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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