Analyzing the Nationals’ Recent Roster Moves

The Nationals signed Cesar Hernandez to a 1-year, $4 million contract. Photo via Ohio News Time

The Nationals made a flurry of roster moves this week. Most notably, the team inked former White Sox infielder Cesar Hernandez to a 1-year, $4 million contract. The Nationals also claimed infielder Lucius Fox off waivers, signed minor league free agents Richard Urena, Victor Arano, and Luis Avilan, and non-tendered Wander Suero, Ryne Harper, and Mike Ford at the arbitration deadline.

A second baseman by trade, Hernandez hit .232 with a career-high 21 home runs last season. He was traded mid-season from Cleveland to the Chicago White Sox, moving around the AL Central over the last two years after starting his career with the Phillies. Last year was an anomaly from the infielder, hitting more for power after historically prioritizing a high batting average. Almost all of Hernandez’s starts last year were at second base, although he did have one appearance at shortstop for the White Sox. He won a Gold Glove in 2020, as well. For the Nationals, the most obvious consequence of the Hernandez signing is the status of Luis Garcia, who is likely to shift to his natural shortstop in 2022. Hernandez factors in as a starter considering the state of the Nats’ depth chart, and Dave Martinez will often choose to start his young middle infielder in Garcia over a tenured veteran like Alcides Escobar. The Nats have tentatively solved their shortstop problem by signing Hernandez and likely moving Garcia to short. While this is a bandaid on a gaping wound in the organization, Hernandez is more than an adequate stopgap at this stage of the Nats’ rebuild. In addition, Cleveland turned Hernandez into a promising pitching prospect at the deadline last year; if Hernandez has value at the trade deadline next year, it is easy to see the Nationals flipping Hernandez mid-season with his cheap contract. This is the ultimate very low-risk, very-high reward signing. 

The Nationals also added an infielder off the waiver wire, acquiring Lucius Fox from the Orioles. A longtime Tampa Bay farmhand who the Royals acquired in last year’s Brett Phillips trade, Fox bounced around waivers until he landed in Washington yesterday. Fox’s biggest asset is his speed, having stolen 19 bases in just 62 games last season with the Royals’ AAA affiliate. He probably goes back to AAA to start the season, assuming he doesn’t wow the team in Spring Training. Fox does take up a spot on the 40-man roster. 

Now to the minor league free agent signings. The Nats brought back journeyman reliever Luis Avilan for 2022. Avilan missed the majority of 2021 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in April. Avilan hasn’t put up a consistently strong season since his 2018 campaign with the White Sox, but he does provide left-handing relief pitching depth. He joins Sam Clay, Francisco Perez, Evan Lee, Alberto Baldonado, Sean Nolin, and Seth Romero as lefty pen options within the organization in 2022. 

Also in the bullpen, the Nats signed Victor Arano. Arano last played in the big leagues with the Phillies back in 2019, where he put up an excellent 3.86 ERA in limited playing time. Arano’s last full season was in 2018, where he kept his ERA under 3. His K/9 rate has also been increasing since his last big league stint. He kept up this consistency with the Braves’ AAA affiliate in 2021. Right now, Arano is playing for the Yaquis de Obregón in the Mexican League (equivalent to AAA), where he is again putting up solid numbers. Even though he was brought in on a minor league contract, Arano is a really intriguing choice for the Nats’ bullpen in 2022. I love this signing for Arano’s potential value at a very low cost. 

And finally, the Nats signed Richard Urena. Urena is another solid minor league infielder, but with the Hernandez signing, I have trouble seeing Urena fitting in on the Nats’ roster without an injury. He will almost certainly start the year at AAA Rochester. 

To make room on the 40-man roster for Fox and Hernandez, the Nats non-tendered three players: relievers Ryne Harper and Wander Suero, and first baseman Mike Ford. This means that the three were not offered major league contracts before the arbitration deadline; they now become free agents, and the Nats are free to sign any of them back. It is particularly interesting to see Suero non-tendered, after seemingly being the face of the Nationals’ bullpen for the last few years now. He struggled to an ERA over 6 last year, which was likely the nail in the coffin on Suero’s Nationals career. He might benefit from a change of scenery, so it was probably the right decision to let Suero go. Remember: not all who Wander are lost, so Suero should find a home in some team’s minor league system later this year. 

I am much more surprised to see Harper and Ford non-tendered. Ryne Harper is one of the most fascinating pitchers in the league today, focusing on a repertoire of slow curveballs that barely exceed 70 mph rather than the typical fastball-centric array of pitches. He carried an ERA under 1 until mid-August, but when he was put into more consequential situations, Harper floundered under the pressure. Ford never played a game for the Nats, spending time last year in Rochester after being claimed off waivers at the end of August. Ford being non-tendered might signify that Ryan Zimmerman is coming back for another year, as Ford was the most logical replacement for Zimmerman on the 40-man roster. I would expect both to come back on minor league contracts. 

All of these roster moves are what we expected from the Nats this offseason: small big league signings, waiver claims, and random minor league signings that could potentially work out for the Nats if the stars align. While I still think the team needs help with its starting pitching depth, I am perfectly content with this week’s roster moves. 

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