November 28, 2020

Nats leave Winter Meetings much as they entered

The Washington Nationals had a pretty quiet Winter Meetings by all accounts, save for losing a couple of Rule 5 picks.  They watched some of the biggest names in the market go elsewhere, including to a division rival trying desperately to generate enough interest in their team to fill their new stadium, while they sat pat (for now) in their pursuit of a center fielder (one preferably who can hit leadoff), a dependable veteran starter, and bench help.

The biggest news of the meetings was Albert Pujols bolting the National League for the greener ($$$) pastures of Anaheim.  Los Angeles also added C.J. Wilson on a relatively modest five-year, $77.5 million deal.  Those deals overshadowed the Miami Marlins’ bid for respectability earlier in the week with the signing of SS Jose Reyes (six years, $106 million) and LHP Mark Buerhle (four years, $58 million).   The only other deal with repercussions to the Nats was Laynce Nix moving up U.S. 95 to Philly on a two-year, $2.5 million deal.

Obviously, the Nats had been mentioned as “in” on Wilson and Buerhle, two of the three acknowledged top pitchers on the market, along with 34-year old Roy Oswalt.  Wilson or Buerhle brought the extra added benefit of throwing left-handed and either seemed like a good fit in the Nats rotation, with right-handers Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Chien-Ming Wang already pencilled in.  If the Nats were still interested in acquiring a lefty via free agency, the oft-injured Erik Bedard and Jeff Francis are still on the market, though both are a considerable drop-off from the Wilson/Buerhle tandem, and frankly may not be any better than players they already have under contract.

Mike Rizzo has to be concerned about the moves the Marlins have made, adding an All-Star caliber shortstop and top lefty pitcher to an already formidable array of talent moving into their state-of-the-art retractable roof stadium.  As if the Nats needed any more competition to move up the ranks of the N.L. East, the Marlins are definitely throwing their hat into the ring to get top-of-the-division competitive in a hurry. 

The Marlins can now boast a top-heavy rotation of Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Buerhle, with Heath Bell (three years, $27 million) closing games for them.   It remains to be seen if new skipper Ozzie Guillen can massage Hanley Ramirez’ ego enough to convince him to play third (or center field), but the Marlins are much more dangerous now than they were this time last week.

So where does that leave the Nationals?

Well, several top-of-the-marquee free agents remain, such as Prince Fielder, Jimmy Rollins, Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Beltran.  Any could be an intriguing fit for the Nats, depending on the price.  One could envision a scenario where Rizzo could make a play for any of these players.  Fielder would certainly fill that middle-of-the-order bat Rizzo covets, but his defense and fitness level are limiting factors when talking about a long-term contract.  Rollins would be an upgrade over Desmond at short, but isn’t a high-OBP guy you’d like to see at the top of the order. 

Ramirez’ combo of offense and defense make him very attractive, but he’s a natural third baseman and if the Nats pursued he’d probably be asked to move to first, limiting his value.  And Beltran’s days of playing center are over, so if the Nats brought him in it would be to play right field, with Werth moving over to center, something he may very well do anyway.

The pitching situation is a little more dicey.  After Oswalt (and his bad back), the list drops off precipitously.  Edwin Jackson (a player linked to the Nats previously), Javier Vazquez and Hiroki Kuroda are the next best available.  But neither Vazquez nor Kuroda want to pitch anywhere but where they were last season, so they probably aren’t realistic options.  No, if the Nats are going to upgrade their No. 3 pitcher spot, it will most likely come via trade.  They’ve been mentioned in the Gio Gonzalez sweepstakes, as have a number of teams, and the return for Gonzalez will be steep.

Japanese sensation Yu Darvish is also out there, but he could cost some $30 million just to get the right to negoitate with him.

The Nationals are in a precarious situation as the free agent market starts to settle.  The problem is that the Nats really don’t know what they need, and probably won’t until spring training.  They hope that 1B Adam LaRoche is healthy and available to play full-time right from the get-go, but the honest truth is that no one knows how strong his left shoulder is until he faces live pitching.  He hads extensive surgery and the recovery time can he lengthy (ask Jesus Flores).  If LaRoche can’t go — and with Chris Marrero out an undetermined time with a torn hamstring — that will require Michael Morse moving back to first base, freeing up an outfield spot. 

The Nats kind of have an injury-prompted game of musical chairs going on right now, and it’s tough for Rizzo to make decisions for his team for next year without really knowing where the needs are.  But one thing is certain.  The Nats desperately need a table-setter at the top of the order.  As much as they wanted and hoped Ian Desmond would be that player, the more at bats he gets the more it shows he’s more of a bottom-of-the-order slasher; a middle infielder with decent pop and good speed, but not enough plate discipline to be a catalyst. 

Is a No. 3 pitcher and lead-off hitter out there for Rizzo, either via free agency or trade?  Christmas is rapidly approaching, and most top free agents like to know where they are playing before the holidays.  Can Rizzo work some holiday magic for the Nats this year?

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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