The Nats successfully finished the 2022 season with the worst record in MLB. On top of that, they have an uncertain ownership situation. With tons of needs, that leaves the team in a less than desirable position heading into the offseason.
The Nats did successfully restock their farm system last season thanks to the Juan Soto trade and having held the 5th pick in last year’s draft. With the draft lottery being implemented this year, the Nats aren’t guaranteed to have the 1st overall pick in this year’s draft despite having the worst record in the league. They will have a 16.5% chance to land the top pick in the draft and a 46.6% chance at landing a top three pick. Not exactly ideal coming off of a 107-loss season.
So what can the Nats do to avoid a second 100-loss campaign? Well, they can make smarter decisions in free agency for starters. Mike Rizzo has already gone on record saying that he’s going to be looking for starting pitching and a bat to add to the middle of the order. Before you get your hopes up, they’re not going to be going after Justin Verlander and Carlos Correa to fill those holes. They’re going to be looking at lower cost options. The Nats have already declined Nelson Cruz’s $16 million option and non-tendered Luke Voit who MLBTradeRumors.com projected to earn $8.2 million via arbitration and Erick Fedde who was projected to earn $3.6 million. If the Nats want to add a starter and a middle of the order bat, the Winter Meetings would be a perfect time to do it. Here are a couple of realistic possibilities:
2022 Stats: 32 GS, 179 IP, 4.42 ERA, 1.385 WHIP, 91 ERA+
Lyles is essentially a better version of Erick Fedde. Not from a “stuff” perspective, but from a “what you’re going to get” perspective. He’ll give you more innings and a slightly lower ERA than Fedde will. He’s not very good, but he’s not awful. The Nats need an innings eater and Lyles fits that bill. He’ll likely be in line for a 1 or 2 year deal, which is right along the lines of what the Nats will be looking for. Lyles has bounced around a lot throughout his career, but he’s been able to take the ball every fifth day and there’s something to be said about that.
2022 Stats: 27 GS, 134 ⅓ IP, 4.09 ERA, 1.295 WHIP, 98 ERA+
Davies is different from Lyles in that he’s not necessarily an innings eater. He averaged less than 5 IP per start last year. That’s something the Nats do not need. BUT, he’s put up some very good seasons as recently as 2019 and 2020. On top of that, he threw 191 ⅓ innings back in 2017, so he is capable of taking on a bigger workload. He just needs the right pitching coach and Jim Hickey is that guy. Ok, I’m lying, he’s not. But Davies still might be worth a shot.
2022 Stats: 32G, 24 GS, 3.01 ERA, 134 ⅓ IP, 1.020 WHIP, 129 ERA+
These next two guys are my two preferred options. Stripling has always been severely underrated and put together a fantastic season last year on the heels of two sub-par seasons. He’s unlikely to command more than a 1 or 2 year deal, which again is something that the Nats will be looking for. The fact of the matter is that there’s a specific pool of players that will be willing to play for the Nats and be willing to sign a short-term deal and Stripling is one of those guys. On top of that, he’s probably one of the better pitchers in that group, which is why he should be given a good look.
2022 Stats: 30G, 28 GS, 4.96 ERA, 158 IP, 1.297 WHIP, 75 ERA+
If you’re going to give me a choice between Manaea, Stripling, Davies and Lyles, I’m going to take Manaea every day. His numbers from last year aren’t great, but aside from 2019, he’s made 25+ starts in every season of his career so far. On top of that, he’s a lefty who has the ability to pitch like a #3 starter and would probably carry the most trade value of any of the guys listed above. He’s posted two seasons with a sub-4 ERA and has never posted an ERA higher than 4.96 (which was last season and still would’ve been second lowest among Nats starters, behind only Anibal Sanchez). Manaea is the only one of the group that I’d feel comfortable giving a two or three year deal to. Again, he’s not going to be a top of the rotation arm, but he’d be a reliable and solid addition to the Nats rebuilding rotation.
2022 Stats: 134G, .237/.316/.384, 17 HR, 69 RBI, 99 OPS+
McCutchen certainly isn’t the MVP caliber player that he was 8-10 years ago, but he still has something left in the tank as evidenced by the 44 HRs he’s hit over the course of the past two seasons. Again, at this point in the rebuild, the Nats will be targeting specific players – and those players are not guys like Aaron Judge and Brandon Nimmo. McCutchen fits what they’re looking for and fits a need. I wouldn’t necessarily love this, but he wouldn’t be the worst addition.
2022 Stats: Did not play
Conforto would be a pretty exciting addition to the lineup. He has a .824 career OPS and is one of the few players on the market who is a real impact bat that would be willing to take a 1-year “prove it” deal. If Conforto is willing to play in DC then Rizzo should make that move even if it costs a couple million extra to bring him here. He’d fit in nicely in the middle of the lineup and would be a great trade chip at the deadline. If the Nats were willing to give Nelson Cruz $15 million last season, they shouldn’t hesitate to give Conforto $18-20 million this season.
2022 Stats: 126 G, .160/.280/.357, 19 HR, 47 RBI, 79 OPS+
I’ll preface this by saying I’d prefer Cody Bellinger, but I don’t see Bellinger coming here. Gallo is another high impact bat though that would be willing to take a 1-year “prove it” deal. The question with Gallo is whether he’d rather take a 1-year deal from a contender, or if he’d be willing to play for a rebuilding team such as the Nationals. I personally think a year in DC after spending the last year and a half in New York and Los Angeles would do him some good. A low pressure atmosphere where he can work on getting back on track would put him in line for a bigger payday next offseason. Gallo has 2 40+ home run seasons under his belt and another where he hit 38. On top of that, he’s regarded as an above-average outfielder and was a gold glove winner in 2020 and 2021.
The Nats obviously have tons of work to do and tons of holes to fill before they’re a contender again. With that being said, if they left this offseason with Manaea and either Conforto or Gallo, they’d have to consider this a successful offseason. The Nats have already addressed their hole at third base by signing Jeimer Canelario, who can also play some first base. They followed that signing up by signing Stone Garrett, who had been DFA’s by the Diamondbacks earlier this offseason. Garrett is exactly the type of low-risk, high-reward signing that the Nats should be stockpiling. The Nats need to do a better job in free agency than they did last year. Rizzo spent around $20-25 million in free agency and was unable to trade any of those players at the deadline. That can’t happen again. So far this offseason, the Nats are off to a good start. Now they just need to finish strong with a couple of high-reward 1-year deals so they can flip those players at the deadline.