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What are the Nationals' options at third base if Anthony Rendon leaves?

What are the Nationals' options at third base if Anthony Rendon leaves?

Editor's note: Mike Moustakas agreed to a four-year, $64 million contract with the Cincinnati Reds

Two options exist next season at third base for the Nationals: well-compensated Anthony Rendon returns or someone has the enormous task of replacing an MVP finalist.

Odds of the first appear slim. Rendon and the Nationals spent more than a year trying to reach terms on a contract extension. The best season of his career only ran up the price. Washington continues to state a desire for Rendon’s return, and why wouldn’t it? It will not erode negotiations with public comments.

“I want to give him a big kiss, I’ll tell you that,” said managing principal owner Mark Lerner after Game 7 of the World Series. “He’s an incredible player. I hope he stays. I love him to death. We have a very close bond. First year — as many people know — his apartment was right next to my wife and I and we felt a bond from that point on. He’s a special guy. Nobody deserves it more.”

Rendon is the top everyday player on the market this offseason. He’s by far the best option at third base. Washington has no internal option to replace him. It will have to pay someone. So, who is out there?

The first name is Josh Donaldson. He re-established value this season in Atlanta thanks to a 6.1-WAR effort (Rendon was 6.3, according to Baseball Reference WAR; Fangraphs has Donaldson at 4.9 WAR and Rendon at 7.0 which feels more of an apt assessment). His .969 fielding percentage — for what that measurement is worth — equaled Rendon’s. Donaldson is the inferior defender of the two. However, it’s not a massive chasm. 

He turns 34 years old in December. If teams, including Washington, are hesitant to give Rendon a seven-year deal ahead of his age-30 season, they will be hesitant to give Donaldson more than three years (and owe draft-pick compensation). However, one thing all National League teams can keep in mind is the looming installment of the designated hitter. Everything points to the position arriving in the NL soon. So, any third baseman on a multi-year deal this offseason will have two other potential landing spots: first base or designated hitter. This idea will seep into the Rendon negotiations, as well as Donaldson's. 

The crowd thins considerably and rapidly after Donaldson. Mike Moustakas (3.2 WAR), Todd Frazier (2.2), Asdrúbal Cabrera (1.7), 

Beyond them is a tier of shrugs: Pablo Sandoval, Sean Rodriguez, Kaleb Cowart, Jedd Gyroko, Jung Ho Kang. Envision the 2019 World Series champions starting their 2020 defense with one of those names at third base and near the bottom of the lineup. Hard to do. 

Keep this in mind about Rendon: He received $18.8 million last season to avoid arbitration. Which shows Washington’s baseline finances at the position. Its next third baseman is not going from zero to $30 million annually. This is a high-cost, high-investment spot already in the payroll -- with payroll control elsewhere (outfield, shortstop, etc.) an aid. If Rendon returns, it will be an even higher-level cost and investment. If he does not, and one of these non-Donaldson free agents replaces him, there will be a cost there, too, which will have nothing to do with cash.

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Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Here’s the list of players on the Nationals’ active roster who could play third base: Wilmer Difo, Jake Noll, Adrián Sánchez, Howie Kendrick, Carter Kieboom. Career major-league starts at the position: Difo, 29; Noll, one;  Sánchez, nine; Kendrick, 25; Kieboom, zero. 

Such is the state of third base for the defending World Series champions. Not good. 

Which makes Josh Donaldson’s agent smile and any semi-skilled third baseman with a pulse a possible target. Possible trades? Count the Nationals in. On most. Not on Nolan Arenado. That’s a non-starter because Washington is not going to send assets (prospects) for a contract it was unwilling to give Anthony Rendon in the first place. Zero chance. Zilch.

However, Kris Bryant is more intriguing depending on the years and ask -- as always with trades. Beyond him and Kyle Seager, is there another third baseman the Nationals could pursue in a trade? The question takes on weight because of the aforementioned toothless list of in-house candidates and shallow free-agent talent pool beyond Donaldson.

Any trade consideration needs to begin with an understanding of the parameters Washington is working from. Last season, Rendon’s one-year deal to avoid arbitration earned him $18.8 million. When Washington looks at the cost for its next third baseman, the number will be similar to last season’s cost for Rendon. A bump in the competitive balance tax threshold, plus savings at first base and catcher, provide the Nationals wiggle room for increases in spots. So, $18-25 million annually for a third baseman is in play.

Second, the Nationals’ farm system needs to be taken into account. Their 2018 first-round pick, Mason Denaburg, had shoulder problems last year. Mike Rizzo said at the Winter Meetings that Denaburg is healthy and progressing. But, the early shoulder irritation for a high school pitcher who also had problems his senior year with biceps tendinitis provides his stock pause. He’s a would-be trade chip. So is Kieboom.

But, what is Kieboom’s value? What damage did it receive during his rocky, and brief, appearance in the majors last season? Did his potent hitting in the Pacific Coast League after being sent back mitigate his big-league struggles? 

Beyond Kieboom, the farm system’s next tier is manned by Luis Garcia, 2019 first-round pick Jackson Rutledge, Wil Crowe and Tim Cate, among others. Only Garcia is part of MLB.com’s top-100 prospects list (which is more of a guide than an industry standard).

So, when Bryant or Seager -- or anyone not named Arenado -- are mentioned, know where the Nationals are coming from. If they are positioned to take on money, they don’t want to use assets to do it (this is the Donaldson Scenario). If they can save money, find a solid player and retain the few high-end assets, then a trade could be in play (this would be the Seager Scenario, if Seattle pays some of the contract). 

The Bryant Scenario is the most appealing and challenging. He’s the best player of the group. However, acquiring him would be high-cost and short-term. Bryant has two years remaining before he can become a free agent -- with an outside shot at becoming a free agent after next season because of a grievance he filed against the Cubs for service-time manipulation. Obtaining him would likely focus on multiple pitching prospects.

There is no Arenado Scenario. Just a reminder.

Piled together, Washington is in a tough spot. What it has is not enough. What it needs will be costly.

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Nationals could be a landing spot for Kyle Seager if Mariners make him available

Nationals could be a landing spot for Kyle Seager if Mariners make him available

It was a difficult Wednesday evening for Nationals fans, who were forced to swallow a tough dose of reality when reports surfaced that Anthony Rendon was signing with the Los Angeles Angels.

That’s thrust the team into a thin third base market headlined by Josh Donaldson but doesn’t boast many viable options beyond him. Kris Bryant and Nolan Arenado were both mentioned in trade rumors during the Winter Meetings, but the Nationals would be hard-pressed to acquire either of them with the significant prospect capital that would be requested in return.

But another option emerged Thursday night when The Athletic reported that the “possibility is increasing” of the Seattle Mariners trading Kyle Seager. The 32-year-old veteran has hit just .236 since 2017 but has at least 20 home runs each of the past eight seasons. Originally thought to be untradeable, Seager has reportedly drawn the interest of “multiple teams.”

The Mariners signed Seager to a seven-year, $100 million contract after a 2014 season in which he posted a .788 OPS and won a Gold Glove. The wrinkle in Seager’s trade value, however, is a $15 million team option for 2022 that converts to a player option if traded. That would guarantee him $52 million over the next three seasons, giving pause to teams who might be wary about his ability to perform at the plate.

But with Donaldson expected to garner a four-year deal despite entering his age-34 season, Arenado signed for $234 million over the next eight years and the Chicago Cubs likely seeking top prospects in return for Bryant, Seager may be the most affordable option for a team like the Nationals.

Washington’s farm system ranks among the lower third of the league, boasting just two consensus top-100 prospects in Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia. The Nationals likely wouldn’t be able to compete with clubs that have deeper farm systems for Bryant, while Arenado is signed to a similar deal that Rendon just received. As for Donaldson, Washington is certainly in the running but is far from the only team interested and could very well lose out.

Seager presents All-Star upside and while he’d be due salaries north of $18 million each of the next two years with the 2022 player option, that would be at worst about the same average annual value Donaldson is likely to demand at two years older. In addition, Seager’s $19.5 million salary next season is just above Rendon’s 2019 total of $18.8 million, making the increase in payroll at the position would be marginal.

It’d by no means replace the production the Nationals lost when Rendon signed with the Angels, but trading for Seager would certainly be a more attractive option than signing the remaining third basemen left in free agency beyond Donaldson: Asdrubal Cabrera, Brock Holt, Todd Frazier, Pablo Sandoval and Maikel Franco, just to name a few.

Seattle doesn’t appear likely to make a trade anytime soon, but Seager’s trade availability will be worth watching as the offseason progresses.

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