agents that could help the 2024 Nats team. If the team could sign just three players averaging 1.7 WAR or more, the team could add 5.0 WAR and get ever closer to a team that could conceivably reach .500 in 2024. Remember the team’s transition from 2010 to 2011 did just that.
For now, we wait and see what the team does.