After trading Juan Soto away, the Nationals are going to stumble into the offseason with no clear path and no star to build around. Sure, they’re rebuilding, we know that much. But with the new CBA in place, the Nationals are unable to receive a top-6 pick in consecutive years. So what’s the incentive to completely sucking next year? There really isn’t one. Add in the uncertain ownership situation and it’s really anybody’s guess where this team goes.
Let’s just assume that a new ownership group comes in and agrees to keep payroll around where it is this year (between $140-150 million). That’s going to leave the Nats with a good chunk of money to play around with this offseason, especially considering their two highest paid position players are no longer with the team. So, what should they do with that money? Well, they should do a much better job of what they tried to do this past offseason. Stock up on veterans on one-year deals and then flip them at the deadline. They impressively were only able to trade Ehire Adrianza from their veteran signings this year. Next year needs to be better.
Now, not only does the CBA prevent the Nats from potentially picking twice in the top-6 picks, but the Nats face another dilemma. They’ve started the service time clock on three core pieces of this rebuild. Josiah Gray and Kiebert Ruiz are now slated to become free agents in 2028, while Luis Garcia is slated to hit free agency in 2027. Sure, that seems like a long time away now, but think back to when Soto broke into the league. It feels like it was yesterday to some of us, but now he’s only 2 ½ years away from free agency. MacKenzie Gore will have picked up a full year of service time by the end of this year as well. So, my point is by picking up these MLB ready pieces, the pressure is on to make this more of a retool rather than a full on rebuild. You can’t afford to have your young pieces accruing service time during uncompetitive seasons. The goal should be to try and compete by the beginning of the 2024 season. That sounds outrageous considering where the team is right now, but it’s something they have to push for.
With that in mind, if you’re the Nats you figure you have the catcher spot locked up with Keibert Ruiz, second base locked up with Luis Garcia and shortstop locked up with C.J. Abrams. Luke Voit will likely play first base most days over the next couple of years, unless he’s traded. That leaves you with questions at third base and all three outfield positions, although you’d figure either Victor Robles or Lane Thomas will take one of those spots.
So how do you make it so that you’re competitive by 2024? Well, I’d start by signing someone like Michael Conforto, Cody Bellinger (assuming he’s non tendered) or Joey Gallo. I think each of these guys will be looking for a one-year prove it deal and the Nats would have nothing to lose by scooping one (or even two) of them up, giving them regular at bats and then hoping to deal them at the deadline. It makes sense to bring someone in who’s going to give you competitive at bats instead of just giving them to someone like Yadiel Hernandez. Nothing against Hernandez, he’s a fine 4th outfielder, but he doesn’t need to be getting everyday at bats three years into a retool/rebuild.
The front office also needs to look ahead past next year. Next year’s free agent outfield class is abysmal, so maybe this offseason is the offseason to look at an outfielder or two. Both free agent classes have some solid pitchers who are slated to hit the market. The Nats will have to look into that. With Josiah Gray, MacKenzie Gore and Cade Cavalli likely to fill 3 of next year’s 5 rotation spots, they’ll need to begin to think about bringing in a front of the rotation starter to anchor the rotation with those three guys. Does someone like Mike Clevenger, Sean Manaea or Noah Syndergaard make sense at this point? Or do you wait until the following offseason where the quality is a little bit better and make a run at Luis Castillo, Aaron Nola, Frankie Montas or Blake Snell? Or, do you hope to build a rotation based on your trade acquisitions and draft picks alone? We’ve been told that this year’s second round pick, Jake Bennett, should fly through the minors. Cole Henry has been a monster when he’s been healthy. Jackson Rutledge is still in A ball, but has finally looked good of late. That seems like a risky move though.
I think trying to build solely around what’s currently in the organization would be a bit of a mistake. I personally would wait until next offseason and go after Castillo or Montas, and in the meantime go with Gray, Gore, Cavalli, Erick Fedde and then add someone like Zack Davies or Zach Eflin to fill out the rotation next year. And yes, you read that right, Patrick Corbin needs to either be in the bullpen or released next year. It’s time.
Next offseason is where the fun should begin. A potential free agent class of Rafael Devers and Shoehei Ohtani as headliners is when you want to start spending. Oh, and there’s another guy named Juan Soto who will be a free agent the following year if you’re ready to contend and have some money to blow. These are the guys you’ll want to build around when your prospects are ready.
It didn’t need to happen this way, but this is the position that the front office put themselves in. Years of poor drafting and poor development made it so that a Soto trade was almost a necessity. With Soto, you have a below average farm system and a couple of pieces to build around. Without Soto, you have a top 10 farm system and a couple of pieces to build around. Now if you squint hard enough, you can see a rough outline of where this thing is headed. Yes, a lot depends on the Nats terrible player development coming through and bringing Robert Hassell III, Elijah Green, James Wood and Brady House along (hell, even 2 of those 4 would be nice at this point). Yes, it depends on C.J. Abrams putting up numbers similar to what he’s been able to do in the minors. But the farm system is in a lot better shape than it was a month ago and it will get another boost at this time next year, too. Even though it seems like a longshot now, there’s a path to contention by 2024. The question is whether or not the front office can do enough to make it happen.