Prior to the December 1st CBA deadline that all but guaranteed the work stoppage we are currently experiencing, we saw a flurry of big-name players sign throughout the league. The Mets went out and signed Max Scherzer (pain), Starling Marte, Mark Canha, and Eduardo Escobar with Steve Cohen’s stupid money. The Mariners, Angels, and Blue Jays upgraded their rotations with the additions of Robbie Ray, Noah Syndergaard, and Kevin Gausman, respectfully. The Rangers, one of 4 teams that finished with a worse record than the Nats last year, went out and grabbed two of the biggest names on the market with the signings of star shortstop Corey Seager and star second baseman Marcus Semien. So how did the Nats counter, you may ask? Only by going out and landing an absolutely HUGE fish in Cesar Hernandez!
Yeah, no. The fact that Cesar Hernandez has quite literally been the Nationals only major league signing thus far makes it feel a lot like this offseason is headed down the gutter. Sure, it’s basically a foregone conclusion that the Nats won’t be a competitive baseball team in 2022, but that does not mean there still isn’t a lot of work to be done. Obviously, we have no possible idea on when the lockout ends, so some of these goals may not be attainable if it stretches into spring training or even the season. In the event the lockout ends at a feasible point in time and Rizzo & Co. decide not to be bums, here are my Top 5 priorities for the Nats after the lockout ends:
5. Sign a High-Upside Pen Arm or Two (or Three) that can be Flipped at the Deadline
While the relief market was moving a little bit before the lockout, there are still plenty of arms out there, and nearly all of them make sense for the Nationals. As of right now, the Nats bullpen is… Kyle Finnegan, Mason Thompson, and then basically a hodgepodge of scrap heap minor league signings that will ultimately end up making the opening day bullpen. However, this just simply isn’t going to cut it. According to Fangraphs, the Nats had the second worst bullpen in the MLB by ERA and FIP in 2021, only in front of the Orioles. If you’re right next to the Orioles in any stat, you suck. If the Nationals want to make this rebuild as quick as possible like they are claiming, grabbing a bunch of relievers on 1-year deals that have the potential to be a hot commodity at the trade deadline (relievers are always needed by contenders) to flip could help them net more prospects. The Phillies just signed Corey Knebel, who was more than solid with the Dodgers in 2021, to a 1-year, 10m deal. That is the kind of deal that would have been perfect fit for the Nationals, yet wasn’t pursued. There were a lot more of those scenarios that we’ll get to later. Some of the relievers still out there that could likely all be had on a 1-year deal: Jake Diekman, Adam Ottavino, Joe Kelly, Collin McHugh, Jimmy Nelson, Yusmeiro Petit, and many others. There are simply just too many relief arms still out there for the Nats to grab, and they need to take advantage.
4. Sign a Starting Pitcher or Two
Like the bullpen, the Nationals rotation was also pretty damn bad in 2021. They had the 20th best rotation in baseball by ERA with a 4.64, and that number is helped by having Max Scherzer in it for the first 4 months of the season. So in reality, it was even worse than that. The rotation going into 2022 looks even shakier. The only real locks as of right now are Josiah Gray and Patrick Corbin, and Corbin is one of the worst pitchers in baseball. Who even knows with Strasburg’s health at this point, so he’s far from a lock. Joe Ross will still be recovering from his UCL injury. The Nats will never quit their love affair for Erick Fedde even though he is nothing more than a #5 in a Major League rotation, so I suppose you could pencil him in too. So that leaves… Josh Rogers? Sean Nolin? Paolo Espino? Again, yeah, no. The Nats need to add at least one other starter to this mix.
Before I list some names still out there that would make sense for them right now, let me preface again with some names they missed out on that would’ve made too much sense. Wade Miley: claimed by the Cubs for 10m. Miley had a 3.37 ERA and 3.97 FIP last year. No one ever knows what the hell the Cincinnati Reds are doing, but you’re telling me the Nats were so far out on this that a Reds divisional rival got him instead? Noah Syndergaard would’ve been a solid 1-year deal at 21m. They certainly have the payroll flexibility to have added him, but Lord knows the Angels need all the pitching they can get so this likely may have been a bit of an overpay. Now here’s the one that had me the most heated: Marcus Stroman to the Cubs for 3 years, 71m with an opt out after year 2. Say what you want about Stroman on Twitter: his ego, character, whatever. He’s a good pitcher and I would have given him this contract yesterday. It makes it worse that the Cubs, another rebuilding team, gave it to him along with the claim for Wade Miley. Stroman for 3 years would have made WAY too much sense for this team it’s not even funny. You aren’t tied to him long term, you have the payroll room for him at 25m a year, he has an opt out after year 2 if he wanted to try and go to a contender, and you could have traded him for a good prospect haul if he continues to perform the way he has been. I understand not going after Stroman if he got up into that 5 years, 100m range like he was originally projected, but missing out on him on the deal he got is a huge blow, in my opinion.
Anyway, let’s talk about some of the starting arms out there the Nats could add on a short-term deal: Matthew Boyd, Brett Anderson, Tyler Anderson, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, and more. Any of these guys would be a nice addition to an extremely weak rotation. The Nats should absolutely be looking to add SOMEONE that can give them innings. The carousel of arms we saw after the deadline last season just isn’t feasible again.
3. Extend Josh Bell
We’ve reiterated this many times, but Josh Bell was good in 2021. After an abysmally slow start, he put up great numbers at the plate and played the best defense of his career. Other than Juan Soto, he is the only other source of power in the Nationals lineup. In 2022, Steamer projects Bell to slash .261/.352/.487 with an .839 OPS, 31 HR, and a 121 wRC+. He may not be 2019 first half Josh Bell ever again, but that is a more than solid bat that any major league team would put in their lineup, and the Nats should want him here longer than just 2022: his final year before free agency.
Again, I understand there are people on the “trade Josh Bell” train, and while I will say it does make sense to trade him if a team offers a package for a rental first baseman you can’t pass up, but I simply don’t think the Nats will get offered something of that caliber for him especially when guys like Freddie Freeman and Anthony Rizzo are still available via free agency. Again, I’ve reiterated this in past articles, but Josh Bell is only 29 years old, there are no first baseman in the farm system to replace him (and no, Mike Ford and Riley Adams are not the answers), and there’s no way he will command what Freddie Freeman and Anthony Rizzo will. I’ve thrown this number out before, but something like 4 years, 50-60m feels like a solid deal that Bell would take. The Nats would get him his early 30s, he would not be overly expensive and he would have the chance to hit free agency at age 33 and cash in if he is still a solid bat. Not to mention, the Nats would have a solid power bat to have in the middle of the lineup for the foreseeable future. You would have to take into account that Bell is a Boras client, but I absolutely believe the Nats have the power to get something done with him if he wants to continue his career in DC.
2. Sign a Long-Term, Building Block Player
Again, and I’ve said “again” a lot in this article, just because the Nationals will not be ready to compete in 2022 and likely 2023 does not mean they should sit out on big names that can be a huge part of their future. Again (again), if the Nats want to make this rebuild as quick as possible, signing a big-ticket free agent that you can have penciled into your starting lineup for years to come, rather than waiting on an unproven prospect, is one of the best ways to do that. Some of the big names still out there: Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant, Trevor Story, Nick Castellanos, Freddie Freeman, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber. It doesn’t feel like Freeman and Rizzo fit the Nats bill since they already have Bell penciled in at 1B. Castellanos wants 7-8 years, too many for a player with his profile and likely pushing the Nats out from there. I could see a Schwarber reunion, but it feels a lot like he’ll be heading elsewhere. Story would be a great fit, but just does not seem all that likely that they’re going to find a shortstop. Correa would be an absolute dream signing and it would instantly make the Nationals offseason a success if he landed here, but it just does not feel all that likely. The argument Nats fans have against signing Correa to a large deal was that it would mean saying goodbye to Soto, but that’s just crap. Any team in the league could afford to carry Correa and Soto’s mammoth new contract on their payroll, but choose not to because they enjoy acting poor instead. And let’s be honest, Soto’s probably gone anyway, so why not lock up a superstar player you KNOW will be here for the long-term?
Even with these ideas in mind, Correa is still a long shot at best. This leaves Kris Bryant. I’ve said many many many times, Kris Bryant is the Nationals’ guy, and he would fit like a glove on this team. We’ve mentioned the Davey connection before, but Bryant’s defensive versatility, whether he’s mostly playing outfield or coming in to play 3B when Kieboom inevitably starts stinking it up again, is incredibly valuable. Pair that defensive versatility with a middle of the order bat you can slot in right next to Juan Soto, and this would be a slam-dunk signing for the Nats. Again (sorry), I’ve seen some Nats fans make arguments against Bryant like they try to do for every good expensive player on the free agent market. I’ve seen takes like “his swing won’t age well, he’s cooked, he’ll never be the same.” Lol. He had a 3.6 fWAR this past season, slashed .265/.353/.481 with a 123 wRC+ and 25 bombs with a chunk of his season being played in a non-hitter friendly ballpark in San Francisco. His last full season with the Cubs in 2019 he slashed .282/.382/.521 with a 134 wRC+, 31 HR and a 4.7 fWAR. That production with the ability to play all over the outfield and infield? Sign me the hell up. Sure, Bryant has dealt with some injury issues throughout his career and will be 30 years old on opening day, but the benefits greatly outweigh the costs and his is the guy the Nats should be pursuing the most heavily. It would be awfully disappointing to see the Nats miss out on a stacked free agent class.
1. Extend Juan Soto
I just mentioned how disappointing it would be for the Nats to miss out on a big-ticket free agent this offseason. However, if they extended Juan Soto to keep him in a Nats uniform for life, I couldn’t care less what else is done this offseason. The thing is, sadly, this is by far and away the biggest long shot on the list. Knowing the Lerners as well as this franchise’s history with how they have treated their superstars and how long-term negotiations were approached with them, I am confident that Juan Soto will be wearing another team’s uniform on opening day in 2025. However, they better try their asses off to get it done. Juan Soto is the face of the franchise, possibly even the face of baseball. It is the biggest no-brainer of all time for the Nats to keep him long-term and build around him. You simply cannot afford to let a once-in-a-lifetime player like this slip away from you. There aren’t many times where you must do whatever it takes to get a player’s signature, but this is one of those times.
If Scott Boras came to the Lerners today (well, after the lockout) and said “we want to break the record for largest contract ever, and the value has to exceed 500m for you to get Juan’s signature before free agency,” you do it. You get it done. Baseball quite literally hasn’t seen a player like Juan Soto since Mike Trout, since Barry Bonds. And he’s on your team, and can only negotiate with your team for the next 3 years. You get it done. There has to be a reason you didn’t pay Bryce Harper. There has to be a reason you didn’t pay Anthony Rendon. There has to be a reason you didn’t pay Trea Turner. Juan Soto has to be that reason. Again, knowing the history and until they prove me wrong by signing a position player long-term, I fully expect Juan Soto to walk. And if he does, especially to a divisional rival, I would expect half of the Nationals fanbase to walk along with him, and I wouldn’t blame them. I may do the same myself. I mean, enough is enough. And letting likely the greatest player in your franchise’s history when it’s all said and done walk would certainly be enough. Whether a deal gets done this year, next year, or not at all until free agency, Juan Soto is the player you push all your chips in for. Get. It. Done.