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Sean Doolittle, Adam Eaton will return to Nationals, expect Ryan Zimmerman to join them

Sean Doolittle, Adam Eaton will return to Nationals, expect Ryan Zimmerman to join them

Washington made several moves Saturday night following its celebratory afternoon journey down Constitution Avenue.

It declined Yan Gomes’ $9 million option, as well as Ryan Zimmerman’s $18 million option. It picked up Sean Doolittle’s $6.5 million option and Adam Eaton’s $9.5 million option, according to multiple reports. Here’s the breakdown of what’s happening:

Gomes: His price point outweighed his production. Kurt Suzuki also became the preferred catcher for several members of the Nationals’ pitching staff. Gomes finished the regular season with a 78 OPS-plus (league average is 100). His defense was also subpar. The Nationals will look for another platoon option to pair with Suzuki. Gomes is unlikely to return, even at a discounted rate.

Zimmerman: Zero surprises here. His option was much too high for this stage of his career. He, and the team, expected this decision. He, and the team, expect to work something out. Anticipate Zimmerman signing a one-year deal in the $5-$7 million range, perhaps with an option. He’s publicly stated his desire to return and understanding he could well play the rest of his career on one-year deals. Don’t expect it to occur anywhere else. He’s the likely starting first baseman Opening Day 2020.

Doolittle: Picking up his option was a no-brainer. Doolittle remains a bargain at $6.5 million. Daniel Hudson is a free agent. Hunter Strickland is not a viable closer option. Doolittle will head into spring training as the team’s closer, again working on a deal well below open-market value for his services. 

Eaton: Picking up his option was also an easy call. Washington has tremendous cost control among its outfielders. Juan Soto and Victor Robles remain at the bottom of the pay scale. Eaton’s $9.5 million option is modest when considered in the context of what the other outfielders are being paid.

The decisions give Washington quick clarity in its outfield, at first base and at closer. Stephen Strasburg’s decision to opt-out of his remaining contract created chaos elsewhere. Anthony Rendon’s long-awaited free agency opens a hole at third base. Welcome to the offseason.

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Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia ranked as the Nationals' top prospects

Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia ranked as the Nationals' top prospects

One of the biggest challenges to major-league front offices and scouting departments of winning organizations is to continue developing prospects into contributing players despite picking low in the draft each year.

The Nationals have finished with a winning record in eight consecutive seasons dating back to 2012, never picking higher than 16th overall. Since drafting Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper with back-to-back No. 1 overall picks in 2009 and 2010, Washington has slowly drained its farm system of all the players it acquired while rebuilding in the second half of the 2000s decade.

However, the Nationals have still found a way to replenish its minor-league depth with a couple promising prospects each year. Their farm system has been top-heavy in recent years, but the talent at the top has panned out more often than not.

That once again will be the approach in 2020, as the Nationals only had two players who appeared on the top-100 prospect rankings that were released over the past few weeks.

Carter Kieboom, who will have an opportunity to compete for the starting third base job in Spring Training, came in at 11th (Baseball Prospectus), 15th (Baseball America) and 21st (MLB Pipeline). Joining him on Baseball America’s list (91st) and MLB Pipeline’s rankings (97th) was infielder Luis Garcia. He was unranked by Baseball Prospectus.

Washington gave Kieboom a taste of the big leagues last season, but he struggled to the tune of a .128 batting average with 16 strikeouts and four errors in 11 games. He spent the rest of the season with AAA-Fresno and prepared all offseason to make the switch from his natural position of shortstop over to third base.

“I’m as ready as I possibly can be,” Kieboom said at the Nationals’ annual WinterFest event. “I think as a player if you get an opportunity to go up there and it doesn’t work out and you get another opportunity to be able to go up there, you can’t really beat that. So I’m really excited, this is the best I’ve ever felt in an offseason.”

On the Baseball America podcast, evaluator Kyle Glaser explained that Kieboom was originally slated at No. 13 but was moved back behind Casey Mize (Detroit Tigers) and Brendan McKay (Tampa Bay Rays) “based on some front-office feedback.” However, Kieboom was ranked 41st by Baseball America in 2019, so the 15th-overall spot still represents a sizeable jump.

Garcia, 19, was a unanimous top-100 prospect last season, ranking as high as 61st and as low as 81st between the three evaluators. He made his first stint at AA-Harrisburg in 2019 and struggled both drawing walks and hitting for power. His .280 on-base percentage was a steep dive from the .336 mark he posted between High-A Potomac and A-Hagerstown the year prior, while he hit just 30 extra-base hit (four homers) in 129 games.

But given his young age, Garcia still presents plenty of upside if he can take a step forward in 2020. Washington sent him to the Arizona Fall League in October and he showed signs of improvement, posting a .276/.345/.382 slash line in 87 plate appearances.

He’s rated as a good fielder, grading out at 60 for both his arm and his glove on the 20-80 scale by MLB Pipeline. Although a natural shortstop, Garcia played 38 games at second base last season and didn’t record a single error. If Trea Turner remains entrenched at short, Garcia will likely be moved over to second long term.

With Kieboom representing the Nationals as the lone consensus top-100 prospect, the Nationals joined the Colorado Rockies, Houston Astros, Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds as the only teams with just one consensus top-100 player. The Milwaukee Brewers were the only team with none.

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Nationals' Aaron Barrett says sign stealing 'affects people's lives'

Nationals' Aaron Barrett says sign stealing 'affects people's lives'

Not every Major League Baseball player has a direct path to the show. Some spend a couple years before getting called up, while a large percentage spend five or more seasons in the minor leagues and may not ever make it. 

And if you get called up, there's no guarantee you stay. Few players know the trials of making it to the majors more than Nationals pitcher Aaron Barrett, who after getting drafted by Washington in the ninth round of the 2010 MLB Draft, spent four years working toward the big-league roster. 

Once Barrett made it, he pitched for two seasons before suffering career-threatening injuries in his throwing arm. He then spent another four years in the minors before his memorable call-up at the end of the 2019 season. 

A baseball player's career is a fragile thing. So when teams like the Astros use technology to steal signs and a number of pitchers fall victim to an unfair advantage, you have an issue where someone's livelihood is being negatively impacted. 

"I think sign-stealing has been part of the game for a long time," Barrett said in an interview with Carol Maloney. "But when you bring technology into it and take it to the next level I think that's a whole other can of worms.

"You are affecting people's lives, there's no doubt about it," he said. 

Barrett points to Kris Medlen, a pitcher who broke out with the Braves in 2012 with a 10-1 record, 1.57 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 138 innings. 

Medlen had multiple surgeries and was out of baseball from 2013-15 and then again from 2016-18. Once he came back on May 4, 2018 with the Diamondbacks, Medlen got the start against the Astros.

He gave up nine hits and seven earned runs over four innings and has not pitched in the majors since. 

"He ended up having to retire after that game because he didn't do well," he said. "You affect people's lives. This is more than just a game, and what I've been through over the last four years has really shown me that."

Much has been said about how the Astros cheated the Dodgers out of a World Series, or the Yankees out of an AL pennant.

But Barrett, thanks to his experiences the last nine years, is focusing on pitchers who were cheated out of a career because the Astros felt the need to take sign-stealing to the next level. 

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