Winter Report Card: Washington Nationals
With barely more than a week before pitchers and catchers report, we're checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there's still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2014. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
2014 Results: 96-66 (.593), first place in NL East, lost NLDS (Hot Stove Preview)
For most of the winter, the Nationals' offseason was largely comprised of small, housekeeping-level moves. LaRoche, whose option was declined the day after the World Series ended, was allowed to leave to open up first base for Ryan Zimmerman, who had been pushed off third base by his throwing problems and the emergence of Anthony Rendon. Locking Rendon in at third left a hole at second base, which the team filled by flipping Tyler Clippard to the Athletics for Yunel Escobar, trading the hardest-worked reliever in baseball over the last five seasons for a slick-fielding infielder signed through 2016. They then replaced Clippard in the bullpen by signing former Blue Jays closer Casey Janssen to a one-year, $5 million deal with a $7 million mutual option for '16.
The Nationals eclipsed all of that in late January, though, with the addition of Max Scherzer, the 2013 American League Cy Young award winner and consensus top free agent on the market this winter, on a seven-year, $210 million contract that will pay out $15 million per season for the next 14 years. Signing the 30-year-old Scherzer, who was nearly as good last year as in his award-winning '13, led to speculation that the Nationals would trade another member of their rotation. Incumbent ace Jordan Zimmermann is entering his walk year, as is '14 team ERA-leader Doug Fister, and Stephen Strasburg is due to hit free agency after the '16 season. So far, however, the Nationals have stood pat with what is inarguably the best rotation in baseball, one that finds Gio Gonzalez, a two-time All-Star with a 119 ERA+ and 3.09 fielding independent pitching mark over the last three years, in the fifth spot.
In stark contrast to Scherzer, the Nationals will need significant rebounds from Zimmerman, Escobar, and Janssen for those aforementioned smaller moves to work in their favor. Zimmerman performed at his established level when healthy last year but missed 99 games due to thumb and hamstring injuries. Escobar shouldn't have much trouble improving on the .229/.296/.337 the Nationals' second basemen assembled last season, but he had an inexplicably and uncharacteristically awful year in the field at the age of 31 and will need to bounce back to his previous excellence there to avoid another replacement-level performance.
There's no good reason not to expect Zimmerman and Escobar to rebound, but Janssen, the oldest of the trio at 33, is a concern. The ex-Blue Jay missed the first five weeks of the season due to a lower back strain and saw his strikeout rate fall off the table when he returned, finishing with three fewer strikeouts per nine innings than the previous season (5.5 vs. 8.5). He also experienced a decline in velocity for the third straight season (his average fastball dipped from 93 mph in 2011 to below 90 last year).
Amid those moves, the Nationals inserted themselves into the trade that sent Wil Myers from the Rays to the Padres. Remarkably, Washington came away with the two best prospects to change hands in that deal, shortstop Trea Turner and righthander Joe Ross, in exchange for outfielder Steven Souza Jr., who will still be a rookie when he turns 26 in late April, and 19-year-old lefty Travis Ott. Souza, who trailed fellow rookie outfielder Michael Taylor on the Nationals' organizational depth chart, was expendable, and Ott was a 25th-round pick in 2013 who had made just three starts in a full-season league. Meanwhile, Turner, the 13th pick in last year's draft, could be the team's shortstop of the future; Ross, who turns 22 in May, will open the season in Double A.
The Nationals also flipped lefty Ross Detwiler, also heading into his walk year and effectively replaced in the bullpen by the late-season addition of Matt Thornton, to the Rangers for righty reliever Abel De Los Santos and second baseman Chris Bostick. Both of them are entering their age-22 seasons and should join Ross in Double A this year.
Unfinished business: Bullpen, cost certainty
With that rotation, the Nationals may not need as much from their bullpen as other teams. Still, losing Clippard and Rafael Soriano, who combined for 132 1/3 innings of a 2.65 ERA last year, and adding only Janssen, who comes with significant concerns, marks a significant step backward for a bullpen that was among the best in baseball during the regular season but proved plenty shaky in the postseason.
Meanwhile, one of the Nationals' primary tasks this offseason was to sort out the financial issues stemming from an impending rash of free agents and key arbitration-eligibles. Of the players on the roster last fall due to hit free agency this fall — a group that included Zimmermann, Fister, Clippard, shortstop Ian Desmond and centerfielder Denard Span — the Nationals have traded only Clippard and extended no one. Taylor looks like the heir apparent to Span in center, and the acquisitions of Turner and Escobar suggest the Nationals will let Desmond go, as well. Signing Scherzer, meanwhile, suggests Fister won't be brought back, either.
Still, the Nats have to sort out if they can afford both, one, or none of Zimmermann and Strasburg long-term, particularly now that they have Scherzer's contract on the books for the next 14 years. There's also the matter of Bryce Harper, who signed a two-year, $7.5 million extension in December prompted by a dispute over his arbitration eligibility and is due for a potentially significant arbitration payday after 2016.
Preliminary grade: A-
The potential impact of adding Scherzer to what was already an outstanding rotation is so significant that it's difficult to give much weight to the Nationals' other moves here. It's difficult not to see Washington as the best team in baseball heading into the season with that rotation in place, but the Nats also did well in bringing in potentially helpful prospects in the Souza and Detwiler deals, particularly in middle infielders Turner and Bostick. There's also plenty of room for optimism about Zimmerman replacing LaRoche and Escobar upgrading second base. The bullpen, however, could be a problem, and the step backward there combined with the lack of a long-term deal for any of the team's incumbent stars slaps a minus on the grade.