Since the Washington Nationals began their run as perennial postseason contenders in 2012, they have yet to go two straight seasons without making the playoffs. There have been stretches where they traded off year-by-year; making the playoffs and then not making it. The only exception to this pattern was the 2016 and 2017 stretch under Dusty Baker, when they won the NL East in back-to-back years, only to fall in the NLDS.
There has been a pattern of sorts to their success and also some recurring themes to how they have operated in the offseason. Usually, the Nats have been more aggressive following years they made the playoffs than the ones in which they didn't qualify.
That makes sense if you think about it. Getting oh-so-close and then failing on baseball's biggest stage can be quite the motivator. Under team president Mike Rizzo, the Nats have usually reacted strongly to those defeats.
After they lost to the Cardinals in 2012, the Nats signed closer Rafael Soriano in free agency, plus starter Dan Haren, and they traded for outfielder Denard Span. The Soriano move was in direct response to why they lost in the playoffs; a meltdown by their bullpen.
After they fell to the Giants in 2014, the Nats inked starting pitcher Max Scherzer to a record free agent contract. They also traded for infielder Yunel Escobar and pulled off a major deal for the long-term by acquiring Trea Turner and Joe Ross from the Padres.
It was after they lost to the Cubs in 2016 that Rizzo packaged his best pitching prospects together, including Lucas Giolito, to acquire outfielder Adam Eaton. They also signed former All-Star catcher Matt Wieters.
The exception to this rule would be the winter following the 2018 season. They did not make the playoffs that year, but then had a spending spree in the offseason, as money was freed up by the departure of Bryce Harper in free agency.
It was that winter when Rizzo signed starters Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez, and traded for Yan Gomes and Tanner Rainey. He also signed Brian Dozier, Kurt Suzuki and Trevor Rosenthal. They spent lots of money and it paid off with a World Series title.
So, what does this mean for this offseason? Truth be told, there are probably more reasons to expect them to be quiet than for them to be aggressive.
Beyond the precedent laid out above, there are a few important factors to consider. Most importantly may be how the coronavirus is expected to affect finances around the league. Teams around baseball are already making cost-cutting moves by declining player options they would likely pick up in a normal year. Perhaps the Nats prove to be an anomaly, but the recent reports of them laying off employees suggests their money is also tight.
There is also the fact they recently won the World Series and all of the previous offseasons mentioned took place when they were aggressively chasing one. They wouldn't be the first team to continue scaling back payroll after winning a title, feeling their goal was accomplished.
The Nats freed up some money by renouncing free agents, including by declining options for Eaton and Sanchez. But they also have a lot of needs, arguably more than they have had in a single offseason in quite some time.
Harper and Anthony Rendon left, their roster got old and there has not been a wave of prospects adapting quickly to the majors like they have enjoyed in the past. The jury is still out on Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia and, for that matter, Victor Robles.
So, the Nats may have some incentive to load up in free agency. Without a deep farm system to deal from, it may be their only way to reinstall themselves as contenders in the National League. Their lineup is top-heavy and their rotation has a major question mark with Stephen Strasburg's injury.
There is not going to be an easy answer this winter for Rizzo and the Nats. They probably need to spend some legitimate money, but whether they will (or can) is a major question.