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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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Braves' Dansby Swanson admits he hates facing Stephen Strasburg

Braves' Dansby Swanson admits he hates facing Stephen Strasburg

After winning the NL Cy Young award in back-to-back seasons, the New York Mets' Jacob deGrom holds the title of undisputed best pitcher in the NL East—if not the entire major leagues.

So when asked at the Braves' annual winter FanFest, Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman were quick to admit that they hated facing deGrom more than any other pitcher in baseball.

But shortstop Dansby Swanson has another nemesis: Stephen Strasburg.

Dansby Swanson is not a fan of Stephen Strasburg from r/baseball

Swanson is 6-for-27 (.222) with one home run and 15 strikeouts against Strasburg, making it understandable why he'd hate facing the Nationals starter.

Unfortunately for Swanson, Strasburg signed a seven-year deal with the Nationals in December. The Braves infielder isn't going to be able to avoid facing him anytime soon.

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Ron Darling believes Nationals are vindicated for Strasburg shutdown

Ron Darling believes Nationals are vindicated for Strasburg shutdown

The Nationals rose to contention in 2012, emerging from the depths of the NL East standings to establish themselves as soon-to-be perennial contenders behind a young core highlighted by back-to-back No. 1 overall picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.

But heading into that campaign, Washington announced that Strasburg would be placed on an innings limit in what was his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. It was a highly scrutinized move at the time, as the Nationals won 98 games but went into the playoffs without their young phenom.

MLB Network analyst and former major-league pitcher Ron Darling joined D.C. Sports on Thursday to talk about the Strasburg shutdown, which came in at No. 17 in NBC Sports Washington’s Big Twenty series that highlights the 20 biggest sports stories in D.C. over the first 20 years of the decade.

“I remember just thinking to myself, ‘What a shame that Washington’s not going to have him in the postseason,’” Darling said. “But more importantly, I just tried to concentrate on—there is no team in baseball that is gonna make a decision that is gonna hurt the player and hurt their ball club.

“They just felt, because he was coming off an injury, that that was the best thing to do. Remember, they decided in Spring Training that they were going to hold him to an innings limit and I really commend them. I think it was one of the most difficult things the organization ever had to do. But they were brave and stood their ground.”

Darling himself was told in 1992 that he should undergo Tommy John surgery, but instead he elected to reinvent himself as a pitcher and alter his mechanics to put less stress on his elbow. However, Darling was in the midst of his age-31 season at the time, while Strasburg was just 22 when he went under the knife.

Although he believes putting Strasburg’s health first was the right thing to do, Darling does think the Nationals could’ve handled the situation better from a public relations standpoint.

“The only mistake I thought, was going into the season in Spring Training, they gave the innings limit,” Darling said. “I always thought there was no reason really to do that because as he got closer and closer to that innings limit, of course the media and fans and his teammates started to anticipate that shutdown so I think it put a lot of pressure on the organization, on the player, on his teammates.”

Seven years after the Nationals voluntarily ended Strasburg’s season, they won the World Series behind the strength of their starting rotation—led by Strasburg. Washington won all six games he appeared in during its 2019 playoff run. The right-hander posted a 1.98 ERA and 11.6 K/9 over 36 1/3 innings in the postseason after leading the NL with 209 regular-season innings and placing fifth in Cy Young voting.

“I don’t know if winning the World Series vindicates it,” Darling said. “I think what it has done, though, and proven, is that they’ve put Stephen Strasburg not only in a place to have an amazing career, but now he’s on a trajectory to be a Hall of Fame-kind of pitcher.

“Yes, it’s going to be four or five more years of great excellence that he’s shown, but that’s where the vindication comes, is that he’s had a great career, his trajectory is going to be a Hall of Fame career and I think the ironic part about it is that since the Strasburg shutdown, his performance in the postseason is about as good as anyone to ever toe the hill. So that’s to me where the vindication is.”

Washington has been rewarded for its patience with its prized starter. After signing a seven-year, $245 million extension at the Winter Meetings in December, Strasburg ensured that he’ll be chasing a plaque in Cooperstown as a member of the Nationals.

He mentioned several times at his subsequent press conference in D.C. the trust he built with the organization, trust undoubtedly established by how the team prioritized his health over everything early in his career. It may have been an unpopular decision in 2012. But if the Nationals had the chance to go back and do it all again, they’d make the same choice every single time.

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