Free agency started. Really. More than a week ago.
The country has understandably been otherwise preoccupied, so Major League Baseball’s shopping season would be a back-burner topic even if it were stirring. Instead, it’s dormant while teams wait for rule clarity and owners bite their lips when debating how to spend in the coming months.
Starting pitcher Robbie Ray re-signed with Toronto. He could have been a fourth starter option for the Nationals. Otherwise, next to nothing has happened.
Which brings us back to what-ifs, what could be, and why not? The Nationals will end up signing numerous free agents this offseason to retool their 26- and 40-man rosters. They currently have just 30 players on the 40-man roster even after reinstating Stephen Strasburg, Starlin Castro and Seth Romero from the 60-day injured list and adding pitcher Steven Fuentes. That is a massive amount of space.
And, don’t forget the Nationals prefer to be under the Competitive Balance Tax, which is $210 million in 2021. That doesn’t mean they won’t -- or have not -- put forth a large payroll. However, it usually stands as the marker they don’t want to come too close to.
With that in mind, here are three projections (from the gut) for the Nationals in free agency:
1. They sign DJ LeMahieu.
This would stand as the Nationals’ big-ticket item of the offseason. LeMahieu put together back-to-back superlative seasons in New York after leaving Colorado. He led the American League in both batting average and OPS last season in addition to being an excellent defender.
He would check three boxes for the Nationals: LeMahieu could play second -- which would move Castro to third -- or play third (and even first base in a more limited capacity). In either spot, he would be a significant defensive upgrade.
He could leadoff. The top three in the order then changes to LeMahieu, Juan Soto and Trea Turner. The cleanup hitter will likely come from free agency, too.
And, he would start stretching the Nationals lineup which consisted of Soto, Turner and little else last season.
As always, the main question is how much and for how long? LeMahieu is 32 years old.
2. Ryan Zimmerman doesn’t return.
This may become a mutual decision, though one not reached until close to the start of next season.
Zimmerman said prior to 2020 he wanted to keep playing and would do so on one-year contracts. He chose not to participate in the pandemic-rattled season. Instead, he stayed home with his family.
The team does have a need for a right-handed first baseman. It has a need for a first baseman, period. Howie Kendrick, Eric Thames and Zimmerman are all free agents.
If Mike Rizzo wants to drag down the age of the roster, this could be a spot to do so. Average age of those three players next season: 36.
But, don’t worry about Zimmerman being gone. He would remain with the organization if he was done playing.
3. They sign a second catcher not named J.T. Realmuto.
Yan Gomes is currently operating alone in the final year of his contract. Tres Barrera has been reinstated, but the Nationals are unlikely to be comfortable with him in the major leagues this season. So, they need to find an external solution at catcher.
Paying Realmuto, much like paying George Springer, would inhibit the Nationals’ ability to spread their money around in order to solve myriad problems. But, they do need someone to pair with the 33-year-old Gomes.
Options include James McCann on a multi-year contract, Yadier Molina on a one-year contract, or other veteran options like former Tampa Bay catcher Mike Zunino. And don’t be surprised if the Nationals invite an additional veteran catcher to spring training.