For the first time since before Bryce Harper played for Washington, the Nationals are basement dwellers in the NL East for consecutive seasons. Coming off their title season in 2019, their 26-34 finish in the truncated 2020 was easy to write-off as a result of the pandemic, but after 97 losses in 2021, there’s little doubt left: the Nationals need a reboot.
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections from MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
It’s been barely two years since Howie Kendrick scraped paint off the Astros’ right field foul pole, but the mainstays from that 2019 title team are almost all gone now. The trade deadline deal that sent Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Dodgers was a gut punch for the fanbase and the unofficial end to the first competitive era of Nationals baseball. The Nats got their rings at what now seems like the last possible moment for the Scherzer/Strasburg era.
They weathered the loss of Harper for that one magical season, but since their road warrior heroics at Minute Maid Park, the franchise has been in relative disarray. Losing mainstays like Anthony Rendon and Sean Doolittle changed the complexion of the roster, but no loss will be felt quite like Scherzer and Turner. Scherzer and Turner are two of the more visually stunning talents in the game as well as two of the most productive at their positions. After years of enjoying the brute force of Scherzer’s personality and Turner’s whiplash-inducing speed/power combo, the Nats no longer offer a symphony of baseball talent to the crowds in Southeast DC – they now have a one-man-band.
That said: Juan Soto is a gem. Had the Nationals been anywhere near the playoffs, the 22-year-old might have his first MVP award. Instead, a .313/465/.534 campaign yielded “just” his first All-Star appearance and second silver slugger. He is the runner-up in MVP voting, somehow notching his third top-10 finish in four seasons. He might have the best plate discipline of any hitter since Barry Bonds, and despite his age, he’s now led the Majors in on-base percentage for two years running.
There is no praise too high for Soto. Given a league-wide re-draft, Soto would be a top-5 pick, full stop. The only thing keeping him from being among the highest jersey sales in the league is his market and physical skills that don’t jump out of the screen as it does for the three juniors, Fernando Tatis Jr., Ronald Acuna Jr., and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Even the downsides to his game are fairly innocuous: Soto won’t steal 30 bases, and he doesn’t play a premium position. Reach deep and you could say that his power is relatively mortal (.221 ISO this season, 29 home runs). He may not be a power hitter of the strictest order, but he’s on his way. It’s a tool in his toolbelt and an area of potential growth as he ages into his physical prime.
He’s not going to get any faster, but he has shown an ability and willingness to improve in the outfield, even as he shifted from left to right field. It’s certainly possible to imagine a future where Soto spends some time as a designated hitter, but that’s not going to bother Nats’ fans. Where he plays in the field isn’t nearly as pressing as which field he calls home.
With three years until Soto’s free agency, the Nationals have entered the countdown era. It’s easy to imagine the cloud of Soto’s potential departure hanging over this franchise much like Kris Bryant’s free agency timeline dominated narratives for the post-title Cubs. Unfortunately, as a Scott Boras client, Soto isn’t likely to surrender his leverage anytime soon. And it’s hard to ignore the Nats’ recent habit of letting giant stars walk out the door.
The optimists would cite Boras’ purportedly good relationship with Nats’ ownership. Sure, Rendon and Harper both walked, but it was unclear how fully committed the Nats were to bring them back. They committed to Strasburg, and he did return – for better or for worse.
For Soto, it ought to help that he already won a ring in Washington, but GM Mike Rizzo will probably have to convince ownership to make Soto the richest man in the game in order to lock him up long-term. Luckily, the Nats are one of many teams that can’t really be priced out for any one free agent. Whatever the cost, they can pay it if they’re willing.
Regardless, the next three seasons are likely to play out as an extended courtship wherein Rizzo and owner Mark Lerner try to convince Soto that they can build a competitive engine around him that’s worth helming. Ironically, the Nationals are asking the Majors’ walks and OBP leader for patience.
That process began in earnest with the Scherzer/Turner trade. The move wasn’t just about sucking a last bit of value from Scherzer before he departed in free agency. It kickstarted a retooling effort around Soto. That much was evident in their return package.
Josiah Gray stepped directly into Scherzer’s rotation spot, and they need to see him turn into a mid-rotation starter by the end of 2022. The big fish of the deal, however, was Keibert Ruiz, a long-touted catching prospect who may replace Victor Robles as Soto’s primary running mate on the position player side. Ruiz may not be a middle-of-the-order bat, but he makes contact, should hit for power, and if he turns into a first division catcher as expected, he’ll play a large role in managing the pitching staff.
Amazingly, entering his age-23 season, Ruiz will be young for a rookie in his first full season, and still older than Soto. Regardless, after posting a 101 wRC+ in 96 plate appearances, which included a particularly resilient end to the year (112 wRC+ in Sept/Oct), Ruiz will enter 2022 as Washington’s starting catcher. That’s an exciting development for Nats fans and a good first step to the “Courting Soto” era of Nats’ baseball, but it’s not enough to make them a contender.
Side note: Riley Adams, acquired from the Blue Jays for Brad Hand before the Dodgers’ deal, nicely complements Ruiz as the backup catcher, even if he does look as big as a house crouching behind the dish. After years of Matt Wieters underperformance and the steady-but-uninspiring upgrade to Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, the Nationals have their most exciting catchers’ room, perhaps, in franchise history.
Next to Soto in the outfield, Robles is the dream, but Lane Thomas is the reality. Acquired in an under-the-radar deal that sent Jon Lester to the Cardinals, Thomas took off while getting playing time as the Nats’ everyday centerfielder. The 26-year-old hit .270/.364/.489 in 206 plate appearances – easily the most opportunity he’s seen in the bigs. Thomas figures to see more chances in 2022, but what that means for Robles isn’t totally clear. Thomas could return to a fourth outfielder role, but since the Nats don’t currently have a left fielder, it’s difficult to speculate. Robles may have to play himself back into a regular role if he’s able.
As for left field, Yadiel Hernandez posted a solid 98 wRC+, though that number was dragged down by a 79 wRC+ in 55 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter. But he’s also 34-years-old and not probably more than a backup plan for Washington. Andrew Stevenson is the other name on the roster, and he’s proven best as a fourth or fifth option coming off the bench. There’s likely to be another outfielder to join this group once the lockout is resolved. Think Kyle Schwarber again, though probably not Kyle Schwarber again.
Another potential option that they explored in 2021 was using Josh Bell in left field. That’s not an ideal plan for a guy most people think is best-suited as a designated hitter. Bell could very well be dealt before the start of the season, but if not, he’s more likely to be the everyday first baseman and a break-in-case-of-emergency option in the grass.
At shortstop, Alcides Escobar made it back to the Majors for the first time in years, managed to play respectably, and earned a one-year, $1M deal to stay in Washington. He’s the presumptive starter heading into the year, but the financial commitment isn’t exactly starter’s money. They could surprise everyone by making a play for Carlos Correa, and they could afford it, but there’s been little indication that Rizzo is ready to make that kind of splash this offseason.
That said, there’s not necessarily a shortstop of the future anywhere in the minors until you get to Jackson Cluff or young Brady House. The latter is years away and could end up at third base anyhow. Luis Garcia may be the answer the Nats are ready to settle on. He was a top prospect who was rushed to the Majors in 2020, and there have been growing pains since. He’s a second baseman, but since Cesar Hernandez was brought in on a one-year, $4M deal, the keystone may be occupied. That could signal a desire for the 21-year-old to get more seasoning time in the minors, and it could mean that they are ready to let Garcia play short. Both options are somewhere in the playbook.
At the hot corner, time is running out for Carter Kieboom. The former top prospect is still just 24, but he’s put up successive seasons of 67 and 68 wRC+, and it’s not as if he’s been a stud with the glove. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of other options for the Nationals right now. They’ve been tied at times to Bryant, and it’s been suggested that they could be a landing spot for a salary dump like Mike Moustakas, but that’s all speculative for now.
For the first part of the offseason at least, the Nationals took a throw-as-many-options-at-the-wall-as-possible approach. They signed Dee Strange-Gordon, Maikel Franco, and Richard Urena to minor league contracts. They claimed fleet-footed Lucius Fox off waivers from the Orioles. They brought back long-time extra body Adrian Sanchez on a minor league deal. They snagged Andrew Young off waivers from the Diamondbacks. That’s a veteran group that looks very Nationals-y, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see one or a pair of them make the roster.
The real problem for the Nationals, however, is the pitching. The rotation is up there as the most uncertain group in all of baseball. Gray is still establishing himself, Strasburg is perennially injured, and Corbin was among the worst rotation arms in baseball last season. If he can figure out his slider, and Stras can get himself back on the mound, there’s some ceiling for this group, but it’s not a real likely potentiality.
Joe Ross (again) flashed some ability to be a mid-range starter, but he (again) finished the year on the injured list. Ross looks to have avoided Tommy John surgery for now, but the rest-and-rehab approach doesn’t always end well. Counting on Ross for quality innings is about as reckless as counting on Strasburg, Corbin, and Gray.
Josh Rogers and Paolo Espino would be in the 6-10 range for most organizations, but they are starters number four and five as of right now. Espino has been surprisingly productive for an older player without much Majors experience, and Rogers brings plenty of character, but not much of a track record. Erick Fedde and Austin Voth have both started without a whole lot of success, but they’re there in the bullpen just in case.
There are, however, some interesting arms on the horizon. Cade Cavalli is the biggest of the bunch, and he’s rising fast enough that he could surprise and make it to the Majors next year. The Nationals need Cavalli to stay healthy and develop into an impact arm. He looked the part in Double-A before getting touched up a bit in seven starts in Triple-A, where he should return to start 2022. Jackson Rutledge, Aldo Ramirez, Andry Lara, and Mason Denaburg are all names worth tracking, but they aren’t near enough to the Majors to make a difference.
For prospect arms capable of logging significant big league innings, look to Seth Romero, Joan Adon, Gerardo Carrillo, or maybe Evan Lee, all of whom are on the 40-man roster. Cole Henry is highly thought of within the organization, but he has just 8 starts in High-A and would have to be added to the 40-man. Carrillo was part of the Scherzer trade, and though he’s not a top prospect, an organization change always sets off alarms for a development jump. There’s no explicit evidence for that jump yet, and he has yet to make a stop in Triple-A.
On the whole, the Nats are beginning to put together an interesting collection of depth arms, but they don’t have the foundational pieces in the Majors. Not in the rotation, and not in the bullpen. They big adieu to Suero, a regular-use, one-pitch setup arm that’s been in the bullpen for years, and they DFA’ed Ryne Harper as well, another veteran option. Will Harris is the most proven arm remaining in the pen, but he hasn’t been healthy enough to prove it since yielding that long ball to Kendrick while with the Astros way back when.
Kyle Finnegan laid claim to the closer’s role, saving 11 games over 68 appearances with a 3.55 ERA/4.62 FIP. He’d be a useful arm in a first division pen, but not someone to build around. Tanner Rainey has the best stuff, but he took a step back last year and has struggled with consistency throughout his career. There’s a world in which Rainey goes big-time in ’22, but as with most of the Nats’ arms, Rainey’s stardom is more dream than reality right now.
Patrick Murphy was an interesting pickup worth watching as a guy who can go short or long, depending on need. The rest of the bullpen is very much a work in progress with Fedde, Voth, and late-developing Andres Machado highest on the pecking order.
In the first part of free agency, the Nationals weren’t very active, and it shows in the state of their roster. They need a left fielder and a DH/first baseman to split time with Bell if the DH arrives in the National League. Zimmerman could return still, and he’d fit nicely on a cheap contract as a right-handed complement for Bell, but he’s not an everyday player anymore.
They could stand upgrades at shortstop and third base, though it’s probably not worth displacing Garcia/Kieboom unless they get a significant star (and that seems unlikely this offseason). Besides, any money they have to spend should really be committed to pitching, though there’s not as much available on the free-agent market.
Long-term, Corbin has “just” three years left on his deal, so there’s light at the end of the tunnel. As of now, they’re still roughly $50M under their 2021 payroll, and even that $162M number was their lowest in years. Strasburg’s money is significant, and Boras willing, they’ll plunk down a king’s ransom for Soto at some point. But otherwise, their ledger is mostly empty. Unfortunately, so is their talent pool.
The Nationals are a slow-and-steady franchise, and with the most patient superstar in baseball now the centerpiece of their organization, they’re playing for the future. With just three years left of team control for Soto, that future is fast approaching. The Nats will strike to build a contender around Soto before he leaves. We know that much. We just don’t know the when or the how. To crack those codes, all we need is patience.