Winter Report Card: Nationals cope well with big free-agent losses
With less than four weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Washington Nationals. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
83–79 (.512), second place in National League East (Hot Stove Preview)
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
Beyond the results on the field, the 2015 season was a critical juncture for the Nationals in terms of their future roster construction. Last off-season, Washington faced the reality of having five key players enter their walk years: righties Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister, shortstop Ian Desmond, centerfielder Denard Span and ace setup man Tyler Clippard. With arbitration raises looming for other key players—including rightfielder Bryce Harper, starter Stephen Strasburg, catcher Wilson Ramos and then-closer Drew Storen—the Nationals had to decide which of those pending free agents to extend, which to trade and, of those they let reach free agency, which to re-sign and which to replace with comparable veterans.
We now have our answer. After Desmond turned down a seven-year, $107 million deal following the 2013 season and after Zimmermann rejected a five-year, $105 million extension last winter—money that subsequently went toward signing Max Scherzer—Washington didn't make a subsequent extension offer to either player or any to any of their other pending free agents. Instead, the Nationals cut bait: Clippard was dealt last January to the Athletics for infielder Yunel Escobar, and the rest were allowed to walk after the season. Zimmermann is now with the Tigers, netting the Nats a draft pick by turning down a qualifying offer, and Span has joined the Giants. As for Desmond, Fister and Clippard, the first of whom also turned down a qualifying offer: All remain unsigned, but all appear unlikely to return to Washington.
Rather than replace those players with comparable big-money free agents—and after trying and failing to sign top free agents like outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and Jason Heyward, second baseman Ben Zobrist and setup reliever Darren O'Day—the Nationals wound up rebuilding on the fly using their depth. The spots of Span, Desmond and Zimmermann will likely be filled by Michael A. Taylor, Trea Turner and Joe Ross, respectively—Turner and Ross were acquired in last winter’s Wil Myers trade. Fister, who had a poor 2015, should be easily replaced by righty Tanner Roark, who was bumped from the rotation to the bullpen last season. Only Clippard, already gone for a year, has been replaced by a pricey free agent, with the Nationals signing Shawn Kelley to a three-year, $15 million deal to set up closer Jonathan Papelbon, but that’s a whole other story.
Lacking a sufficient replacement for Clippard last year, the Nationals targeted relief help at the trade deadline, ultimately acquiring Papelbon from the Phillies in a salary dump. But rather than accept a demotion to set up incumbent closer Storen, who was having a fantastic year to that point, Papelbon refused to waive his no-trade clause unless he was given the closer job. The power play shattered Storen’s confidence, making Washington worse off than it had been before acquiring Papelbon and resulting in an untenable situation in the bullpen. One of general manager Mike Rizzo’s primary tasks this off-season was to resolve that situation, but with Papelbon owed $11 million for the 2016 season and carrying a reputation as a clubhouse cancer—one exacerbated by a late September incident in which he attacked Harper in the dugout—Rizzo opted to trade the fragile Storen instead. His replacement is Kelley, who is coming off a strong age-31 season with the Padres but is older, less-accomplished and more expensive. That said, he is without Storen’s history of ill-timed meltdowns or any notable closing experience that would prompt him to believe he deserved Papelbon’s job.
Trading Storen was a disappointing solution to that particular problem, but the deal did net lefty-hitting outfielder Ben Revere, who should make a valuable veteran caddy to the righty-hitting Taylor in center. Rizzo also added additional depth to the bullpen to compensate for Storen's loss. He added veteran lefty Oliver Perez on a two-year deal worth $7 million, a smart move on short money. Rizzo also took advantage of the Giants' decision to non-tender swing man Yusmeiro Petit—perhaps best known for his six scoreless innings in San Francisco’s 18-inning win over the Nats in Game 2 of the 2014 Division Series—by signing the Venezuelan righty to a one-year contract. Finally, he sent Escobar to the Angels for a pair of young arms, including 23-year-old righty Trevor Gott, who posted a 3.02 ERA in 48 games for the Halos last year (albeit with poor peripherals).
To replace Escobar, who trailed only Desmond and Harper in games played for the injury-prone Nationals last year, Rizzo signed Daniel Murphy to a three-year, $37.5 million contract in what should be an upgrade for Washington. The 33-year-old Escobar is a pending free agent whose once-stellar fielding appears to be a thing of the past, and while Murphy (who is heading into his age-31 season) is no better in the field, he shares Escobar’s ability to play both second and third. Murphy is also a more consistent hitter who experienced a power surge late last year, slugging .533 with a .237 isolated power over the final two months of the regular season before his postseason home run outburst.
With Murphy in place, the Nationals can go forward with their plan of using Danny Espinosa at shortstop until Turner is ready. Espinosa had a nice rebound in his age-28 season last year and should give the 22-year-old Turner some needed time to develop in Triple A. Throw in Stephen Drew—who was signed to a one-year, $3 million contract and offers a good glove and the occasional homer—as the backup in the middle infield, and the Nationals have done a surprisingly good job of providing depth and support for their emerging youngsters.
Unfinished Business: Another bullpen arm
The Nationals were rather thorough this off-season, but despite adding four established relievers to the roster, they still seem an arm or two short in the bullpen. Kelley was mediocre with the Mariners and Yankees before his excellent showing in pitching-friendly Petco Park last year (1.37 ERA at home, 3.60 on the road). The ground-balling Gott struck out just 5.1 men per nine innings last year with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.69 and a 3.74 FIP. Petit is most valuable for his ability to eat innings, but he was merely league average on the aggregate in his four years in San Francisco, and righty Blake Treinen was similarly middling over 60 relief appearances for the Nats last year. O'Day would have been a perfect fit, but he spurned the Nationals to return to the Orioles on a four-year, $31 million deal.
It may have been necessary to cut ties with Storen, but he was better than any of the Nationals' remaining setup options. Could a reunion with Clippard be in the cards? It would be ironic if it happened: Washington’s overuse of the 30-year-old Clippard from 2010 to '14 (an average of 74 games pitched and 79 innings thrown per season over those five years) is the main reason the two-time All-Star remains unsigned.
Preliminary Grade: A-
Thanks to the good work the organization has done to build from within by providing the likes of Taylor, Turner, Ross, Roark and A.J. Cole, among others, to a roster hit hard by free agency, the Nationals didn’t have to go big despite their notable losses this off-season. Instead, they made a few small, smart moves that leave them enough financial flexibility to contend with the approaching free agencies of Strasburg and Harper and give them the necessary depth to support their emerging prospects. That should keep Washington in contention in the division, provided it gets the one thing that teams can’t acquire: health.