The Nationals’ 2018 offseason got off to a quick start.
After missing the playoffs for the first time in three years, general manager Mike Rizzo didn’t even wait for October to end before acquiring reliever Kyle Barraclough in a trade with the Miami Marlins. By the end of November, they had signed Trevor Rosenthal to be a set-up man and acquired a brand-new catching tandem in Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki.
By the end of December, the Nationals had shaken up their rotation by trading Tanner Roark and signing both Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez. Washington’s roster was pretty much set for the start of the 2019 with only one clear roster hole remaining at second base.
The second base market was thin and had been slow to develop. Former Nationals infielder Daniel Murphy was the only big-name player at the position to sign while Jed Lowrie, Brian Dozier, Marwin Gonzalez and Ian Kinsler were still waiting for offers. However, there was one clear-cut name at the top of the list: DJ LeMahieu.
LeMahieu, a three-time Gold Glove winner, won the National League batting title for the Colorado Rockies in 2016. Though that campaign was beginning to look like an outlier after regressing back to his career averages in 2017-18, LeMahieu still presented value as a versatile infielder with a patient approach at the plate.
The Nationals were interested. The Washington Post’s Jesse Dougherty reported in December that the team had “a few” conversations LeMahieu’s agent, even indicating that “there is likely interest beyond the Nationals' standard practice of reaching out to a bunch of free agents.” However, Dougherty published a story four days later saying the Nationals were “more likely to seek a cheaper option.”
Washington ultimately signed Brian Dozier to a one-year, $9 million deal. Dozier was a bounce-back candidate after a knee injury was attributed to his struggles at the plate in 2018. However, he never lived up to that billing and finished with a .238 average while losing the starter job to midseason pickup Asdrúbal Cabrera.
LeMahieu, meanwhile, landed with the New York Yankees on a two-year, $24 million deal that has already proven to be a steal. He played 40+ games at three different positions for the Yankees in 2019 while hitting .327 with an .893 OPS and 26 home runs; LeMahieu won the AL Silver Slugger at second base and finished fourth in MVP voting.
For only $3 million more in 2019 salary, the Nationals could’ve added LeMahieu and once again had one of the league’s best contracts for a second baseman. A similar scenario played out in the 2015-16 offseason when Washington signed Daniel Murphy—albeit after failed attempts to acquire Ben Zobrist and Brandon Philips—to a three-year, $37.5 million contract. Murphy then turned in two career years with a combined .956 OPS and 48 home runs.
That $3 million was important to Washington. After two straight years of exceeding the luxury tax threshold, Nationals ownership pushed for the team to cut back on spending just enough to reset the penalty. The club just managed to sneak under the $206 million mark set for 2019 even after making a flurry of moves for relief pitchers at the trade deadline.
Of course, the Nationals shouldn’t have any regrets about how the 2019 season played out. Even with Dozier failing to return to form, Washington went on to win its first World Series title in franchise history. Dozier, a fluent Spanish speaker playing on a team with several Latin American players, was credited with contributing to the Nationals’ loose clubhouse culture.
Yet as LeMahieu and the Yankees finish off their three-game set with the Nationals this weekend, there’s still a sense of what-could’ve-been in D.C. LeMahieu returned to New York this season as a key cog in the Yankees’ lineup. With Anthony Rendon having left for the West Coast, the Nationals are still searching for their next slugger to pair with Juan Soto.
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