Offseason In Review: Washington Nationals

After back-to-back last-place finishes, the Nationals’ headline additions this winter consisted a 41-year-old designated hitter and a host of post-prime retreads from their 2019 title team.

Major League Signings

  • Nelson Cruz, DH: one year, $15MM, mutual option for 2023
  • Cesar Hernandez, 2B, one year, $4MM
  • Sean Doolittle, RP: one year, $1.5MM
  • Ehire Adrianza, IF/OF: one year, $1.5MM
  • Steve Cishek, RP: one year, $1.75MM
  • Maikel Franco, 3B: one year, $1.25MM
  • Dee Strange-Gordon, IF/OF: one year, $800K

2022 spend: $25.8MM
Total spend: $25.8MM

Options Exercised

Trades and Claims

Notable Minor League Signings

  • Gerardo Parra, Tyler Clippard, Adrian Sanchez, Jefry RodriguezAndrew Young, Richard Urena, Victor Arano, Jordan Weems, Carl Edwards Jr., Aaron Sanchez, Erasmo Ramirez, Chris Herrmann, Jace Fry, Luis Avilan


Notable Losses

The Nationals loaded up on minor league contracts and familiar faces this winter. They gave out a few Major League contracts, but none that guaranteed a second year. With Juan Soto in the middle of their lineup, the possibility of overachieving into a playoff spot can’t be ruled out, but the Nats chose the prudent path rather than risk more of their future payroll on a present-day fix. They will take another year of Soto’s prime to hold the line and wait to make their next big strike.

The Nationals’ most significant pre-lockout movement was their attempt to sign Soto to a long-term deal. They reportedly offered their young star a 13-year, $350MM extension, which he rejected. That’s not a wholly unreasonable starting place, though there is clearly more work to do on that front.

To that point, much of their work in the early days of the offseason centered on hiring people to work in the front office. They’re slightly more prepared to make the moves they need after doing the work to overhaul their minor league and organizational staff. After losing a number of analysts, the Nats made a number of additions to fill out their development and analyst teams as well.

Complicating matters now is the recent report that the current ownership group might consider selling the franchise. A potential sale would cloud an already difficult extension task for the Nationals and Soto, and there’s no telling how willing a new ownership group would be to spend at the elevated levels that the Lerners have over the years. Any owner would surely attempt to lock down Soto, but who knows how amenable Soto himself would be to jumping immediately into a long-term arrangement with a new owner. Then again, Soto’s younger brother has a verbal agreement to sign with the Nats, as reported by Jesse Doughtery of the Washington Post, which could indicate that Soto is indeed perfectly content with his Nationals experience.

Other than the Soto talks and a minor league deal or two, it was a very quiet pre-lockout period for Washington. After the lockout, they got to work on filling out the short-term roster. They began with a splashy signing, adding Nelson Cruz, one of the most popular and well-respected players in the game. It was a surprising player for the Nationals to key on, no less so in hindsight, seeing as he was the only big-ticket acquisition of the offseason.

The deal itself is a bargain, however, simply for getting a player of Cruz’s standing without a long-term commitment. The contract breaks down as a $12MM salary for 2022 with a $16MM mutual option for 2023. Mutual options are rarely exercised, however, making the $3MM buyout the more likely course. There has been no mention of no-trade protection for Cruz, which is notable because as the club falls out of contention, Cruz will surely be one of the first names mentioned as a trade target. Frankly, at 41, it’s just as likely that Cruz ends up benefiting the team more as a trade asset than as an on-field contributor.

Nonetheless, he ought to provide some lineup protection for Soto. Cruz isn’t likely to see much time in the field, and his presence will largely take away the designated hitter spot as an option for resting Soto and first baseman Josh Bell. If there’s a downside to rostering Cruz, it’s that the narrow range of his utility also limits the malleability of the roster on the whole. Roster flexibility is a means to an end, of course, and if the man they call “Boomstick” can again slug 30 home runs with a 122 wRC+ (as he did last season), there should be no complaining about the fact that he can’t be double-switched into the infield, or what have you, especially with a DH now in the National League.

Elsewhere on offense, the Nationals gave out one-year deals to infielders like they were after-dinner mints. They brought in Dee Strange-Gordon and Maikel Franco, who both made the team. They brought back Alcides Escobar after a surprisingly successful 75-game stint in 2021. At 34-years-old and three years removed from the bigs, Escobar posted a 100 wRC+ and 1.7 fWAR over 349 plate appearances. Washington rewarded that solid effort with a cool $1MM to be their everyday shortstop. The price point and expectation for Escobar says a lot about where the Nationals are as a franchise heading into 2022.

Then they brought in Ehire Adrianza for $1.5MM. Adrianza will offset some of the lack of flexibility that Cruz forces onto the roster, as the former Brave can play just about anywhere on the diamond. Their big “get” for the infield was Cesar Hernandez, a defensive stalwart on the wrong side of 30 brought in for one season and $4MM. The Nationals know Hernandez well from his many years in Philadelphia.

In some ways, he’s a typical Nats player: a sure-handed veteran with not enough power and no single skill that wows, but he has a professional composure and a reliability to his game that serves somewhat ironically as a double-edged sword. He’s put up between 1.7 and 2.2 fWAR in each of the last four seasons, and if he does that again for the Nats, who can complain?

None of these deals — Hernandez, Adrianza, Strange-Gordon, Franco, Escobar — carry any risk whatsoever, but there’s not much upside to dream on either. Even the prospect returns are going to be minimal, should they play well enough to merit flipping at the deadline. Beyond simply making sure there was a name on every locker, the approach here is hard to see clearly. Basically, they’re in wait-and-see mode, a judicious, even somewhat stodgy path forward for a franchise that’s shown a willingness to spend when contention was in the offing.

What’s particularly interesting about this bevy of signings is that most of the vets mentioned above play either second base or third, where the Nats ostensibly roster a pair of top prospects in Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia. The sheen may have worn off, but the pair still represent two of Washington’s higher-ceiling players.

So for a franchise desperate for young talent, why block the path to playing time for two of the prospects they do have? The optimistic viewpoint is that these vets allow the Nats to bring Kieboom and Garcia along at the pace their play dictates, thereby maximizing their potential development. The pessimistic viewpoint will see the roster and notice a host of veterans taking at-bats that could be used to develop Kieboom and Garcia.

Kieboom suffered a UCL sprain during camp and somewhat forced their hand, as he’s now on the 60-day injured list with an uncertain timeline to return. In theory, he should be able to begin baseball activities within the next couple of weeks, but he’ll certainly spend time in the minors upon his return to health. Even after the injury, however, Garcia remains in Triple-A, so the Nats are clearly more comfortable giving the 21-year-old time to chart his own course back to the Majors.

The Nats are largely playing an infield of Franco, Escobar, Hernandez, and Bell so far in 2022, a year in which they have one of the best players on the planet patrolling right field. As they try to convince Soto to play out his career in Washington, it’s fair to wonder if the current state of the roster is doing enough to help their cause. Granted, it takes time to build a contender, and the Nationals might have a year or two to play with since they brought Soto up into a title-contending (and title winning) environment. Or maybe he looks at the infield less than two weeks into the season and wonders, as others might, why this roster was the best plan they came up with this winter.

The brunt of the Nats’ offseason efforts focused on building the bullpen. They started by going through the old Rolodex, reconnecting with former Nats’ closer and fav favorite Sean Doolittle. New face Steve Cishek signed on and instantly became the most reliable arm available to manager Dave Martinez. Tyler Clippard, another former Nat, also signed on a minor league deal, but he did not make the team out of camp. Same for Jefry Rodriguez and a host of others brought in on minor league deals. The upper levels of the Nats’ system are weak enough that many of their minor league signings from the winter were simply meant to fill out their Triple-A squad.

Not so for Anibal Sanchez, however. Sanchez and La Mariposa, his butterfly change, made the rotation out of spring training. The 38-year-old making the rotation is a feel-good story for the opportunity it grants the fanbase to relive the glory of the 2019 title team, but it’s also a telltale sign of the team’s greatest weakness. Starting pitching has long been where the organization hangs its hat, but the old consistency of a rotation anchored by Max Scherzer is gone. Or rather, it’s in New York.

As things stand today, however, Sanchez has yet to make his 2022 debut because of a nerve impingement. In fact, three-fifths of their 2019 World-Series-winning rotation is currently on the injured list (Sanchez, Stephen Strasburg, Joe Ross). Scherzer, as mentioned above, is in New York, and Patrick Corbin, the last member of that unit, is the erstwhile “ace” of the 2022 crew. That’s worth mentioning since Corbin has picked up more-or-less where he left off last year, easily the worst of his 11-year career.

Point being, the Nationals, a franchise long-obsessed with starting pitching, made the somewhat curious decision to stand pat where their starters were concerned, save for bringing back Sanchez. Aaron Sanchez was a somewhat intriguing addition on a minor league deal, but like Clippard, he did not make the team out of camp. He’s on the active roster as of today, but regardless, the Nationals have one of the weaker starting pitching units in baseball, and it’s hard to see that as anything but a choice on their part.

Top prospect Cade Cavalli was close to making the team, so maybe the Nats were simply content to give this year over to the younger arms in the organization. Josiah Gray and Joan Adon are in the rotation now, and how quickly they develop could very well be the difference between these Nationals sniffing playoff contention or cascading to a third consecutive last place finish.

After years of contending, the Nationals had to reset. The coffers were empty. They might have just enough time to pull it off, too. With Soto still three years from free agency, they can probably throw away a season and still make enough of an effort to woo him before he hits free agency — but it’s a gamble. Without more of a farm system, however, they did not have much of a choice. Whatever the impetus, the organization made modest gains this winter with an eye on the more distant future.

If the Lerners end up making an earnest effort to find a buyer, the strategy comes into clearer focus. Otherwise, they can’t look too far into the future because of Soto. Still, over the winter at least, they seemed to focus beyond 2022. If there is a benefit to largely standing pat for a winter, it’s that by avoiding financial commitments beyond this season, they can, now, afford to start thinking ahead to 2023 and beyond. Maybe that was the plan all along, but we don’t know for sure until next winter.

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