September 21, 2019

After disappointment, where do Nats go from here?

So, where do they go from here?

The past season for the Washington Nationals couldn’t have been more disappointing. Injuries led to rust, which led to collapse, which led to overcompensation, which led to dysfunction, which ultimately led to clearing house.

Before next season starts, the Nats have a veritable laundry list of things to accomplish (in order of severity):

  • Hire a manager and entire coaching staff
  • Trade Jonathan Papelbon and/or Drew Storen
  • Replace Casey Janssen (and most likely Matt Thornton) in a complete retooling of the bullpen
  • Finally, once and for all, decide which position Anthony Rendon will play (here’s a vote for third) and leave him alone
  • Evaluate Yunel Escobar’s defensive play and decide if the empty batting average is a worthwhile trade-off; if not, find a second baseman (assuming Trea Turner is your opening day shortstop)
  • Sign a credible right-handed hitting LF/1B to go along with Clint Robinson in the eventuality that Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman spend D.L. time
  • Sign a starter?

See, they’re not that far off from putting together a contending team. Essentially, the only givens for next season are the 1-2-3 on the pitching staff, Bryce Harper and Michael Taylor.

In all seriousness, that’s a pretty long list of things for a team that was prohibitive World Series favorite. Let’s take them one by one.

MANAGER AND STAFF

Let’s leave the past in the past and just look forward, shall we? GM Mike Rizzo said a lot of things about his search for the next Nats manager. He specifically mentioned experience and communications skills as strong preferences for a qualified skipper. He also said the net would be cast wider with more candidates than the last time, which might have been part of the problem.

But we digress.

Everyone and his brother has a list of potential candidates, and it’s likely Randy Knorr and Billy Gardner Jr (Syracuse) will get courtesy interviews. But from here, the list starts with Bud Black. He’s experienced, was a pitching coach in addition to a long-time manager, was a player, and is heralded for doing more with what he was given in San Diego.

On top of everything, he lives in the area so he’s seen first-hand the carnage this season and probably has very specific ideas on how and what to change.

One candidate they probably should avoid: Cal Ripken Jr. Look, I grew up an Orioles fan and highly respect the legend, but the Nats at this point should probably pass on the ex-players with no previous managerial experience. Plus, Ripken makes a LOT of money in all his business endeavors and he’d require a king’s ransom to take the Nats bench job.

CLOSER CONUNDRUM

Papelbon or Storen? Storen or Papelbon? Both? Neither? The Nats have a HUGE decision about who to give the ball to in the ninth inning next season. Storen is due a huge raise in arbitration. Papelbon is owed $11 million next year. If the Nats decide they trust neither for various reasons, they would then need to spend even MORE money for a closer from the outside, as they have no serious internal candidates.

My money is on the team trading Papelbon and trying to rehabilitate Storen, physically from his broken thumb — and emotionally from his broken heart getting demoted twice in three years. They just realistically can’t throw even more money out the window chasing another closer. Can they?

As for the rest of the pen, Blake Treinen, Felipe Rivero and a hopefully healthy Craig Stammen are locks to return. Past that, who knows? Aaron Barrett, Erik Davis, Sammy Solis, Rafael Martin, Matt Grace — they all have big question marks. Do they shift A.J. Cole to the pen? Will Tanner Roark start or stay in the pen? Literally, nothing but questions.

INFIELD GROUNDERS

Rizzo said late in the season that Rendon would be the Nats third baseman going forward. That’s good news for everyone. Escobar was one of the worst defensive players in the league, completely negating whatever value his empty batting average brought. The Nats might think Escobar can handle second base enough with Danny Espinosa as a defensive replacement.

What he’s not capable of is playing shortstop at a Major League level, so either Trea Turner is ready to go opening day, or they’ll be forced to go with Espinosa at short and Escobar’s lead glove at second. You can handle a Turner/Escobar situation with Espinosa as defensive replacement, but Espi starting would be sub-optimal for a lot of reasons.

BACKUP CORNERS

Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman both spent more time on the D.L. this season. It’s an annual occurance. Injury is a skill like any other — once you have it, you don’t lose it. And it certainly won’t get any better as they continue to get older. Werth’s brittle wrist will continue to sap his power, limiting him to (hopefully) an on-base machine, but his back and legs make just about every fly ball to left an adventure.

Zimmerman is past the broken-bone stage of his injuries and is now onto the “old man” injuries. Plantar fasciitis has been a career killer to some, and the strained oblique that ended his season could be chronic as well. At his end-of-season exit interview, he vowed to report to camp lighter and more flexible. Yoga, anyone?

The Nats fortunes are tied to these guys though, so they need to do whatever they can to keep them on the field. Robinson was a godsend this season, and hopefully he can recapture the magic he carried in all those bats he hoards. But if/when injury strikes, they’ll need more than just Robinson to carry the load. A player like Brandon Moss (but not THE Brandon Moss) who has right-handed pop and can play the corner outfield slots and first base would help. And no, don’t consider Tyler Moore.

STARTING PROBLEM

For all the accolades the Nats got for their pitching staff heading into the 2015 season, only Max Scherzer and Jordan Zimmermann lived up to the billing over the entire course of the season, but JZ is moving to greener pastures. Stephen Strasburg was one of the two or three best pitchers in the game after returning from the D.L. the second time, and as he enters his free agent year he’ll be primed for a great year, all health caveats endorsed. And Gio is Gio.

After that? Joe Ross had a terrific rookie year and figures to slot into the No. 4 or 5 spot, and holdover Tanner Roark and youngster A.J. Cole will probably get a look at the other, with Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Erick Fedde nipping at their heels.

But should a contending team have those questions at the back of the rotation? Perhaps Rizzo will scour the market for a veteran that can hold that fifth spot for a year or two until either Strasburg leaves via free agency or Giolito or one of the others can slide in.

All of these questions will linger through the fall, the winter meetings, and then past the holidays into spring training. For a team that was a consensus World Series pick, it promises to be an offseason of transition — and perhaps turmoil and overhaul.

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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