Nationals

Nats GM for a day: Think big in free agency, save money elsewhere

Nationals

The other day, my colleague Todd Dybas underwent the sizable task of fixing the Nationals roster as the team enters an important offseason with many needs. Surprisingly, he stuck to baseball decisions and didn't do anything for himself in the way of a better parking spot or seat in the press box. If you're in charge of the Nationals for a day, as the premise entails, you might as well make it worth your time.

In his defense, there are some important baseball decisions to make, as this team needs some work after falling short of the playoffs one year removed from a World Series win. They still have plenty of high-end talent, but major concerns about depth both in the major leagues and the farm system. This winter is about keeping the championship window open as their high-priced rotation has aged and their top prospects have produced mixed results since being called up.

With that in mind, here are some routes the Nats could go using free agency to address each of their biggest needs...

First, second and third base

The choice: Starlin Castro at third, Luis Garcia at second and Carter Kieboom at first with Howie Kendrick and Josh Harrison filling in. The Nationals are going to have to find ways to save money in building their roster around a very expensive starting rotation, and here's one place they could manage costs. With Castro coming back, the Nats could re-sign Kendrick and count on their top position player prospects - Garcia and Kieboom - to continue their development. Whatever the front office does, they should try to keep a path for at least one of them to break through.

 

Backup plan: Jonathan Schoop. Even if the Nats do not do anything drastic to their infield, they may want to still add something of consequence, at a minimum to push their younger guys. Schoop would add power, as four times in his career he's clubbed 20-plus homers. He's also a pretty good defensive player. Schoop would be your second baseman, Castro would play third with Kieboom playing mostly at first and Garcia moving all over the diamond in a utility role.

Backup, backup plan: Ryan Zimmerman. Given he was out of baseball this season, and is now 36, it's hard to tell how viable an option Zimmerman is at this point. They probably shouldn't re-sign him to be a starter, but perhaps he can still provide value in a platoon role. If they re-signed Zimmerman, they could piece their infield together based on matchups with Garcia and Kieboom moving around to different positions and Castro a lineup constant at second or third.

Corner outfield

The choice: George Springer. He would give them a power bat, having slugged .500-plus each of the past two seasons. He hit 14 bombs this year and 39 a year ago. Springer can also play center field in addition to right field, so the Nats would have flexibility on defense. And he has a lot of big-game experience, which could come in handy. Springer would just cost a lot of money, likely $20 million-plus annually.

Backup plan: Michael Brantley. Another Astros outfielder, Brantley would give the Nats some pop from the left side and a high on-base percentage. Brantley, though, is 33 and battled injuries not that long ago. He makes sense if isn't a long contract.

Backup, backup plan: Jackie Bradley Jr. The Nats would add a left-handed bat to balance out their lineup and improve defensively with a Gold Glove-award winner who can play all three outfield positions. He just wouldn't help a ton in the power department and, since he's younger, might require signing for more years than some of the other, older free agents.

Fourth and fifth starter

The choice: Run it back. Anibal Sanchez has a buyout in his contract, and getting rid of him would save the Nats $10 million. But they likely aren't going to get much for that in free agency, as starters are expensive. Plus, this was a short season and the Nats' rotation is not far removed from being one of the very best in baseball, suggesting their failures could be an aberration. They might be best off keeping Sanchez, adding Joe Ross to the fifth starter competition and then signing a cheap, take-a-flier veteran for some upside. Maybe Joe's brother, Tyson? You could then leave some room for the farm system to bear some fruit, as all of their top 10 prospects are pitchers, according to MLB.com.

 

Backup plan: Masahiro Tanaka. He presents considerable upside as a two-time All-Star (most recently 2019) and Cy Young finalist (2016). He also had a solid season in 2020, holding a 3.56 ERA in 10 starts for the Yankees. Tanaka won't cost Trevor Bauer money, but he also likely won't be cheap. The Nats already commit more money to their rotation than any other club, so it's fair to question how much more they can invest in that area.

Backup, backup plan: James Paxton. He had his season shut down due to a flexor strain, so that's why he's the backup to the backup plan. But if that injury does prove minor, he has otherwise been a very consistent pitcher throughout his career, holding a sub-4.00 ERA in his first seven MLB seasons. Paxton is a high-strikeout lefty that, if he can stay healthy, would fit well in the Nats' rotation as a complement to their big three.

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Bullpen

The choice: Tony Watson. The Nats have a decent group to start with, including three candidates for late-inning roles: Tanner Rainey, Will Harris and Daniel Hudson. But they need depth and they could use a lefty with Sean Doolittle likely gone. Enter Watson, who held a 2.50 ERA this season for the Giants and has a 2.80 ERA for his career. He's like Harris was last offseason, a consistently good veteran in his mid-30s who probably wouldn't break the bank.

Backup plan: Justin Wilson. Another lefty, Wilson spent the past two seasons with the Mets where he held a 2.91 ERA in 68 total appearances. He has been a reliable and durable pitcher for the better part of the last decade. Like Watson, he probably wouldn't cost much and could be relied on as a depth guy in the middle innings.

Backup, backup plan: Aaron Loup. After being about a league average reliever for much of his career, Loup had a breakout season in 2020, holding a 2.52 ERA in 24 appearances. He has been one of the best relievers on the Rays, who rely heavily on them. And that would be one concern of his, beyond the lack of a long track record; he has pitched quite a bit the past three seasons

Catcher

The choice: James McCann. He was an All-Star in 2019, but probably wouldn't cost much more than Kurt Suzuki, who was on the payroll for $6 million in 2020, did. Suzuki was the ninth-highest paid catcher in baseball and that's probably where McCann would rank in terms of production. He's unlocked some power late in his career, ranking sixth among catchers in isolated power this past season.

Backup plan: Suzuki, who didn't have a bad season overall. His numbers dipped from 2019 when he helped the Nats win a World Series, but they weren't far off from what he produced the year before that, in Atlanta, before the Nats signed him. Suzuki's 2020 season matched up to his career norms. He's not going to wow you, but he will be solid and consistent at the plate and behind it. If you only need him to play half the games, he's fine.

 

Backup, backup plan: They could try to save some money here and bring back Welington Castillo, who signed with the Nats last winter but opted out of this season due to Covid-19 concerns. He joined Washington after a 2019 campaign in which is OPS dipped to .684, but it was .760 across the four years before that. He wouldn't cost much and could present a decently high ceiling offensively.