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What happens if Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon both leave?

What happens if Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon both leave?

When Kawhi Leonard walked off the Staples Center floor Friday night, a fellow former San Diego State attendee caught his eye.

Stephen Strasburg was sitting courtside near the end of the bench. Leonard stopped for a brief greeting after recognizing him. To Strasburg’s right was a smiling Scott Boras.

The quick exchange sent social media palpitating -- as just about anything does -- because free agent Stephen Strasburg was in Los Angeles with Boras. It also provided a clear reminder of what is at stake with Strasburg and Anthony Rendon. Both could be gone next year, prompting debates about how they will be received when returning to Washington, who was at fault for their departure and what more should have been done.

Let’s assume it happens.

Not because that is the probable outcome -- retaining one of them, probably Strasburg, appears the most likely outcome. But instead because this is a discussion about contingencies. If they both leave, where do the Nationals go?

We know a few things to guide a discussion about what the Nationals could do without two of their most important players:

-- The competitive balance tax threshold moves to $208 million next season and the Nationals reset their penalty clock in 2019 by staying under the $206 million threshold. This provides them wiggle room financially as well as a chance to maintain their usual top-10 spending. Only once in the last five years did the Nationals’ payroll land outside of the top 10. They will spend.

-- Strasburg was set to make $25 million next season. That was on the books. It’s now in hand.

-- A seven-year, $210 million offer to Rendon means a budget with another roughly $30 million (which would be a raise of $12.2 million for Rendon after playing under a significant salary last season provided for goodwill and to avoid arbitration). More money there.

-- The free agent class is not great beyond Gerrit Cole, Strasburg and Rendon. 

So, where can the Nationals dump their funds to remain competitive? All the options live with the duality of being flawed but reasonable.

First, to the pitching. Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez remain. The fifth spot will be a toss-up for Austin Voth, Joe Ross and Erick Fedde. Perhaps a veteran is at spring training for a look, too. But, no matter what happens with Strasburg, the other four slots are clear.

Which means Washington is looking for a No. 3 starter, essentially. Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Wheeler are the two most compelling options. 

Ryu is 33 years old, put together a 2019 that almost doubled his second-best year in production and is a pitcher focused on command. 

Wheeler is enticing. And frustrating. He’s 29 years old, but there is not much mileage on his arm since he missed 2016 and 2017 because of a UCL tear (Tommy John surgery) and mild flexor strain during his rehabilitation. Wheeler’s innings pitched have increased each season since he returned to the major leagues: 86 1/3 innings, 182 1/3, 195 1/3. His raw stuff suggests he should be a more dominant pitcher. His 2019 FIP (3.48) suggests he is not there. However, his 2019 fWAR, 4.7, put him eighth in the National League. 

Dropoff from there is significant. Only a handful of teams, maybe fewer, can afford to pay Cole, which puts Ryu and Wheeler in spots to create a very competitive market for their services.

Third base is limited. Josh Donaldson is the clear second-best option behind Rendon. He will be in his age-34 season. Mike Moustakas is at least intriguing -- but may be a presence elsewhere on the field for Washington or another team. Moustakas played 44 games at second base last season. The Nationals could opt for him to mix-and-match in the infield. Signing both seems unlikely, though it would be a potent offensive situation. That lineup could look like this (with 2019 fWAR in parentheses):

Trea Turner (3.5)

Adam Eaton (L; 2.3)

Josh Donaldson (4.9)

Juan Soto (L; 4.8)

Ryan Zimmerman (0.1) 

Mike Moustakas (L; 2.8)

Victor Robles (2.5)

Kurt Suzuki (0.6)

Pitcher

That lineup does not make up for Rendon’s departure. However, it provides depth, a long line of quality at-bats and flexibility. The challenge is finding money for Donaldson and Moustakas. A wrinkle in all of this: Washington could hand the second base job to Carter Kieboom, making a push for a free agent moot at that position.

So, pull everything together this way: the rotation of Scherzer, Corbin, Wheeler, Sánchez, flavor of the day (Voth appears the front-runner). Donaldson or Moustakas at third base. A veteran second baseman (Starlin Castro, whose BABIP was down 26 points over his career average last season?) to pair with or protect Kieboom.

A full season from Turner would provide more offense. It’s fair to expect an uptick from Robles. Wheeler has potential to be a top-10 pitcher in the National League. Is it Strasburg and Rendon? No. Though it remains a forceful team if a full contingency plan needs to be enacted -- especially if the bullpen is simply league average.

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Don't worry Nationals fans, Anthony Rendon was never going to be a Dodger

Don't worry Nationals fans, Anthony Rendon was never going to be a Dodger

While Nationals fans are understandably disappointed Anthony Rendon is no longer a member of the Nationals, they can rest easy knowing he didn't see himself signing the the NL rival Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers never made an offer to Rendon, per The Athletic, after "sensing that he didn’t want to play in Los Angeles." He instead signed with the Los Angeles Angels, inking a seven-year, $245 million deal to play for the California team that receives considerably less media attention than its in-state rival.

Now entrenched in the AL on the other side of the country, Rendon won't face the Nationals very often nor will his team's play have any effect on Washington's playoff chances from year to year. It was a best-case scenario for fans after it became likely he wouldn't be returning to Washington.

After being spurned by Rendon and losing out on top free-agent pitchers Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, the Dodgers are still looking to make their first big move of the offseason.

There's still plenty of time for them to make a move, but Los Angeles can expect little sympathy from Nationals fans that Rendon won't be suiting up in Dodger blue for the next seven years.

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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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