Nationals have much to do as free agency begins

This year, there was no such juggling. This past season, set against the novel coronavirus pandemic, was a springboard to change for ...

This year, there was no such juggling.

This past season, set against the novel coronavirus pandemic, was a springboard to change for the Nationals. Some of it, like the rash of free agents, was expected. Other elements, like the front-office cuts, made last week tough inside the scouting department, minor league operations and research and development team. And next comes free agency and a promise of more shifting. Washington finished 26-34, its first losing record since 2011. In September, as that record took shape, Rizzo vowed to stick with his approach of mixing a big group of proven veterans with a growing young core.

“Having a good hybrid of exciting young players and experienced veterans was our recipe for success from 2012 to 2019, and we’ll take steps into sticking with our philosophy,” Rizzo said in his final news conference of the season. “But I think we have to get a roster that can handle the rigors of a 162-game season and then an extra month of playing.”

Once the Nationals add Joe Ross back, and activate Stephen Strasburg, Starlin Castro and Seth Romero off the 60-day injured list, their 40-man roster will be at 30 players. That includes 10 starters, eight relievers, two catchers, six infielders and four outfielders. The obvious holes are a back-of-the-rotation starter, a second catcher and a middle-of-the-order bat, which could come at first base or one of the corner outfield spots. It should be noted that the calculus all changes if Rizzo springs into discussions for star catcher J.T. Realmuto.

But corner outfield is arguably the deepest position in this free agent class. George Springer, Michael Brantley, Marcell Ozuna, Joc Pederson and Nick Markakis are each on the open market. Springer and Ozuna would probably demand four-plus years and high salaries. Brantley, a metronome of production, is 33 years old and could look for a shorter deal. Pederson, a left-handed slugger from the Los Angeles Dodgers, should be the cheapest of the top tier.

This much is clear for the Nationals: Juan Soto needs a partner in the meat of their lineup. In 2019, that was Anthony Rendon. In 2020, once Rendon departed for the Los Angeles Angels, it was a mix of Asdrúbal Cabrera, Howie Kendrick and Castro. Cabrera’s production took a nosedive after a few weeks of the 60-game schedule. Kendrick was in and out of the lineup with hamstring issues. And Castro — who, unlike Kendrick and Cabrera, will definitely return next year — broke his wrist in August and appeared in just 16 games.

“It’s really different to have Howie Kendrick behind me,” said Soto in late September. “At the beginning of the year, I didn’t know how different it is. My hitting coach would tell me: ‘Hey, you need Howie right there behind you.’ I didn’t expect that. I was like: ‘They’re going to still pitch to me.’ And then I realized they walked me intentionally a lot of times. And then I said: ‘All right, I need somebody behind me.’”

Soto was intentionally walked 12 times, the most in baseball. He also finished with 13 homers, led all hitters in on-base-plus-slugging percentage, on-base percentage and won the NL batting title. The Nationals shifted him to right field toward the end of the season, a spot Soto appeared more comfortable in than left. Manager Dave Martinez then quipped that they were maybe testing Soto in hopes of soon adding a free agent left fielder.

The Nationals have to tap the first base market either way. Their four first baseman in 2020 — Kendrick, Cabrera, Ryan Zimmerman and Eric Thames — are all free agents now. And even if they bring back Kendrick or Zimmerman, or both, they typically like to have a left-handed power bat there. Switch-hitter Justin Smoak is coming off a rough 2020 with the Milwaukee Brewers, meaning he could be a low-cost acquisition. Jake Lamb, a left-handed hitter, can play first and third. Derek Dietrich, Brad Miller, Carlos Santana (switch-hitter), Neil Walker (switch-hitter), Daniel Murphy, Cabrera and Thames are all available, though can only do so much to fill an offensive void.

With a strong bat and starter at the top of their list, the Nationals have a few boxes already checked. They signed utility man Josh Harrison to a one-year, $1 million deal in October. And, much more importantly, their bullpen is in pretty good shape. They could use a lefty reliever and another proven arm. But with Tanner Rainey, Will Harris, Daniel Hudson and Kyle Finnegan returning, they can focus on padding their bullpen instead of building one.

That leaves a starter to complement Max Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin in the rotation. For the last two years, Aníbal Sánchez did so on a two-year, $19 million contract. A replacement could come in a similar form — a reliable veteran toward the end of his career. Charlie Morton and J.A. Happ fit that profile. Marcus Stroman, Jake Odorizzi, Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman and Rick Porcello are younger options, among others, though have fought a mix of injuries or inconsistency in recent years.

Rizzo, on the clock starting Monday, has a lot to sift through.

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Newsrust: Nationals have much to do as free agency begins
Nationals have much to do as free agency begins
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