Nationals

Nationals

Following a disappointing 2018, this winter figures to be one of the more fascinating offseasons in Nationals history.

They have loads of money coming off the books, many holes on their roster and a huge decision to make with Bryce Harper's free agency. 

The Nationals have a lot of questions they need to answer.

Nationals Biggest Offseason Questions

1. What happens with Harper?

For years baseball fans all over have debated Harper's future, whether he will get the most lucrative free agent contract in league history and whether that will be in D.C., or elsewhere like New York or Chicago. In a matter of months, we will finally get that answer.

Throughout this year, there has been very little news about the negotiations between Harper and the team, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Talks between his agent Scott Boras and the Nats before deals were struck with Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer were kept completely out of the press. Even Jayson Werth's contract, also negotiated by Boras, came out of nowhere.

Still, it's anyone's guess and Harper himself insists he doesn't know what his future beholds. He may not figure it out until he does a full wine-and-dine free agency tour and actually goes to visit organizations like the Yankees, Cubs and Dodgers.

The Nats, however, do have plenty working in their favor. Harper seems to want a lot of money and the Lerners are among the richest owners in baseball. He wants to win and the Nats have proven they can put him in the playoffs more often than not. Juan Soto and Victor Robles are yet two more reminders that general manager Mike Rizzo is always restocking the cupboard with young talent.

 

Harper is also quite clearly a sentimental guy and truly appreciates the city of Washington and Nationals fans. That was evident at the 2018 Home Run Derby and certainly down the stretch of the season as he gave introspective and heartfelt interviews.

The Nats also have plenty of reasons to want Harper back. For all the gripes about his game, he has proven to be one of the best left-handed hitters in baseball and is only 25.

Harper is also nearly second-to-none from a marketing perspective. If he leaves, they could see a hit in ticket sales, merchandise sales and overall interest from fans. The Nats' rise in popularity has coincided with his career arc and D.C.-area kids love the guy.

Remove Harper and all of a sudden the Nats have a lot less star power. And it can be very difficult for fans to see their team let star players go in their prime, just ask the Wizards (Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace, etc.) and the Redskins (Champ Bailey, Kirk Cousins, etc.).

Ultimately, it's all up to Harper and he will probably take his time. At least we know the long saga has an end in sight.

2. Do they retain Martinez as manager?

By now it should be clear to all that the Nationals made a mistake by letting Dusty Baker go and handing a team with championship expectations to a rookie skipper, but that doesn't mean the way to correct that error is to fire Davey Martinez after one season. The Nats took the longview with Martinez, hoping to find a lasting solution in the dugout. Just because he stumbled in his first year, doesn't mean he can't get better over time.

The Nats have indicated Martinez and his staff will be back, but they likely won't truly know until the dust settles and they have some time to think. What they could do is bring him back, but give him a short leash early in the 2019 season. If things go south quickly, let him go and promote Chip Hale from bench coach to manager. Hale has two years of experience as skipper of the Diamondbacks in 2015 and 2016.

3. Can they rebuild their rotation?

Though there were many reasons the Nationals fell short in 2018, the most baffling one had to be the ineptitude of their starting rotation. Outside of Scherzer, who was brilliant, they did not get the production they were used to from Stephen Strasburg or Gio Gonzalez before he was traded. Tanner Roark had another rough year, making his two seasons as a sub-3.00 ERA starter look more and more like outliers.

The Nats' recent era of success has been mostly attributed to strong starting pitching and they just didn't have it this season. Also uncharacteristic was that the Nats didn't have a stable of young pitchers ready to fill in the gaps. 

 

We've come to expect Rizzo to always have a backup plan and this time he didn't. Their lack of starting depth was exposed and as a result they finished 13th in MLB in starters ERA (4.04). That's very pedestrian and the number is skewed heavily by Scherzer. 

The Nationals clearly need some upgrades in their rotation and probably won't find them in their farm system. The good news is that it's a deep free agent class with guys like Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel likely available. Both are lefties, which the Nats need. There is also Clayton Kershaw, who could opt out of his contract. Word has it he's a pretty decent southpaw.

4. Can they fix the bullpen?

Rizzo has earned his reputation as one of the best GMs in the game, but he has two consistent blindspots. One is hiring managers, as evidenced by the variety of mistakes the team has made over the years. The other is building a bullpen.

Under Rizzo, the Nats have had some excellent bullpens at times. The 2012 season, though ultimately undone by their bullpen, featured a versatile and balanced mix of relievers. The Nats' bullpen was solid in both 2014 and 2016, but required midseason trades to get there.

Rizzo has had trouble building sound bullpens in the offseason. He has been able to patch them up midseason, but it would be nice to see the Nats count on their relief staff as a strength from start to finish. If free agency is the optimal route, there are some strong options between Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Miller, Zach Britton, Adam Ottavino and others.

5. Who plays catcher and second base?

The Nationals have two significant holes in their starting lineup next season at second base and catcher. Based on Rizzo and the Nationals' history, expect them to be very aggressive in shoring up those spots. 

There are some decent options in free agency for catchers in Wilson Ramos, Yasmani Grandal and Jonathan Lucroy, though all are on the wrong side of 30 at a demanding position. They can also try to trade for J.T. Realmuto.

As for second base, the free agent class is a bit more intriguing with Rockies star D.J. LeMahieu on the market. There are also some capable, but older options like Jed Lowrie and Asdrubal Cabrera.

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