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Michael Taylor, Hunter Strickland among Nationals' non-tender candidates to retain for 2020

Michael Taylor, Hunter Strickland among Nationals' non-tender candidates to retain for 2020

The Washington Nationals have been relatively quiet to start the 2019-20 offseason. After being the most active team on the market last winter, they’ve mostly stood pat for the first month of the offseason outside of re-signing catcher Yan Gomes to a two-year deal.

Mike Rizzo and Co. don’t figure to stay idle for too long, but they will be forced to make several roster decisions by Monday. The MLB non-tender deadline is 8 p.m. that night, when all 30 teams must decide whether they’re going to retain the players on their 40-man rosters who have fewer than six years of service time.

For the Nationals, some of those choices are going to be easy. There isn’t any scenario where players such as Juan Soto, Victor Robles or Trea Turner are cut loose. But not everyone on the team is a prized young outfielder or speedy leadoff hitter. Some decisions will come down to money, while others may just be about whether there’s enough room to keep them.

Here are five players who the Nationals could choose to non-tender.

Michael Taylor

In what will be his third year of arbitration, Michael Taylor is projected to earn a salary in the neighborhood of $3.25 million for the 2020 season. The Nationals are weighing the costs and benefits of retaining top free agents Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon, which could mean the team will opt to cut spending elsewhere.

Taylor played in just 53 games for the Nationals last season due to a June demotion to AA-Harrisburg that kept him in the minors until rosters expanded in September. He filled in admirably for Victor Robles at center field during the playoffs but has a well-documented history of struggling at the plate.

$3.25 million would be a steep price for a defensive-first outfielder and pinch runner, making him an unfortunate candidate to be let go in favor of a cheaper option in free agency. However, if the Nationals do release him, it may be a signal that they’re going to be willing to spend big this offseason.

Hunter Strickland

The Nationals acquired Hunter Strickland at last season’s trade deadline with hopes of making him a key contributor at the back end of their bullpen. He got off to a great start, allowing just one run over his first 10 appearances with the team. But Strickland struggled from there and posted a 9.00 ERA with five home runs, six walks and seven strikeouts in his final 14 games of the year.

Strickland then made just two appearances in the playoffs and served up two runs each time. That forced the Nationals to keep him off the roster for the both the NLCS and World Series. Now, Strickland is projected to make just south of $2 million in 2020 amid a crowded group of relievers competing for roster spots.

Washington still has Strickland under contract through 2021 but he’s out of options, so the Nationals would have to place him on waivers before being able to send him down to the minors. With Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero, Roenis Elías, Javy Guerra, Koda Glover and Aaron Barrett all in the running for a spot on the 25-man roster—and offseason additions yet to be made—things could be a bit too crowded for Strickland to stay in D.C.

Javy Guerra

Speaking of the bullpen, Guerra is another reliever who could get the ax. Like Strickland, Guerra is out of options and arbitration eligible in 2020 (projected to make $1.3 million). The Nationals already released him once, making him a casualty of their busy trade deadline before bringing him back on a minors deal.

The Nationals only have 32 players on their 40-man roster ahead of Monday’s deadline, so they could very well roll the dice by keeping all their relievers now and letting one or two if they're forced to make roster cuts later. But that would cost them, as all players’ contracts become guaranteed after the deadline.

Guerra isn’t the most expensive player among the Nationals’ relief corps (Elías, like Strickland, is projected to make $1.9 million), but Erick Fedde, Austin Voth and Joe Ross are all out of options as well and appear to be better candidates for long-relief roles if they don’t make the Opening Day rotation.

Adrián Sanchez

Infield may be the Nationals’ biggest question mark of the winter, as only Turner is entrenched in a starting position as the calendar flips to December. Adrián Sanchez has shown the flexibility to play defensively all over the diamond, but that flexibility may end up costing him.

For the past three years, Sanchez has been an important fill-in player for when injuries arise but was always sent back down to the minors once the starters got healthy. Now, both he and Wilmer Difo—who’s filled a similar role—are both out of options. The Nationals are expected to sign starters at both second and third base (or slot top prospect Carter Kieboom into a starting role), likely only leaving room for one of the two between Sanchez and Difo.

Difo has been a slight step up from Sanchez offensively, making him the better bet to remain on the roster if one of them must be released. But at 29 years old, Sanchez may not find many suitors for his .612 OPS at the MLB level. The Nationals could bring him back on a minor-league deal if there’s mutual interest in a return.

Raudy Read

The Gomes signing shored up the Nationals’ catcher situation, but it also created an interesting dilemma with Raudy Read. Despite only having 14 games in the majors to his name, Read is another player out of options on Washington’s 40-man.

He’s 26 years old, putting him on the elder side of most prospects breaking into the majors. After coming up for a September cup of coffee in 2017, Read looked like a future big leaguer until he was suspended 80 games for PEDs in February the following year. He made his way back to the MLB for six games this season and was a candidate to back up Kurt Suzuki behind the plate next year if the Nationals didn’t make any upgrades at catcher.

One factor that could make the Nationals consider keeping him is the fact that active rosters are expanding to 26 in 2020. If Washington doesn’t use that extra spot on a pitcher, it could opt to carry three catchers to make whoever’s sitting between Suzuki and Gomes available to pinch hit. But the Nationals also have catching prospect Tres Barrera on their 40-man, which could make Read expendable either way.

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Victor Robles is the X-factor of the Nationals’ lineup

Victor Robles is the X-factor of the Nationals’ lineup

Ever since Anthony Rendon signed a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels at the Winter Meetings, the biggest storyline surrounding the Nationals has been who will be replacing him at third base.

That question was seemingly answered Tuesday, when Josh Donaldson inked a four-year deal with the Minnesota Twins and became the last of the all-star-caliber third basemen in free agency to decide which jersey he’ll be wearing in 2020.

While some combination of Asdrúbal Cabrera, Starlin Castro, Howie Kendrick and Carter Kieboom will do well to ensure third base doesn’t become a hole in the lineup, Rendon’s offense won’t be replicated by one single player.

That means the big question isn’t how the Nationals are going to replace Rendon at third base, but how they’ll replace him in the lineup. Juan Soto could continue his ascent from a young star into an MVP-type player, but then who protects him from the cleanup spot?

No, Washington is going to need several hitters to take a step forward if they’re going to replace that lost production. Trea Turner is a logical choice given that he’ll be playing with all 10 fingers instead of nine. Castro altered his swing and saw a significant uptick in his power numbers over the second half of last season. Perhaps Adam Eaton will have a career year as he reaches the end of his prime.

Yet no single improvement would have the potential of impacting the Nationals’ lineup than that of Victor Robles.

The center fielder had a mildly disappointing season at the plate as a rookie, posting just a .745 OPS with 140 strikeouts in 155 games. His defense earned him a spot as a Gold Glove finalist and he stole 28 bases, so his campaign wasn’t a wash by any means. But Robles’ spot in the lineup wasn’t one to be feared by opposing pitchers, and that alone makes his improvement critical to the Nationals’ offense in 2020.

“He’s got power, he got the ability to drive the ball in the gaps, he’s got speed on the basepaths,” Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long said at the team’s annual WinterFest event last weekend. “He can fine-tune some things. I think his strike zone discipline can get better and I think he can learn from what pitchers did to him last year and make those adjustments accordingly.”

Robles met with the media at WinterFest as well, speaking through team interpreter Octavio Martinez. He said being patient at the plate was the most important facet of his game that he hopes to improve this season. The numbers agree, as FanGraphs reports that he swung at 31.9 percent of pitches outside the strike zone last season, about 2 percent above league average.

Changeups in particular were hard for Robles to pick up. Brooks Baseball found that not only was he swinging at changeups more often than any other pitch, he was also whiffing at them 18.8 percent of the time (also his highest rate vs. a single pitch) while only managing to make weak contact even when he did get his bat on the ball.

Robles mentioned that one of his biggest takeaways from last season was recognizing how relaxed his veteran teammates were during their playoff run. It helped him feel more relaxed as well and that’s something he says he expects to continue into this season. That would be important, because a relaxed player would probably be less likely to bite on changeups and wait the extra half-second to recognize the ball is breaking.

By OPS, center field was the Nationals’ second-worst area of production last season ahead of only catcher. And with steady veterans Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes returning behind the dish, the pressure will be on Robles to take a step forward.

He doesn’t turn 23 until May, so there’s still plenty of room for Robles to grow. If he can take his 88 OPS+ (a metric that finds he was 12 percent below league average at the plate last season) and turn himself into a solid offensive contributor, it will go a long way in helping the Nationals move forward without Rendon.

“Victor is gonna get better and better,” Long said. “I think he learned a lot last year and I think his future is very bright. He held his own. If you asked him, he’s gonna tell you he can do better and I believe he can and I think we’ll see that.”

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Former Nats pitcher Chad Cordero looks back on the team's early days at RFK

Former Nats pitcher Chad Cordero looks back on the team's early days at RFK

Former Nationals closer Chad Cordero was one of the team's first stars when the franchise moved from Montreal to the nation's capital. Cordero recorded an MLB-best 47 saves and finished fifth in the National League Cy Young voting during the Nationals inaugural season in 2005.

But the closer also remembers the early struggles of the organization. The Nationals spent the first three years in Washington playing in RFK Stadium, the former home of the city's Redskins and the stadium that actually was home to the Senators the last time professional baseball was in D.C.

The first time Cordero played in RFK Stadium is one he'll always remember, and not because of anything that happened on the field.

"Going through those first couple years at RFK, it was hard," Cordero said in an interview with the Nationals Talk podcast. "I remember our first exhibition game against the Mets, I think it was late March and upper 20 [degrees]. We were all excited to warm up, take a nice, hot shower. You go into RFK, the showers are nothing but cold water."

Click below to listen to the full interview on the Nationals Talk podcast.

Yikes.

RFK Stadium was built in 1961, so it was already one of the older stadiums in the league. But that's certainly not getting your season started off on the right foot. 

The organization has made tremendous strides in the decade and a half it's been in Washington, which makes Cordero something he's really proud of.

Since their move to D.C., the Nationals have gone from an annual100-loss team to a perennial World Series contender. After years of heartbreak after heartbreak, the Nationals finally broke through in 2019, earning their first World Series title in team history.

"We had a lot to deal with back in those days, but we were all very happy to be a part of it," Cordero said. "To see it grow, to see the fan base grow, everybody be as welcoming as they have been. To see the Lerner's make that step and go out and get who they need to get to make this ballclub a good team. It makes you very proud. It makes you excited to come back and experience all of that."

Cordero was honored by the Nationals before Game 3 of the World Series, where he threw out to first pitch at the first-ever World Series game at Nationals Park. 

The organization hasn't just changed dramatically since Cordero's playing days in D.C., the area around Nationals Park has gone through a complete makeover as well.

When the stadium opened in 2008, the Navy Yard neighborhood which the ballpark is located in was largely underdeveloped and unknown to many D.C. residents. Now, it's one of the most hopping, hip areas in all of Washington, largely due to the community that has been built around the stadium. While Navy Yard has blossomed, RFK Stadium has been relatively unused and will be torn down in 2021.

"Being one of the original Nationals, we always felt like we helped build it," Cordero said. "It's a huge honor to be able to come back and everything, see how everything's grown. I couldn't have imagined a ballpark this beautiful as this one right here, especially with how much this area has turned around. The restaurants, the condos, everything. It's pretty amazing to see how far this place has come."

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