In Part 1 of this series, I broke down what happened to the Washington Nationals during the 2015 regular season.
In Part 2, I discussed the possible destinations of the Nats’ free agents, and the most likely replacements for ex-manager Matt Williams.
Now, with the MLB playoffs in its penultimate stage, Part 3 lays out the best course of action for this franchise moving forward. It’s free-agency damage control for GM Mike Rizzo and his staff during the next few months. What can he do to protect his job and bring this franchise closer to a championship?
Let’s begin with:
The Starting Rotation
As explained in part two, both Jordan Zimmerman and Doug Fister are certain to leave for greener pastures and bigger pockets. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez are here to stay (the latter for at least one more year).
So that leaves two spots left to fill. Rookie Joe Ross was impressive stepping in for Strasburg in 2015. He went 5-5 with a 1.11 WHIP and a 3.64 ERA; all signs point to the 22-year-old staying in the fourth rotation slot for the foreseeable future.
The fifth spot will likely be taken by Tanner Roark. The 29-year-old was bounced out of the rotation after the signing of Scherzer, and struggled. He returned to the rotation due to other injuries, and was able to improve his line late in the season. His 2014 performance was fantastic (15-10, 1.09 WHIP, 2.85 ERA). That is likely to return in 2016 with a secure starting spot.
So the core is set, but there can’t be a repeat of 2015 next year. The Nats were able to get close to the New York Mets purely because of their pitching depth, achieved through the shrewd drafting of Rizzo. There is an eye-opening set of arms set to hit the market, and depth will be key.
Will Rizzo add another feature starter to complement Scherzer, or a middle/back-of-the-rotation starter to cover up impending holes?
Possible names on the free agent market include David Price, Zack Greinke, Jeff Samardzija, Scott Kazmir, Mike Leake, and Yovani Gallardo. A few years ago, it would have been nigh impossible for Washington to sign some of the bigger names, but the payroll hit north of $162 million last season. Rizzo has shown confidence in overpaying for talent (see: Jayson Werth) and now that he’s on the hot seat, that possibility looms even larger.
Kazmir or Grienke would be great fits; the latter would occur only if he elects to opt out of the last three years of his 6 year, $147 million contract. Kazmir’s deal is up, and he would command less money. Both are interesting options.
A middle/back-of-the-rotation starter is also a serious possibility. Given the amount of money already invested in the rotation, and the mega-contract Strasburg will likely demand, Rizzo could choose this route. Brett Anderson and Wei-Yin Chen will be available, and while neither provided consistent quality starts, Chen in particular could benefit from a decreased load.
The decision to trade for veteran Jonathan Papelbon will tarnish Mike Rizzo’s GM record for the rest of his career. Yes, he did his homework. He called teams and players to make sure Papelbon had rid himself of his clubhouse-tarnishing ways.
Alas, it was not so. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Almost immediately after the closer arrived in Washington, the slippery slope began. First affected was former closer Drew Storen, who was knocked out of his role back to the eighth-inning due to the trade.
Papelbon was acquired for his postseason acumen (ironic, right?). Storen was enjoying one his best regular seasons to date. There was really no reason to make that trade. Either you stick with your closer or you take him off the team. The Nationals did this with Rafael Soriano, who blew 13 saves and wasn’t resigned after two years.
I don’t know if Rizzo is confident enough to release Papelbon, even though that’s what he deserves. He’s set to make $11 million next year. That’s a burden the Nationals never should have gotten themselves involved with.
The rest of the bullpen was inexperienced and couldn’t overcome the departure of Tyler Clippard, as well as the injuries to Casey Janssen and Craig Stammen. The young Blake Trienen and Felipe Rivero blew many of their appearances, and with the starting rotation not at its best, the inconsistent performances quickly added up.
So where do they go from here?
There aren’t that many premium arms available. The Nationals haven’t had much success with free agent relievers in the past (Janssen) so they are stuck with their young core that emerged throughout 2015. Veteran Dan Carpenter was acquired from the Yankees a couple months ago, but was injured for much of the season. Knowing that he will be ready for next year is reassuring.
The bullpen wasn’t the most disappointing area of this team — that’s coming up next — but they were certainly the worst overall. Maybe the best thing the Nationals can do to push this unit forward is hire Bud Black to replace Williams. (See Part 2 for more on why Black would be a good fit.)
The Infield and Outfield
The emergence of Yunel Escobar, the utility man who hit .314 in 139 games after average .255 over the past three seasons, was a godsend for the offense. He supplied the most win shares after Harper, and was a reliable hitter at the two or three hole.
As discussed, Harper is clearly the future here. Escober will regress, and the core of Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth is only getting older. It will be a turning point for the franchise if in three years they can prevent him from leaving for the New York Yankees; that will only happen if he wins at least one World Series in Washington.
Now to the ‘nearer’ future. Third baseman Anthony Rendon regressed after injuries, much like the rest of the lineup, but his was most surprising. A dark horse MVP candidate in 2014 was suddenly a negligent part of the Nats lineup. It certainly threw a wrench is Williams’ plans.
He should be back healthy next year, as should Zimmerman. It is imperative that both stay healthy, as their clutch gene was crucial to past playoff runs.
Trea Turner was a nice surprise call-up at shortstop and showed contact ability and incredible speed on the base paths. He should take over for Ian Desmond next season.
Because of Escobar’s inevitable decline, Turner will likely move to second base and Rendon to third. In that scenario, a new shortstop would be acquired in a trade with Escobar. He’s due $7 million next year, and another contender would love a hitter like him.
In the outfield, Denard Span will need to be permanently replaced. There’s no way to be sure if the young Michael Taylor is the answer, although he did perform above average in clutch situations.
Nonetheless, Span’s stellar range in center will be missed, and the overall quality of the defense will decline from its somewhat decent level. Elsewhere, Werth still has two years and $40 million left on his contract, and its tough to bench a man making that much. Harper is owed $5 million next year, and has two arbitration options in ’17 and ’18.
It’s well known the Nationals were considering trading for Gerardo Parra at the deadline. Whether it would be have been a smart move, we don’t know (he hit just .237 in 55 games for Baltimore after putitng up a .328/.369/.517 in 100 games with Milwaukee).
Rizzo could target him again in free agency, but there are other, albeit more expensive, options. Justin Upton and Jose Bautista are available, but both aren’t likely to be signed due to the contract of Werth anchoring down left field. It’s possible Harper could move to center and Werth to right to make room, and then Upton would be the more likely option.
Both are intriguing possibilities, despite their ages (Upton 28, Bautista 35). But if Rizzo believes he still has the roster to win right now, then I say go for it.
18 year old Washington sports fan and Penn State freshman. I'll cover the MLB, NFL, and NBA.