The hot stove is not even lukewarm yet. When things start warming up, the Washington Nationals could be the team to make the most noise, both in free agency and via trade.
The Washington Nationals have won the NL East three of the last five seasons, yet they have never gotten past the division series of the playoffs. They have the reigning Cy Young winner, the one year removed MVP, and one of the top 3 MVP finalists from this season. They also have the runner up for rookie of the year.
Reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer is the ace of the group, but Stephen Strasburg and Tanner Roark both impressed during 2016. Trea Turner had a breakout season on his way to finishing just behind one of the best rookie seasons ever from Corey Seager. Daniel Murphy not only continued to hit like he showed during the postseason for the Mets a year prior, he improved on those marks and became a legitimate MVP candidate. Bryce Harper had a “down” year in which he still posted an above average 112 wRC+. The Nationals truly seemed just a tiny step away from challenging the Dodgers and Cubs in the National League. They will absolutely be gunning for key additions during this winter.
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With the advantage of payroll and a farm system well-packed with talent on their side, they have the ability to have a distinctly impressive offseason. Their payroll currently sits around $100 million. Last season they devoted nearly $150 million to the payroll. That means they theoretically have $50-70 million to work with, depending on how ambitious they decide to get.
They also have Lucas Giolito, Victor Robles, and Reynaldo Lopez down on the farm with tremendous potential to become stars, if not simply above average regulars. Their situation is clearly set up for offseason success, which they hope will transfer to regular season and postseason success, but where should they set their target?
First off, if they want to make a trade it will likely be for a starter with multiple years of team control. In case you haven’t heard, the White Sox are willing to part ways with someone that fits that bill. A tall, lanky guy who finished 5th in Cy Young voting this past season named Chris Sale. If the Nationals can create the right package, the White Sox will certainly be happy to do business with them.
However, Ken Rosenthal remarks in one of his reports that the White Sox may only move Sale if they get the better end of the bargain. In the mind of the White Sox front office, that may mean Trea Turner or no deal at all.
In that case, the Nationals would hang up the phone and look elsewhere. The other big name they could pursue is Chris Archer from the Tampa Bay Rays. Like Sale, he has multiple years left on his contract and the ability to be a Cy Young contender.
If the Nationals are able to pull off a move for either Sale or Archer, their rotation would be among the best in baseball. Sale or Archer would join the ranks of Scherzer, Strasburg, Roark, and Gonzalez. That alone would give the Nationals the edge they need in the NL East, especially if one or more of their starters goes down like they did last season.
Another area the Nationals may be looking to improve is in the outfield. They currently have Jayson Werth, Trea Turner (or Denard Span), and Bryce Harper situated in the outfield. Harper’s job is obviously safe, but Washington would be wise to pursue another outfielder. Trea Turner could easily move back into the infield, where things would shift and change to fit him in. That would leave a spot open in center field. If the Nationals decide to decrease Werth’s playing time, left field could be opened for a new addition.
Another AL executive said: “[Mike] Rizzo is pretty bold. He is going to do whatever he needs to do.”
The main candidates would be Yoenis Cespedes, whom they pursued during last winter, and Jose Bautista. Bautista’s age and inability to play as well as Cespedes in the field makes Cespedes the priority. He will likely want a deal with a long term (reportedly five years) and a lot of dough. The Washington Nationals may just be willing to hand him that dough if it means getting the final push they need to advance further in the postseason, and ultimately win a World Series.
If the Nationals really want to make waves after completing both of the aforementioned moves, they could sign one of the big name closers on the market. The most likely option would be in bringing Mark Melancon back to the team. He is the cheapest of the three big names out there this offseason, which the Nationals would like if they do spend big on Cespedes. While the Cubs and Indians gave up big name prospects for Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller at the deadline, the Nationals made a shrewd move for Mark Melancon. Melancon provided similar production to Chapman in the second half of the season, proving to be somewhat of a steal for Washington. They could practice the same shrewdness once again this offseason.
Chapman and Jansen are expected to sign bloated contracts, likely in triple digits, during this offseason. Chapman and Jansen are both among the best relievers in the game. Melancon just happens to be in that same conversation as well, but with a lower price tag. The Washington Nationals, and GM Mike Rizzo, could come away looking very smart if they sign Melancon to a reasonable contract.
The likelihood of the Nationals having the ability to complete all three of these transactions is incredibly slim. However, Rizzo seems like he’s ready to go all in on his team. With Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy set to leave in two seasons, and Anthony Rendon a year after that, he realizes the window to win a championship is short and quickly closing. He just might have the guts and ingenuity to pull off one of the best offseasons we’ve seen in awhile. There’s no guarantee that it will translate to wins or a championship, but he’s going to give it all he’s got while he still has some of the best players in the league on his team.