The Nationals kicked off their offseason Wednesday by announcing a flurry of expected moves that could bring significant change to the roster for 2021.
Gone are World Series contributors Adam Eaton and Aníbal Sánchez, their team options declined. Howie Kendrick and Eric Thames are free agents too after the Nationals didn’t pick up their side of the players’ mutual options. Those four will be joined by players such as Sean Doolittle, Ryan Zimmerman, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Michael Taylor in free agency, all having played varying roles for the team over the years.
While the door is still potentially open for some of those players to return, it’s likely that there will be a lot of new faces reporting to West Palm Beach come mid-February. If the Nationals are looking to make a splash this offseason after missing the playoffs, then perhaps one of those new faces could be one of the top free agents on the market.
Starting pitcher Trevor Bauer, catcher J.T. Realmuto and outfielders George Springer and Marcell Ozuna highlight the 2020-21 free agent class. The group figures to be among the highest earners this winter and each player could fill a position of need for Washington.
NBC Sports Washington’s Todd Dybas, Matt Weyrich, Chase Hughes and Nick Ashooh each break down the top free agents and judge for themselves whether they would be a fit on the Nationals.
Todd Dybas: Bauer may go from unfulfilled talent and one-time All-Star to Cy Young Award winner because of his 2020 performance in Cincinnati. He is a free agent following the second-best season of his career (he receives more credit for his full 2018 performance).
The Nationals need a fourth starter now and a top-3 starter in the future after Max Scherzer leaves. Bauer, entering his age-30 season, could fill both roles. Two questions exist: does Bauer want to work on a one-year contract like he said in the past? And, would the Nationals find his outgoing personality palatable?
The answer to both is probably no. And the Nationals' hunt for a fourth starter is filled with several reasonable options, so this is a pass.
Matt Weyrich: It’s tempting to sit and dream of what a rotation headlined by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Trevor Bauer and Patrick Corbin might look like, but the logistics don’t favor Washington signing the Cy Young favorite.
As much as Bauer might improve their rotation, Washington has already dedicated significant resources to their starting pitching. The offense was clearly the problem in 2020 with former mainstays Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy all on different teams and somebody is going to need to protect Juan Soto in the lineup moving forward.
Money is expected to be tight in 2020 and beyond. With how much they’re already set to be paying Strasburg and Corbin over the next few years, that payroll space is better used elsewhere.
Chase Hughes: I am also a “no” on Bauer. The Nats need to address their starting rotation and should at least consider acquiring someone to be Max Scherzer's long-term replacement. But Bauer is not the guy for me, as he has not been consistent enough to warrant an ace-level contract, which he may end up getting this winter.
Bauer has pitched in six full MLB seasons where he has made more than 20 starts. He's held a sub-4.00 ERA only once. In 2019, his last full season, he had a 4.48 ERA and gave up 34 homers. Good for him having a strong 2020 right before hitting free agency, but buyer beware.
Nick Ashooh: The Nationals have always put a premium on pitching, and with Max Scherzer's deal up in a year, Stephen Strasburg's health in question, plus the backend of the rotation still being a question mark, Bauer fills a really important role in Washington.
Bauer has said he wants to pull a LeBron James and sign one-year deals to maximize his income, which if he holds true to that, is a great short-term solution for the Nationals while they work to develop some of their young pitching prospects.
If he wants to sign longer, well, let's see how long before we change our mind here. (Read Nick’s full analysis on a possible Trevor Bauer signing here).
Todd: The Nationals tried to obtain Realmuto via trade for years. Miami had the gall to ask for Juan Soto and Victor Robles at one point in those discussions.
Realmuto would be an enormous defensive improvement and a clear offensive improvement. But, for how long? He will be a 30-year-old catcher. The top end of the Nationals pitching staff is self-sufficient. A bat of equivalent quality can be found for less. Because of the likely length of contract, and their multiple needs, the Nationals should skip this.
Matt: The Nationals have come close on landing Realmuto before and I don’t expect them to miss out on him this time. Yes, he turns 30 next year and plays a position that doesn’t bode well for long-term preservation. But we’re talking about the best catcher in baseball here.
Not only did Realmuto lead all catchers in fWAR last season (1.7), he did the same in 2019 (5.7) and 2018 (4.9). Over that same span, the Nationals have ranked 19th (2020), 19th (2019) and 24th (2018) in catcher fWAR among the 30 MLB teams. He’s also an athletic backstop who fares well in both his framing and game-calling abilities, areas that don’t follow the aging curve as sharply as other attributes.
Let’s not get too crazy with a seven- or eight-year deal, but five or six years at a high AAV should be within range for the Nationals if they choose to pursue him.
Chase: I'm out on the Realmuto idea and I'm surprised to say that, as he has long been one of my favorite catchers to watch go to work, dating back to his days as a hidden gem on the Marlins. But I find it hard to justify giving substantial money to a catcher who turns 30 in spring training and has traditionally not been a high-OBP guy.
There is no question the Nats could upgrade that position, but I think they can do it while spending less money. James McCann could make sense. He was an All-Star in 2019, when he hit 18 homers in 118 games, and was sixth among catchers in isolated power this past season.
Nick: With so many issues for the Nats to figure out, the price tag on the 30-year-old backstop is going to be too much.
He clearly wants to reset the market at his position, and even though catchers usually don't sign huge contracts in free agency, the Yasmani Grandal deal that landed him a four-year, $73 million contract last winter means Realmuto will beat that by plenty.
Sure the Nationals would be a fit for him. They're losing half of their catching platoon with Kurt Suzuki’s contract expiring, leaving Yan Gomes and a bunch of unproven catching prospects like Raudy Read, Tres Barrera and Jakson Reetz to sift through.
That being said, any big moves the Nationals make this offseason have to take into consideration the other more pressing issues coming down the pipes. (Read Nick’s full analysis on a possible J.T. Realmuto signing here).
Todd: Springer is among the most enticing options for the Nationals. A powerful, athletic player who can leadoff and be a high-end defender checks a lot of boxes for a team that needs to make up ground.
However, if they pay Springer -- likely something in the 5-year, $115 million range -- what else will they be able to do? Maybe it won’t matter as much because they want the most dynamic option available to them. That makes Springer worth it. (Read Todd’s full analysis on a possible George Springer signing here).
Matt: There’s a lot to like about what Springer would mean for Washington. He would fill two holes for the Nationals: One in right field and the other at the top of the lineup alongside Turner and Soto. It’s unclear how that might shake up the top of the Nationals’ order, but his presence alone would give their lineup an entirely different look going into 2021.
Chase: I think Springer makes so much sense for the Nationals that he should be their No. 1 priority in free agency. He fills a need in the outfield, with the ability to play both in right and center, and he hits for power. The Nats were 21st in the majors in home runs this year, a stat that is an increasingly good indicator of success in this era. For example, the Dodgers and Braves led the majors in the category and then met in the NLCS.
Springer, meanwhile, has slugged over .500 in each of the past two seasons. In 2019, he launched 39 homers and this year he had 14 in just 51 games. Springer will likely be expensive in average annual value, but he shouldn't command too many years given he's in his 30s. The Nats would just need to form a good projection of how his game will age.
Nick: The Nationals could use another big bat, and Springer brings that to the table. They also need another outfielder with Adam Eaton on his way out, so that also makes this a smart choice. He has a little bit of a recent injury history, and maybe if you're lucky, that lowers his price tag on the open market a little bit, but that's wishful thinking.
The issue is once Mookie Betts took his deal in L.A., Springer became the top outfielder available in a free agent class that's -- meh -- at best. You'd have to suck up the fact that he carries the stench of the cheating Astros with him, but for the right price I'd be okay with that.
Todd: A subpar outfielder coming off an enormous outlier season, Ozuna is a risk. He would be detrimental to an already lagging defense. He would add pop to a middling offense. In this case, the risk outweighs the reward and he is a hard pass from this seat.
Matt: No, thank you. Ozuna led the National League with 18 home runs for the Braves this season, but he’s never before played at the level he displayed in 2020. Given how short the season was, the numbers suggest that should be chalked up to a small sample size rather than evidence of a new player that he’s become.
That’s not to say Ozuna has been bad at the plate. He has a career .801 OPS and hit 20+ home runs in five of six seasons going into 2020. But his defensive decline has been evident and the Nationals are coming off a season in which they had the fewest Defensive Runs Saved in the majors at -43. Tempered expectations on offense couple with his liabilities with the glove make him an easy pass for Washington.
Chase: If the Nats can't get Springer for a decent price, Ozuna (or Michael Brantley?) could be a great fallback option. He rakes every single year, yet he doesn't seem to get the proper credit for it. He also may be had on a short-term deal, as he turns 30 next month and just completed a one-year contract with the Braves.
Ozuna would give the Nats some serious power, having led the league in homers (18) and RBI (56) this past season. He was already a good home run-hitter, but then he slugged a career-high .636 in 2020, which could be an indication he's getting even better.
Nick: Ozuna bet on himself taking that one-year deal in Atlanta, and it paid off. He finished third in the majors with 18 homers, second in RBI with 56, and brings another potential bat to the Nationals lineup that would make sense.
Defensively there's some question marks though, and he spends more time at DH, so this would be helpful if the DH stays in the NL. Given that Ozuna as a fulltime outfielder wouldn't be as dependable of a choice as Springer, if the price were the same I'd go Springer over Ozuna. It does help that Ozuna is a couple years younger than Springer though.