Today, February 17th, is officially the day that Nationals pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training. Today also marks the unofficial end to trade talks and major free agency, with most of the 26-man roster set for Opening Day. The Nats came into this offseason with a lot of holes to fill, and with some Mike Rizzo magic they’re going into Florida with a complete roster. But just how good was each signing? You’ve already heard the pod crew give their answers on the offseason. Today I’ll go through each major league transaction that the Nats made this offseason and grade them. This is the Nationals’ offseason report card.
Sam Clay, LH RP
It’s hard to go into this signing without thinking about a certain other lefty reliever the Nats could’ve gotten instead. I’m still mad/sad that Sean Doolittle went to the Reds this offseason. He wanted to come back, and the fanbase would’ve welcomed his return. Yet the Nationals chose to sign LHP Sam Clay for a mere $925,000 less than Doolittle received from Cincinnati. That’s not to say that Clay isn’t good; he led MiLB in ground ball % in 2019. Throughout his professional career he’s allowed only 6 home runs in 405 ⅓ innings. And although he had a 10.3 H/9 in a short stint with the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings in 2019, he seems like the type of pitcher that should’ve been promoted long ago.
That’s exactly the problem; he’s never seen the MLB before.
His numbers look promising on paper, but there’s no way of knowing if those numbers translate to the Show. And while I hate to go back to the Doolittle comparison, it’s a real question that should arise. If Rizzo is going cheap with a struggling lefty, why go for someone who has never faced an MLB batter before? Why go for such an unproven talent when you could have a beloved pitcher who loves the city and was for a short period of time the best closer in baseball? Signing Clay meant goodbye to Doo, a proven pitcher that meant more to DC than words can express. I just can’t justify that decision for the Nationals.
My Grade: D+
Josh Bell, 1B
OK, rant over.
Josh Bell was a Christmas present for DC, a sign that the front office was serious about addressing the glaring holes in the lineup. Bell had an All-Star year in 2019, slashing .277/.367/.569 with 37 homers and 116 RBI. He’s coming off a down year hitting just .226/.305/.364, but 2020 was a weird season for many players. With the proper amount of time to train and get ready for the season, we’re sure to see the real Josh Bell.
A large contributor to Bell’s struggles in 2020 was his decrease in launch angle. His average launch angle dropped from 12.9 degrees in 2019 to 5.9 last year. Additionally his ground ball % jumped from 44% to 55.7% in 2020. Luckily for Bell (and us), he’ll be working with the man who brought the “launch angle revolution” to the Nats. Hitting coach Kevin Long has a major focus on launch angle with his players, exactly what was bringing Bell down in 2020.
Bell is surrounded by Trea Turner and Juan Soto, two outstanding players that can take the pressure off. It might be easy to look at his 2020 season as the new reality for him. But we saw what he was capable of in 2019 and who says he can’t do that again? The Nationals acquired him for next to nothing and if he can play at half the level of his potential then this may be the best move of their offseason.
My Grade: A
Kyle Schwarber, OF
Similarly to Bell, Kyle Schwarber was another victim of the strange 2020 season. He hit just .188/.308/.393 last year, good for last in average among qualified hitters. But last year’s performance followed a 38 homer season, and came two years after a 2nd place finish in the Home Run Derby. Schwarber hits for power and is the type of player the Nationals need this season to help protect Soto in the lineup. It’ll be a good fit and a better bargain for the team if he can repeat his 2019 numbers.
Short of signing Marcell Ozuna or George Springer, I fail to see an outfielder in free agency that would help the Nationals more than Schwarber. His defense is questionable, but power-hitting outfielders are rarely defensive masterminds. Ultimately, signing Kyle Schwarber will come down to two questions: can he prove last season was just a result of the pandemic changing the norm? And can Victor Robles cover that much ground in the outfield? If both answers are yes, then the Nats could have one of the best outfields in baseball. But if the answers are no, then expect a lot of extra base hits against the Nats this year.
My Grade: B-
Ryan Zimmerman, 1B
Death. Taxes. Ryan Zimmerman wearing the curly W. It’s almost impossible to imagine a season without him, yet that’s exactly what we saw last year. Bringing back Zim was a no-brainer this offseason, and an almost certainty after Bell joined the Nats. He provides a veteran presence that is missing among the group of 20-something position players.
Zimmerman also provides a good match-up against lefties. And considering that Bell does significantly better against RHP than he does against lefties, platooning him with Zim is a match made in heaven. In their careers, Bell has slashed .271/.360/.485 against RHP while Zim has gone .311/.390/.527 against LHP. If those numbers hold up, first base for the Nats will be significantly improved from last year.
And come on, it’s Zim. Mr. National has been a staple for a decade and a half. He was drafted when I was a year old, and while growing up he was my favorite player because his name was Ryan too. Flash forward 16 years and now I’m writing articles about him while he’s still playing. Rizzo would probably give the man a contract no matter what and Zimmerman has done so much for the District that any baseball production is just a bonus. And with Zim slated to face mainly lefties, there’s bound to be plenty of production left.
My Grade: A
Brad Hand, LH RP
The addition of Brad Hand to the Nationals’ bullpen has it looking far removed from the horrors of 2019. Hand led the MLB in saves last year, complemented by a career low ERA and WHIP. But the theme of this report is that 2020 numbers can’t be trusted on their own. Hand is still a very good pitcher, however, and has earned an All-Star appearance every year since 2017.
I would be hesitant to expect the elite level he displayed last season in Cleveland. Hand’s fastball velocity dropped 2.2 mph from 2018 to 2020, from 93.6 to 91.4. In a league where flamethrowers are becoming more and more prevalent, Hand’s already low velocity dropping further isn’t good news. That may be an advantage though, as Hand has been very good the past four seasons with an already slow fastball. He doesn’t need the heat to put hitters out effectively due in large part to his nasty slider.
Hand will likely be the closer this season, save for 8th innings situations when he might be needed for multiple dangerous lefty hitters. This move could take the pressure off of young Tanner Rainey, who’s poised to be the closer of the future. So while a bullpen booster wasn’t priority #1 for the Nats this year, getting a very good closer into the mix definitely helps. If the “Big 3” or even “Big 4” of Hand, Rainey, Hudson, and potentially Harris can get going this year, then the glory days of the Nationals relief pitching will make a return to DC.
My Grade: A-
Jon Lester, LH SP
The fourth starter is an interesting role. Unless there’s an absolutely insane pitching rotation with 4 aces, the 4th starter exists solely to eat innings. It would help if they were great, but teams will typically settle for good, consistent production. Jon Lester is just that: consistent. He’s started at least 31 games a season in every full season since 2008.
Lester brings a veteran presence to an already old pitching staff, but I believe guys like Austin Voth and Erick Fedde can learn from him. His velocity has been declining for years, now maxing out around 90. His breaking balls work decently well, but they’re nothing spectacular. At 37 years old, Lester is far from the pitcher he once was.
Lester was brought to DC not to reignite a flame as a former ace, but to pitch innings. And that could be helpful for Lester, as he doesn’t have to deal with a potential reclamation project or comparisons to his former self. And as far as 4th starters go, there may have been better options for the Nationals to pick up. Out of the free agent pitchers available, Lester doesn’t have the nastiest pitch, the highest upside, or the biggest chip on his shoulder. But he does have consistency, and that’s all you really need from a 4th starter.
My Grade: C
Shack: “My grade is just gonna be I don’t like the deal” (Lester is Shack’s randomly hated Nats Player, for no reason)
Alex Avila, C
Alex Avila is no stranger to the Nationals’ rotation. He’s caught for Jon Lester twice, Patrick Corbin fourteen times, and Max Scherzer 107 behind the dish. Those 107 starts with Scherzer are the most of any catcher in Max’s career. Aside from that, not much about Avila stands out. He’s a career .235 hitter who’s been on a downward trend the last 3 years. Even taking out a weird 2020 doesn’t improve his numbers much, having slashed .165/.299/.304 and .207/.353/.421 in ‘18 and ‘19.
Avila is decent defensively but not much to write home about. Overall, the Nats will definitely look to have Gomes be the starter for most games. Avila isn’t much of an improvement to Suzuki and is a downgrade at the plate. But again, it’s the backup catcher role. They’ll look for him to be Max’s personal catcher and not much else.
The catcher market in 2021 was relatively thin, with JT Realmuto and James McCann wanting a higher AAV than the Nats were willing to pay. The other option was a trade for Willson Contreras while the Cubs wereseemingly having a fire sale. Even the Nationals pathetic farm system should’ve had enough capital to get a deal done. Sometimes GMs make great signings, sometimes GMs make bad signings, and sometimes GMs make signings that are met with a “meh”. Bringing on Alex Avila is one of those “meh” signings.
My Grade: C
Overall the Nationals had a decent offseason. There were so many holes that it was unlikely they would bring in a big star from free agency, but they did well with the options they had. Acquiring Josh Bell for nothing and signing Brad Hand to be the closer are probably the best moves of the offseason. Ryan Zimmerman’s return for potentially his final season and putting him in a spot where he can actually produce is sure to be a beneficial move. The other transactions were average to disappointing, but with this many positions to fill not all of them could’ve been earth breaking. The Nationals built a team that could be competitive if all the right things happen, but there’s just too many variables to say definitively that they’ll make the playoffs.
Overall Grade: B-