After the Nationals again failed to advance to the World Series, losing out to the Cubs in the NLDS, change came down swiftly in Washington, with the announcement that Dusty Baker was out and, as was just recently announced, Dave Martinez is in. Joe Girardi, John Farrell, and Dusty Baker: all three managers who saw their teams to the postseason this year, and all three looking for a job just a few weeks later. It’s not just the winters that are harsh in the Northeast.
Even with its managerial vacancy settled, Washington heads into the 2018 season as a club with a bit of an identity crisis. Stalwart Jayson Werth is a free agent at the ripe old age of 38 (38 seems so much older than I thought he was! Why did I think he was so young? Is it the spelling of “Jayson”?) and won’t be a Washington National for the first time in almost a decade, if he’s playing baseball at all. This shouldn’t impact the Nationals outfield too harshly, though, as they expect Adam Eaton back from injury, will have a suddenly-breakout Michael “Fuckin’” A. Taylor patrolling center field, and are guaranteed at least one more year of Bryce Harper doing Bryce Harper things. Add to that 20-year-old superprospect Victor Robles, who got his first taste of MLB action this past year, and the outfield is looking pretty set.
Another area where the Nationals seem solid is in their starting pitching, which makes them one of approximately three clubs that can go into the offseason with the SP dial turned way down to a comforting two or three. If injured starter Joe Ross doesn’t come back, they’ll need another backend starter, but the luxury of a Scherzer-Strasberg-Gio Gonzales 1-2-3, plus a still-useful Tanner Roark, allows them some flexibility in discovering who that might be. It probably won’t be journeyman Edwin Jackson again, and prospect Eric Fedde doesn’t look quite ready for prime time. A.J. Cole is the only other pitcher who got a significant number of starts this year (8), but the 25-year-old’s 3.81 ERA hides an ugly 5.20 FIP, and his K-BB ratio looked pretty ugly.
The Nationals would probably love to pick up a backend FA pitcher on the market, but the problem is that their solid 1-2-3 punch of pitchers comes with a pretty hefty price tag. There’s almost no scenario where the Nationals aren’t over the luxury tax again this year; their 1-2-3 alone will cost 52.47 million this year, and that’s before you add in the position players. 33-year-old Ryan Zimmerman’s salary will set them back 14 million, and Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper have backloaded deals that will see each of them see an increase of 5 and 8 million dollars, respectively, in their last years before free agency (for a total of 38.67 million, between the two of them). The team will also be headed for arbitration with several key players, including Anthony Rendon, Michael A. Taylor, and Tanner Roark. This is a lot of money to shell out on a team that seemingly sees an early exit from the postseason each year. Complicating the picture is the fact that the Nationals entered this year with Keith Law’s 22nd-ranked farm system in baseball (set back by the Adam Eaton deal, and that was before the deal with Oakland for Doolittle and Madson).
Like the rest of the team, the infield seems pretty set for the Nationals, with Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner providing a ton of value to balance out the more expensive parts of the infield in Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman. The Nationals got an outstanding combined 17.5 fWAR from their infielders, plus a solid 1.0 fWAR from their utilityman Wilmer Difo. Even Adam Lind, who will probably not be paid five million dollars by the Nationals and will instead become a free agent, chipped in 0.9 in limited action. Again, though, this is an expensive infield, with only Trea Turner earning less than multi-millions. If Washington falls out of things for some reason—injury or dumb luck or the curse of the Expos—they’ll have one of the most entertaining fire sales we’ve ever seen at the trade deadline, with Harper, Zimmerman, and Murphy all candidates to be moved.
Thanks to the contributions of the first three starters, the Nationals had the third-best pitching staff in baseball by fWAR. However, the Nationals bullpen was worth 2.5 fWAR over 2017, which ranks 17th in the league and is over a full win less than what the Mariners’ bullpen was worth. If the Nationals want to upgrade their pitching staff, either for a back-end starter or to further fortify a bullpen that was league-worst two months into the season last year, they’ll have to either commit to going fully nuclear with payroll or find a way to shift some of their wins from position players over to the bullpen. Maybe the Nationals feel confident that a full year of Doolittle and Madson will set up their bullpen for more success as the two have time to settle into Washington’s system, and will stand pat this off-season. The team certainly looks good on paper (and as it should, because a lot of paper was spent to get the team looking that good).
However, with Baker’s contract not being renewed, one gets the sense that patience is wearing thin in our nation’s capital. The Mariners should take advantage of that lack of patience by engaging the Nationals in trade talks for one of Seattle’s various bullpen pieces in exchange for someone out of Washington’s system. I like Jose Marmolejos, a 24-year-old first base prospect with strong contact skills who can also play a little outfield, who Fangraphs listed as the 19th-best prospect in Washington’s system (he’s moved up since as the system absorbed another hit in the Madson/Doolittle deal—Sheldon Neuse is currently tearing up the AFL for the A’s). Trading with the Nationals would be tricky, as they’re fairly well hamstrung by big contracts and have been depleting their farm system as they strive to win now, but that same imperative might make them willing to trade with a re-tooling Mariners team to get that elusive last piece that will translate a great team on paper to a great postseason team.