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5 free agents the Nationals could, but probably won’t, target

5 free agents the Nationals could, but probably won’t, target

The World Series champions entered the 2019-20 offseason amid several questions about the future of their roster. While the landing spots of former key players Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg remain to be determined, the Nationals figure to be active in the free-agent market regardless with holes at first base, second base, third base, rotation, bullpen and bench.

That being said, there are many free agents who could fit on Washington’s roster but probably won’t be donning the Curly W come Opening Day.

Here are five players the Nationals could sign if not for a few factors standing in the way.

Gerrit Cole, SP

No one boosted their free agent value more this season than Gerrit Cole, who’s projected to easily clear the $200 million threshold this winter as the top starting pitcher on the market. Cole, 29, was the runner up for the AL Cy Young award after leading the majors with 326 strikeouts to go along with a 2.50 ERA, 0.895 WHIP and 20 wins in 33 starts and 212.1 innings.

The Houston Astros unlocked the right-hander’s potential when they acquired him in a five-player deal from the Pittsburgh Pirates two offseasons ago. Cole did have one top-5 Cy Young season in 2015 with Pittsburgh but took a step back over the next two seasons before being dealt to Houston. He’s since posted back-to-back sub-3.00 ERA seasons and established himself as a dominant postseason pitcher.

But Cole is rumored to be interested in returning to the West Coast, closer to his hometown in Southern California. In order for the Nationals to afford him, they’d probably have to lose out on both Strasburg and Rendon. But after the team decided to divide up the money it saved on Bryce Harper rather than splurge on a similar free agent, the Nationals’ track record says they probably won’t pony up for Cole.

Yasmani Grandal, C

Ever since the Nationals allowed Wilson Ramos to walk the winter after he tore his ACL, they’ve struggled to find consistent offensive production behind the plate. On the surface, the perfect solution to that problem lies in free agency in Yasmani Grandal, who’s the only catcher in baseball with at least 20 home runs each of the past four seasons.

Grandal, 31, reportedly turned down a four-year, $60 million deal with the New York Mets last offseason before settling for a one-year, $16 million contract to play for the Milwaukee Brewers. Grandal then put the critics to rest and posted the best season of his career, smacking a personal-best 28 home runs to go along with an .848 OPS.

But FanGraphs expects Grandal to sign for around three years and $48 million, which would be an expensive upgrade given the Nationals already have Kurt Suzuki entrenched in a part-time role behind the plate. Grandal could also play some first base (70 career games there), but the Nationals’ long offseason shopping list probably forces them to settle for a cheaper option to split time with Suzuki.

Marcell Ozuna, OF

Yes, the Nationals’ roster as it currently stands already includes a crowded outfield comprised of Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Adam Eaton. But if the Nationals were to lose the impact bat of Rendon in their lineup, Marcell Ozuna is one of the few hitters available who could help supplant his production.

Acquired by the St. Louis Cardinals in December 2017 from the Miami Marlins, Ozuna, 29, is a former Gold Glover and two-time All-Star with a strong track record of healthy and the ability to play both corner outfield spots. If the Nationals were to acquire him, they’d likely trade Eaton to help fill a hole at another position on the diamond.

The hold-up here again comes down to money. Eaton is signed to a meager $9.5 million salary for next season with a $10.5 million team option for 2021. Ozuna is projected by FanGraphs to sign for a $16 million AAV over four years, which would be the most the Nationals have ever given to a position player for a deal of that length. The Nationals may very well sign a hitter for that price, but it’s likely to be at a position they already have a need for rather than replacing a cost-effective player they already have.

Jason Kipnis, 2B

Speaking of positions the Nationals have a need for, second base is a giant question mark in D.C. with Brian Dozier, Howie Kendrick and Asdrubal Cabrera all departing via free agency and top infield prospect Carter Kieboom delivering a less-than-stellar performance during his short stint in the majors last year.

Jason Kipnis, 32, is among the available free agents who likely won’t command very much in free agency. The nine-year veteran has played his entire career with the Cleveland Indians and while he is a two-time All-Star, his performance in recent seasons suggest it’s going to be difficult for him to find a job this winter.

Kipnis hasn’t finished a full season with an OPS above .715 since 2016 and has seen his performance in the field struggle as well. While he would be a cheap option for the Nationals to plug at second base while Kieboom continues to develop, Washington should be able to find a better defender with about the same offensive potential as Kipnis.

Gio Gonzalez, SP

As much as a reunion between the Nationals and old friend Gio Gonzalez would be, there just aren’t many scenarios that would make sense for Washington to bring the left-hander back to the District.

Gonzalez, 34, played seven seasons in D.C. before being traded to Milwaukee in August 2018. He re-signed with the Brewers on a minor-league deal in 2019 before making 19 appearances (17 starts) over 87.1 innings in which he posted a 3.50 ERA, 1.294 WHIP and 78 strikeouts.

If the Nationals sign Strasburg to a big extension, they’ll probably roll the dice with one of Austin Voth, Joe Ross or Erick Fedde at the No. 5 spot in the rotation. If they don’t bring Strasburg back, then Mike Rizzo and Co. will most likely pivot a target a higher-quality starter than Gonzalez such as Zach Wheeler or Madison Bumgarner.

It’s a nice thought, but Gonzalez just doesn’t match up with the Nationals for 2020. Who knows, there’s always next year.

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Don't worry Nationals fans, Anthony Rendon was never going to be a Dodger

Don't worry Nationals fans, Anthony Rendon was never going to be a Dodger

While Nationals fans are understandably disappointed Anthony Rendon is no longer a member of the Nationals, they can rest easy knowing he didn't see himself signing the the NL rival Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers never made an offer to Rendon, per The Athletic, after "sensing that he didn’t want to play in Los Angeles." He instead signed with the Los Angeles Angels, inking a seven-year, $245 million deal to play for the California team that receives considerably less media attention than its in-state rival.

Now entrenched in the AL on the other side of the country, Rendon won't face the Nationals very often nor will his team's play have any effect on Washington's playoff chances from year to year. It was a best-case scenario for fans after it became likely he wouldn't be returning to Washington.

After being spurned by Rendon and losing out on top free-agent pitchers Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, the Dodgers are still looking to make their first big move of the offseason.

There's still plenty of time for them to make a move, but Los Angeles can expect little sympathy from Nationals fans that Rendon won't be suiting up in Dodger blue for the next seven years.

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Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Here’s the list of players on the Nationals’ active roster who could play third base: Wilmer Difo, Jake Noll, Adrián Sánchez, Howie Kendrick, Carter Kieboom. Career major-league starts at the position: Difo, 29; Noll, one; Sánchez, nine; Kendrick, 25; Kieboom, zero. 

Such is the state of third base for the defending World Series champions. Not good. 

Which makes Josh Donaldson’s agent smile and any semi-skilled third baseman with a pulse a possible target. Possible trades? Count the Nationals in. On most. Not on Nolan Arenado. That’s a non-starter because Washington is not going to send assets (prospects) for a contract it was unwilling to give Anthony Rendon in the first place. Zero chance. Zilch.

However, Kris Bryant is more intriguing depending on the years and ask -- as always with trades. Beyond him and Kyle Seager, is there another third baseman the Nationals could pursue in a trade? The question takes on weight because of the aforementioned toothless list of in-house candidates and shallow free-agent talent pool beyond Donaldson.

Any trade consideration needs to begin with an understanding of the parameters Washington is working from. Last season, Rendon’s one-year deal to avoid arbitration earned him $18.8 million. When Washington looks at the cost for its next third baseman, the number will be similar to last season’s cost for Rendon. A bump in the competitive balance tax threshold, plus savings at first base and catcher, provide the Nationals wiggle room for increases in spots. So, $18-25 million annually for a third baseman is in play.

Second, the Nationals’ farm system needs to be taken into account. Their 2018 first-round pick, Mason Denaburg, had shoulder problems last year. Mike Rizzo said at the Winter Meetings that Denaburg is healthy and progressing. But, the early shoulder irritation for a high school pitcher who also had problems his senior year with biceps tendinitis provides his stock pause. He’s a would-be trade chip. So is Kieboom.

But, what is Kieboom’s value? What damage did it receive during his rocky, and brief, appearance in the majors last season? Did his potent hitting in the Pacific Coast League after being sent back mitigate his big-league struggles? 

Beyond Kieboom, the farm system’s next tier is manned by Luis Garcia, 2019 first-round pick Jackson Rutledge, Wil Crowe and Tim Cate, among others. Only Garcia is part of MLB.com’s top-100 prospects list (which is more of a guide than an industry standard).

So, when Bryant or Seager -- or anyone not named Arenado -- are mentioned, know where the Nationals are coming from. If they are positioned to take on money, they don’t want to use assets to do it (this is the Donaldson Scenario). If they can save money, find a solid player and retain the few high-end assets, then a trade could be in play (this would be the Seager Scenario, if Seattle pays some of the contract). 

The Bryant Scenario is the most appealing and challenging. He’s the best player of the group. However, acquiring him would be high-cost and short-term. Bryant has two years remaining before he can become a free agent -- with an outside shot at becoming a free agent after next season because of a grievance he filed against the Cubs for service-time manipulation. Obtaining him would likely focus on multiple pitching prospects.

There is no Arenado Scenario. Just a reminder.

Piled together, Washington is in a tough spot. What it has is not enough. What it needs will be costly.

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