The common thinking around the major leagues is that the Nationals are more likely to retain free agent starter Stephen Strasburg than third baseman Anthony Rendon.
It’s not very surprising, given President of Baseball Operations Mike Rizzo’s track record of prioritizing starting pitching when building a roster. Couple that with Strasburg’s decorated tenure in Washington that includes a rise as one of the most decorated prospects of all time as well as World Series MVP honors, and it’s easy to see why the team would want him back.
But while losing Strasburg from the rotation would be a massive loss, the team has two other starters in Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin who received Cy Young votes last season. Rendon, meanwhile, finished third in the NL MVP race after hitting .319 with 34 home runs and a league-best 126 runs batted in. Outside of 21-year-old wunderkind Juan Soto, there’s no one on the Nationals’ roster who’s ever come close to matching that production.
Rendon is rumored to be interested in a short-term, higher-salary deal, which could give the luxury-tax-weary Nationals pause about retaining him. As much as they may want him back, an average annual value in the mid-to-upper $30 million range would make it difficult for the Nationals to stay under the threshold moving forward.
If Rizzo and Co. deem Rendon to be too expensive, they’ll likely pivot to former Atlanta Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson. The 2015 AL MVP was the NL Comeback Player of the Year in 2019 after posting a .900 OPS with 37 homers and 100 walks in 155 games. USA TODAY reported Wednesday that Donaldson is “being heavily pursued” by Washington, only adding credence to the notion that Rendon lands elsewhere.
Yet the Nationals are far from the only suitors for Donaldson, who’s projected by FanGraphs to sign a three-year deal. The Braves, Dodgers, Twins, Rangers and Phillies are all reportedly interested in the three-time All-Star. That could be problematic for Washington, as the talent available at the hot corner takes a steep dive after the Bringer of Rain.
Rendon and Donaldson finished the 2019 season with 7.0 and 4.9 fWAR, respectively. Of the 22 other free-agent third basemen, none even finished with a mark above 3.0. The best alternative options? Eric Sogard (2.6), Todd Frazier (1.9), Asdrubal Cabrera (1.9), Brock Holt (1.3) and Starlin Castro (1.3).
Sogard, Holt and Castro aren’t natural third basemen, and they’ve never finished a full season with an OPS above .800. Frazier’s strikeout tendencies don’t fit the Nationals’ M.O. and Cabrera was designated for assignment by the Texas Rangers midway through last season before getting hot for Washington down the stretch—not to mention that both of them will be 34 on Opening Day.
On the trade market, the price tags for Kris Bryant and Nolan Arenado—if they’re traded at all—would be well out of the Nationals’ comfort zone. Ditto for Miguel Andujar. The Oakland Athletics’ Marcus Semien would be an intriguing target after he posted a career year in 2019 and finished third in AL MVP voting. But he was a league-average hitter at best in his six seasons prior and only has a little more than 400 career innings under his belt at third.
It’s murky territory, one the Nationals haven’t faced at third base at all since they moved to D.C. Ryan Zimmerman was their full-time starter at third by the beginning of the 2006 season and he remained there until Rendon took over for good in 2014. In fact, the Nationals’ third basemen have combined for an .815 OPS since the start of the ’05 season. Only the Chicago Cubs (.823) and Colorado Rockies (.827) have received better production at the position over that span.
Meanwhile, third base has developed into one of the deepest offensive positions in the sport. Rendon, Donaldson, Bryant, Arenado, Manny Machado, Jose Ramirez and Alex Bregman have all finished top five in MVP voting over the last four seasons. Last year, only right fielders (.796 OPS) combined to post a higher OPS than third basemen (.789).
Third base has never been a significant question mark for the Nationals, but if they don’t go all-in for Rendon or Donaldson—or both sluggers sign elsewhere anyway—Washington is going to be hard-pressed to replace that production another way.
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