Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the Washington Nationals.
95-67, 1st in NL East; lost Division Series to Dodgers in five games
RHP Matt Belisle, LHP Sean Burnett, IF Danny Espinosa, RHP Lucas Giolito, RHP Mat Latos (unsigned), RHP Reynaldo Lopez, RHP Mark Melancon, RHP Yusmeiro Petit, C Wilson Ramos, OF Ben Revere, LHP Marc Rzepczynski
RHP Austin Adams, RHP Matt Albers, CF Adam Eaton, RHP Jeremy Guthrie, INF/OF Adam Lind, RHP Kyle McGowin, RHP Joe Nathan, C Derek Norris, LHP Enny Romero, RHP Jacob Turner, RHP Vance Worley
Off-season In Review
The Nationals started the off-season off with a bang. In early December, the team traded star prospect Lucas Giolito—ranked No. 3 overall by MLB.com—as well as fellow righthanded pitchers Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning to the White Sox for outfielder Adam Eaton. It was an interesting move, one that could be a stroke of genius or backfire in GM Mike Rizzo's face.
Eaton is coming off a career year with the White Sox. The 28-year-old batted .284 with a .362 on-base percentage and a .428 slugging percentage to go with 14 home runs and a league-leading nine triples. He was also the best outfielder in the AL, with 22 fielding runs above average. His 6.2 bWAR was almost three wins higher than Chicago's next-highest player, and he is signed to an affordable contract that has three guaranteed years for $18.4 million, plus club options for 2020 and '21 totaling $20 million.
If Giolito falters, or merely turns into a No. 3 starter, then the trade will have been a steal. But even if Giolito becomes the ace he's been forecast to be—in 2016, over three stops in the minors, he posted a 2.97 ERA with 116 strikeouts in 115 1/3 innings—then the move might still have been worth it, because of the factors above and because of the ripple effect that it caused that should benefit the rest of the lineup.
Adding Eaton enabled Washington to move Trea Turner to his natural position of shortstop, which gave them the chance to trade infielder Danny Espinosa to the Angels for minor league righties Austin Adams and Kyle McGowin. At age 29 in 2016, Espinosa smacked a career high 24 home runs but batted just .209/.306/.378. Turner, meanwhile, hit .342/.370/.567 and stole 33 bases in just 73 games and is just 23 years old.
The Nats have not yet been able to make a similarly impressive move to fill the hole behind the plate. Wilson Ramos signed with the Rays, and Washington replaced him with Derek Norris, who is coming off the worst year of his career. Playing for the Padres he had the lowest batting average (.186) and third-lowest OPS (.583) among players with at least 300 at-bats. There is still a player available on the free agent market who would be a notable upgrade: Matt Wieters, who posted a .711 OPS for the Orioles and made his fourth All-Star team last year.
The Nats made a significant move to bolster their bench just a few days before spring training by signing Adam Lind. Last season with Seattle, Lind batted .239/.286/.431 with 20 home runs. It’s a good insurance policy, given the potential brittleness of Ryan Zimmerman, 32, and Jayson Werth, 37.
After losing closer Mark Melancon, the Nats made a few minor moves to try to replace him. Signing veterans Joe Nathan (4.81 ERA in 2014, his last full season) and Matt Albers (6.31 ERA) could provide insurance should in-house candidates Shawn Kelley (2.64 ERA, 80 strikeouts in 58 innings) and Blake Treinen (2.28 ERA) falter. The Nats have been linked in trade talks to White Sox closer David Robertson (3.47 ERA, 37 saves), who would be a massive upgrade in a position of need. The bullpen as a whole is in disarray—last season, Washington got 255 2/3 combined innings from Melancon, Lopez, Matt Belisle, Jonathan Papelbon, Yusmeiro Petit, Felipe Rivero and Marc Rzepczynski. All are gone.
Unfinished Business: Bullpen, Bench help
It’s not like the Nationals didn’t try to improve the 'pen. They tried to re-sign Melancon, but he joined the Giants instead. They were connected to Kenley Jansen (stayed with the Dodgers) and Aroldis Chapman (returned to the Yankees). But right now their closer is Kelley (11 career saves), their set-up man is Blake Treinen (career 2.91 ERA) and their middle reliever is Oliver Perez (4.95 ERA in 40 innings last season). Not exactly the Nasty Boys Revisited. And there are limited options on the free agent market.
Besides the bullpen, Washington could use a bench upgrade. Outfielder Michael Taylor has good speed and Lind should provide some power, but a few more versatile options wouldn’t hurt.
Preliminary Grade: C+
The Eaton trade is easily defensible, but what’s not is bolstering a strength while letting a weakness get worse. The Nats lineup is better this spring than last, but the bullpen is much worse. Losing a rental like Melancon is understandable and striking out on top free agents happens, but for a team that fashions itself as a contender, going into the season with a bullpen without experience or high-end talent is unwise. Absent further moves, Washington is going to have to hope that its rotation and its lineup can carry them back to the postseason.