The first six weeks of the Nationals’ offseason have consisted of a few minor-league signings, a slew of declined contract options, an agreement to avoid arbitration and a pair of MLB contracts for utility man Josh Harrison and reliever Sam Clay.
Those may not seem like moves made by a serious World Series contender, but Nationals GM Mike Rizzo explained Tuesday that they’re just getting started.
“We’re at the infancy stages of putting together the final parts of this roster,” Rizzo said on a Zoom press conference. “We’ve attacked the fringes of the roster a little bit…and now the guts of what we’re gonna do this offseason I think will come in the next couple of months and we feel confident again that — with the current club as we have it with some additions — we think we’re going to be competing again for championships.”
To be fair, the Nationals are far from the only team taking their time this offseason. Just four free agents have signed a multi-year deal so far while the rumor mill has churned at a cathartic pace. The financial uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic has left many teams’ budgets in flux, which makes it no surprise most clubs are slow-playing the market.
The Nationals have their budget. Rizzo started off his press conference by describing the Nationals’ financial situation as “fluid,” but he later backtracked and corrected himself by saying that ownership had given him “the budget to get a championship-caliber club.”
“Our top priority in our search is, via the free-agent market and even the trade market, is trying to get a bat to fill in the middle of the lineup and complement the rest of our middle-of-the-lineup bats,” Rizzo said. “We felt that our best bet would be to surround the guys we have in the middle of our lineup already with some more bats and make offensive production a little more of a priority this offseason.”
Washington is coming off a season in which it hit the 10th-fewest home runs in the majors. The team has Juan Soto and Trea Turner anchoring the top of its lineup, but there isn’t much bankable offensive production on the roster beyond them. Losing Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy over a two-year span will do that.
The Nationals could conceivably make a push for the top free agents at their positions of need — DJ LeMahieu at first base or George Springer in the outfield — and fill out the rest from the bargain bin. Yet that leaves them cash-strapped for the future. Soto and Turner are candidates to be extended, as is starter Max Scherzer. Even if Scherzer leaves after 2021, the Nationals still have to pay him for another seven years thanks to the deferred money in his contract.
A more likely scenario is one where Rizzo operates in the next tier of free agents. That means instead of signing Springer, the Nationals could ink, for example, Joc Pederson and Adam Duvall to platoon in left field for half the price and fewer contract years. Quality options at first base are scarce, but Mitch Moreland has a .521 slugging percentage over the last two seasons and C.J. Cron hit 55 homers between the 2018-19 seasons. Neither should net more than the two-year, $17.5 million deal Carlos Santana signed with the Kansas City Royals.
Such moves would also allow the Nationals to address their other roster holes at the back end of their rotation and in the bullpen. An infielder to push Carter Kieboom for playing time at third base could make sense too, though they may be content with Harrison doing that considering how motivated they were to sign him.
It’s unclear when exactly the Nationals will start pulling out the checkbook, but Rizzo doesn’t expect Washington to stand pat all winter.
“I don’t have a timeline on a sense pre-Christmas, post-Christmas or anything like that,” Rizzo said. “We make our offers and we shoot to the middle of the target and then the ball will be in the player’s court to accept it or not. If the right player at the right price agrees to our terms, things could happen at any time. But there’s no set timetable on when we’re doing anything.”