As a team that finished 55-107 in 2022 and faces an uncertain ownership picture, the Nationals are not expected to be shopping for the big ticket free agents this winter, but general manager Mike Rizzo has said he will remain active in looking to upgrade the roster. Per Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post, Rizzo specifically mentioned the rotation, as well as first, third and the corner outfield spots as positions he could look to add in.
The rotation is no surprise, given the Nats ranked 29th in the majors in starting pitcher ERA last season. Given the team is still in the midst of a rebuild, it’s more likely they seek out one or two buy-low veterans to stabilize the rotation than make any sort of splashy move. For starters, a few of the rotations spots are already sewn up. Veteran Patrick Corbin has struggled mightily of late, posting 5.82 and 6.31 ERAs the past two years but he’s owed $24.4MM next season and then $35.4MM in 2024. Then there’s Stephen Strasburg, who’s owed $140MM over the next four seasons but has thrown just 31 1/3 innings over the past three seasons as he battles his way back from a mountain of injury problems. It’s possible there’s a bad contract swap to be done, but it’s more likely the Nationals try and get Strasburg healthy and see if they can both rebuild their value in 2023.
Beyond those two, the team may look to fill the final three spots with youngsters Josiah Gray, Cade Cavalli and MacKenzie Gore, but that poses plenty of questions itself. Gray gave up 38 home runs across 148 2/3 innings in his rookie year after coming across from the Dodgers in the Max Scherzer deal. Cavalli dealt with shoulder problems and Gore never pitched for the team after arriving in the Juan Soto deal due to elbow inflammation. All three have plenty of promise and will get a lot of opportunities in 2023, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt for the Nats to solidify things a little by adding a veteran pitcher or two.
On the position player side of things, Keibert Ruiz, CJ Abrams, Luis Garcia and Lane Thomas form a promising young core up the middle, so it’s not surprising that it’s the edges that Rizzo is looking to upgrade there.
In the infield, Carter Kieboom will look to bounce back from Tommy John surgery and stake a claim to be the team’s long term third baseman. Kieboom hasn’t hit much in the big leagues, posting wRC+s of 18, 68 and 69 in his three seasons. The Nats rebuild affords him a bit more time to find his feet, and Rizzo’s already stated he’ll have spring training to compete for the position. Over at first, the team will surely give 30-year-old rookie Joey Meneses a chance to show his surprise 2022 season was no fluke. He hit .324/.367./.563 with 13 home runs in 240 plate appearances, and while that sample size is still small, there’s no real reason why Washington wouldn’t give him plenty of looks in 2023.
Washington does have Luke Voit under control for 2023 as well, and it’s possible they use him and Meneses as their first base/DH split. However, Voit is due an arbitration salary of $8.2MM per MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz’ predictions, and given he was right around league average last year (102 wRC+), the Nats may opt to non-tender him and look for a cheaper alternative. Speculatively speaking, perhaps a low-cost bounce back candidate such as Miguel Sano or Jesus Aguilar could appeal.
Rizzo also mentioned the corner outfield spots as possible places to add. Thomas spent most of last year in right field with Victor Robles manning center. Robles is the superior defender and Thomas is the better hitter, so there’s every chance that alignment remains heading into 2023. Both are projected to make modest salaries in arbitration ($2.1MM for Thomas, $2.5MM for Robles), but given Robles’ struggles at the plate there’s a chance they trade or non-tender him and let Thomas take over in center, where he’s still more than adequate. Waiver claim Alex Call and veteran Yadiel Hernandez hit well enough this season to suggest they’ll be back, and perhaps Washington will look to platoon them in left.
Considering all of that, there’s certainly room for the Nationals to add another outfielder to the mix, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Call or Hernandez relegated to a bench spot. The Nats added Nelson Cruz on a $15MM deal last winter when they were a ways off contention, and while that particular move didn’t pay off, it shows they’re willing to commit a bit of salary to players in the hope of them turning into something come the trade deadline. Again, speculatively, that could put the likes of Tommy Pham, Andrew McCutchen and Corey Dickerson on their radar, particularly if they’re still available later in the off-season.
Any ownership change will certainly shape most of the conversation of how much Rizzo can get done in free agency though. All he could offer on the matter is they’ve been told to continue “business as usual”.
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