The 2021 Major League Baseball season is now over, with the Atlanta Braves winning their first World Series title in over 20 years. The focus of the baseball world turns to the impending offseason, one which will be filled with intrigue around big-name free agents and trade prospects including Max Scherzer, Carlos Correa, Ketel Marte, and Corey Seager. This offseason is critical for the Washington Nationals, who underperformed more than any other team in baseball this season. The team faces a critical juncture this winter. While it is highly unlikely that the Nationals will be a competitive team in the 2022 season, many issues with the team’s future direction must be addressed. Here are the questions that Mike Rizzo and the Nationals’ front office must answer this offseason in order to set the Nationals up for success in the very near future.
*Note* – In August, I wrote a piece about what the Nationals would need to do this offseason should they plan to contend in 2022. If you’re feeling optimistic about next year, check that out here.
How will the Nationals improve their starting rotation?
The Nationals had an extremely disappointing season last year largely due to underperformance, injuries, and departures from their core in the rotation. Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross were limited by shoulder problems, Patrick Corbin had one of the worst years from a Nationals starting pitcher in recent memory, and of course, Scherzer was shipped from Washington to the Dodgers at the trade deadline. The Nats never had a true “ace” after Scherzer left, and every game was started by someone who could not be trusted to pitch more than four or five decent innings.
In 2022, three starters are all but guaranteed to be in the Nats’ rotation next year, assuming they are healthy: Corbin, Strasburg, and Josiah Gray, who came over in the Scherzer trade. All three arms are facing serious questions: Corbin must bounce back from a truly awful 2021, Gray must show progress following a rookie season where he showed just flashes of excellence, and Nats fans are curious to see if Strasburg is able to recover his top-of-the-line form following thoracic outlet syndrome.
The last two spots in the rotation are up for grabs. Erick Fedde will be in the conversation for the fourth or fifth starter role again, but Fedde did not impress in a year where he was given every opportunity to break out. Paolo Espino, in a twist of fate nobody saw coming, was the Nationals’ most reliable starter, but chances are Espino ends up in the bullpen as a long reliever with such a weak projected starting rotation. Other in-house candidates for the rotation include Josh Rogers, who impressed in September but has a small sample size of success, Joan Adon, who made his major league debut on the final game of the season and did an excellent job shutting down a talented Red Sox lineup, and top prospect Cade Cavalli, who has incredible promise for the future but struggled mightily in a short stint at AAA Rochester at the end of last season.
If the Nats do look outside the organization for a starting pitcher, chances are it will look similar to the Jon Lester signing last year: a veteran who the Nats would sign to a one-year, “prove it” contract. Jon Gray, Steven Matz, and Andrew Heaney would all make sense, considering they would not command too large of a payday. Considering that the Nats have lots of young, in-house options for starting pitching, I would personally be surprised if the Nats went after one of these three, but it is definitely in the realm of possibility. If he puts up a strong Spring Training, Rogers should be a near-lock for the rotation, considering that he is a lefty. Adon and Cavalli should start the year in AAA, meaning that the final rotation spot will likely be Fedde’s.
Of course, the wild card in this year’s free agent pitching class is Max Scherzer, the former National whose contract expired after the season ended. The Dodgers will make an effort to re-sign their ace, but many teams will be in the running to sign Scherzer. Max may want to return to his former ballclub, but considering his age, Scherzer likely wants one final shot at another World Series championship. He will be linked to the Dodgers, Angels, Padres, Giants, and his hometown Cardinals, so I see it as unlikely that Scherzer comes back to Washington.
What do the Nats do to improve their historically bad bullpen?
You can make up for bad starting pitching with an excellent bullpen. Let’s just say that the Nats bullpen was…less than excellent.
There were bright spots this year at the back end of the ‘pen. Kyle Finnegan had a solid sophomore season, responding exceptionally well to unexpectedly being thrust into the closer role after the trade deadline. After a downright terrible start to the season, Tanner Rainey regained his 2020 form down the stretch. Incredibly, when you combine Rainey’s stats from Rochester and Washington, he struck out 15 consecutive batters at a point in September. Andres Machado was solid as a 6th or 7th inning reliever. But other than that, the bullpen was really bad.
It is almost certain that there will be lots of movement within the Nats bullpen. Already, lefties Alberto Baldonado and Sean Nolin have been outrighted off of the 40-man roster; Nolin is no longer with the Nationals organization. The clock has struck midnight on the Wander Suero experiment, and while he will probably be given one final chance to prove himself in Spring Training, I think it’s likely that Suero is finally released from the organization. The league had trouble hitting Ryne Harper’s unorthodox curveball-centric repertoire at the beginning of the year, but now that hitters have figured him out, his novelty has expired. Sam Clay was a liability the entire year.
Right now, we can probably Sharpie in Finnegan, Rainey, Machado, Espino and Will Harris into the bullpen for next year. Harris, of course, was sidelined with thoracic outlet syndrome for the vast majority of the 2021 season. If he is able to return to form following the surgery, he will be the team’s closer. Mason Thompson, the deadline acquisition from San Diego, is also likely to start the year in the big leagues. One of Austin Voth or Patrick Murphy will be in the MLB bullpen in a long reliever role: the two fit very similar roles on the depth chart, but I prefer Murphy.
That leaves space for one cheap free agent signing for the bullpen. The Nationals have been linked to Mychal Givens seemingly since the dawn of time, and the time would make sense for the Nats to sign Givens this offseason. Heath Hembree, who is one of the best strikeout pitchers in the game, is another option. There is also the possibility that the Nats have a reunion with former bullpen stalwarts: any one of Craig Stammen, Tyler Clippard, Sean Doolittle, and Daniel Hudson could find themselves in a Nationals jersey in 2022. While signing a free agent reliever would set the bullpen up for the most success, there is a chance that Mike Rizzo decides to stay in-house for the bullpen, and let young pitchers develop. In-house candidates include Clay, Jhon Romero, former top prospect Seth Romero, Gerardo Carrillo, and Matt Cronin, although Cronin is the least big-league ready of the bunch. Seth Romero might have a leg up on the other in-house options since he is a lefty and has been regarded as having the most potential out of the group.
If I were searching the open market for relievers, I would go after Hembree. Hembree was released by the Reds in August after a rough start to the season, although he struck out 68 hitters in just 42 innings of work with Cincinnati. After he was claimed off waivers by the Mets, Hembree posted a 3.45 ERA in 15 innings. His struggles to begin the season caused his stock to go down, but Hembree still has excellent stuff and veteran pedigree that he would bring to a Nats bullpen full of young talent. And as an added bonus, Hembree’s struggles at the beginning of the year will bring his asking price down significantly.
Mike Rizzo also has a knack for finding solid relievers seemingly out of nowhere. Finnegan and Machado initially signed with the Nationals on minor league deals and Harper, Rainey, and Kyle McGowin were acquired in afterthought trades. There’s a possibility that any reliever who had a solid season in AA or AAA ball last year might find themselves in Washington next year. Rizzo has already gone and claimed Francisco Perez off waivers from Cleveland; Perez had a lights-out season with the Guardians’ AAA affiliate last year, and was fine in a few major league innings. Perez will get his fair chance to make the team out of Spring Training, and as a 24-year old lefty with a disgusting slider, there’s a decent possibility that he will.
Let’s talk about the left side of the infield. Should Alcides Escobar and/or Carter Kieboom be Opening Day starters?
If you looked at the Nats’ record, you might assume that the Nats’ offense was really, really bad last year. You’d be mistaken–the Nats led the entire National League in batting average and on-base percentage last year, and actually improved their team wRC+ after the trade deadline fire sale (that’s how bad the pitching was!).
The team’s biggest weakness on the offensive side of the ball lies on the left side of the infield. In August and September, Alcides Escobar was the Nats’ starting shortstop and Carter Kieboom the starting third baseman.
Escobar was acquired from the Royals in July out of sheer necessity; Trea Turner went out with an injury after hitting for the cycle at the end of June, and Rizzo decided acquiring the veteran shortstop would be a better decision than starting journeyman Humberto Arteaga for an extended period of time. Of course, when Turner was traded to the Dodgers, Escobar became the team’s everyday shortstop. And Alcides was more than an okay replacement. In just over 300 plate appearances, Escobar hit .288 with 28 RBIs as the #2 hole hitter every game. The Nats rewarded Escobar with a 1-year, $1 million extension at the beginning of the offseason.
While Escobar played well last year, he is not at all a permanent replacement. Escobar would definitely be better suited as a bench player or designated hitter at this stage in his career, but as things stand right now, he is on track to start the year as the Opening Day shortstop. This puts the Nats in the market for a shortstop. To start, let’s address the elephant in the room: no, it would not be wise to go after one of the big-name free agent shortstops like Carlos Correa, Javier Baez, Trevor Story, or Corey Seager. Those four would command massive contracts over a long period of time, and considering that top shortstop prospects Brady House and Armando Cruz should be ready in a few years, signing a top talent at shortstop limits the prospects’ ability to advance up the depth chart.
If the front office is not content with Escobar as the starting shortstop, the Nats should go after the Cardinals’ Paul DeJong on the trade market. Unlike Washington, St. Louis is absolutely in the market for one of the four high-profile shortstop free agents. DeJong is coming off of a down year, but has shown signs of greatness in years past. A change of scenery might cause him to regain his form, much like former Cardinal Lane Thomas’s emergence once traded to Washington. The Cardinals are going to try and get one of the big fish shortstop (and they are especially linked to Story), but St. Louis also has another MLB-ready shortstop in Edmundo Sosa who could take the full-time duties away from DeJong. A trade makes sense for both sides, and the Nats would not have to give up much to acquire a bonafide starting shortstop.
When it comes to third base, the situation becomes a little more complicated. Escobar was acquired as a last-minute replacement; Kieboom has been the heir apparent at the hot corner for years. Similarly to Escobar, Kieboom was unexpectedly thrust into a starting role after the trade deadline, after Starlin Castro was released and Josh Harrison flipped to Oakland. The story has been the same throughout Carter’s entire Nationals career–he struggled to prove himself as a legitimate MLB player. He hit .207 this season in over 200 at-bats, and lowered his career batting average below the Mendoza line.
It is unlikely that this is the end of the Carter Kieboom era in Washington. Last year, Kieboom did improve, especially on the defensive side of the baseball. If he is able to put together all of his promising tools, he still can be a solid option at third base. To help spur Kieboom’s further development, the Nats might want to look to add a veteran presence with lots of MLB experience at the hot corner. Enter Kyle Seager. Seager and Kieboom are not going to have completely parallel careers–while Seager has typically hit for a low average with lots of power, Kieboom is more of a contact hitter. Seager would, however, immediately become Kieboom’s mentor, and potentially help the young third baseman find his groove in the MLB. In this scenario, Seager and Kieboom platoon to start the season. On days when Seager is not playing, he is an excellent lefty option off the bench; if the National League adopts the designated hitter for next season, he would be an ideal fit for the role.
It would be unwise for Mike Rizzo to sign Seager to anything but a 1-year contract. Kieboom is still very young, and House seems destined to make a switch to third base in the long-term. If Seager demands a long-term deal, forget about it. But if Rizzo can sign Seager to a short-term contract, the move might pay dividends in the future.
What’s going to happen to Victor Robles? What does that mean for Lane Thomas?
Victor Robles was once the top prospect in all of baseball. He was the starting center fielder during the 2019 World Series run. If you were to ask the average Nationals fan to name five players on the team after the July fire sale, there’s a decent chance that Robles would have been one of them.
In August, he was in AAA.
Robles is an elite defender. In 2021, he did not make a single error throughout the nearly 800 innings he played. But at the plate, Robles was atrocious. He went from being the team’s leadoff hitter to a downright offensive liability. He hit .203 with 2 home runs (I was there for both..am I Victor’s good luck charm?) and 19 RBIs in 369 plate appearances. In his career year, 2019, Robles hit .255 with 17 home runs and 65 RBIs in just 200 more plate appearances.
When Robles was sent down to Rochester, he was replaced by Lane Thomas. Thomas, acquired for Jon Lester (!!!) at the trade deadline, instantly became the team’s leadoff hitter, and he was really, really good. Thomas struggled after breaking the Cardinals’ roster out of spring training, hitting an embarrassing .104 with a .384 OPS. In Washington, he thrived, improving his average to .270 and his OPS to .853. He even provided power at the top of the lineup, out-slugging Robles with 7 home runs in half the at-bats. Come September, it was clear that Thomas was simply the better option in center field than Robles. In order to maximize Victor’s playing time, he was sent down. But in Rochester, Robles thrived. He hit .301 with an OPS approaching 1.000 in his time with the Red Wings, serving as their everyday leadoff hitter.
It will be impossible to know if Robles has regained his confidence until Spring Training. But for now, it should be expected that Robles start the year in the Major Leagues. This would logically push Thomas, who definitely deserves to start on Opening Day, to left field. The everyday left fielder last season was Yadiel Hernandez, the rookie who impressed throughout the 2021 season with his hitting skills. Hernandez is moved to the bench in this scenario, although Hernandez is probably the most likely candidate to be the Nationals’ designated hitter if the National League adopts the rule for the 2022 season.
The Nats have also been linked to outfield help in free agency; Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant both have been named as intriguing fits for this Nationals team. Given the surprising amount of riches in outfield talent the Nationals have, pursuing Schwarber or Bryant in free agency would be a mistake. Juan Soto is, obviously, a lock for right field, and Robles, Thomas, Hernandez, and Andrew Stevenson are all more than okay options for the remaining two outfield spots. In addition, don’t forget that Donovan Casey is on the way!
Speaking of Soto, when is that extension going to be finished?
The Nats are bad. I want to see them improve, and potentially even compete in a year where they were not supposed to. That being said, if Soto is extended this winter, I wouldn’t care less about what other moves Mike Rizzo makes.
Juan Soto is a generational talent, more so than Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, and Trea Turner. In a few years, he will be the best player in all of baseball. He has a serious case to be the National League MVP this year, putting up ridiculous numbers for the entirety of the year. Soto even has a legitimate case for being the greatest player in Nationals history so far, which is bonkers considering that he is entering his age-23 season.
If the Lerners are serious about winning in the long-term and going through with this rebuild, Soto must be extended with a blank check sooner rather than later. His price is only going to go up, especially since Scott Boras is his agent. We know that Soto is friends with the Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr., and seems to have an affinity for the Dodgers after Turner and Scherzer were sent west, and in a few short years, there’s nothing stopping Juan from signing with one of those bitter rival teams.
Soto is the Nats’ core for this rebuild, even more than House, Keibert Ruiz, or Josiah Gray. The Nats must make Soto a Nat for life, and it must happen this offseason.
These are predictions, and I expect many of these to be wrong. Still, I think the 2022 Nats have the potential to be a 70-win team, and at this point in their rebuild, 70 wins is more than promising. Here is how I would build the 2022 Nationals:
Starting Pitchers – Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Josiah Gray, Josh Rogers, Erick Fedde
Relief Pitchers – Will Harris (closer), Tanner Rainey, Kyle Finnegan, Andres Machado, Patrick Murphy, Paolo Espino, Heath Hembree, Francisco Perez
Catcher – Keibert Ruiz
1st Base – Josh Bell
2nd Base – Luis Garcia
3rd Base – Carter Kieboom/Kyle Seager
Shortstop – Paul DeJong
Outfield – Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Lane Thomas
Bench – Seager/Kieboom, Alcides Escobar, Yadiel Hernandez, Riley Adams, Andrew Stevenson