After the Washington Nationals won its first ever World Series championship in 2019, it’ll be all smiles for now, which the long-suffering franchise deserves at last. However, soon it will be time for free agency and GM Mike Rizzo’s task to remain among the MLB’s elite could prove more difficult than expected.
Rizzo created the team that won the World Series in a few years, but not overnight. He made that through succeeding on different fronts – drafting big (Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon were both first-round picks), free agency (Howie Kendrick, Patrick Corbin and Max Scherzer) and the international market (Juan Soto).
The Washington Nationals have surely not been hesitant spending in recent history and will need to keep on doing so in order to keep the crown.
Making up for Rendon’s departure
Of course, the biggest departure will be that of potential NL MVP Anthony Rendon who had his hands-down best career season up to date, batting .319 with 126 RBI and 1.010 OPS. It was reported in September that Rendon had an extention offer in the range of 7 years, between $210 million and $215 million. Now it has become clear that he has rejected that as he heads to free agency.
Rendon also delivered big in the team’s successful postseason hunt, driving in 15 runs, more than any other player. In addition, he hit enormous homers in both Game 6 and Game 7 of the World Series, both won by the Nationals on the road in Houston.
The third baseman is probably headed to a contract way more valuable than what we previously mentioned, but how can the Nationals make up for the production they lose in his departure? To answer this question, we need to evaluate Washington’s infield situation.
The Nationals currently don’t have a replacement for Rendon at third base, and with Ryan Zimmerman also leaving, they only have Matt Adams at first and Trea Turner at shortstop. What catches the eye is that Rendon and Zimmerman are gone, but what you may have not realized is that Howie Kendrick and Asdrubal Cabrera’s contracts are also up. With the former two out of the equation, it’s time to extend the latter two, or else Mike Rizzo’s task would be even harder.
Despite entering his age-36 season, Kendrick had a productive regular season and stepped up in the postseason. He hit .344 as a second-string first and second baseman, driving in 62 runs, more than in his 2016 campaign with the Dodgers, when he had 153 more at-bats. Cabrera hit .323 after signing with the Nats following a DFA by the Texas Rangers. If Kendrick doesn’t return, the Nationals could lose a lot of production in terms of consistent hitting and driving in runs. If one of them, on the other hand, manages to carry on his success into being a starter at second base, that would be the first step into compensating for losing Rendon.
However, both of them guarantee question marks and that could tempt Mike Rizzo to look for a star third baseman on the market. The field isn’t stacked but Josh Donaldson does resemble a chance that the Nationals could explore and make the most of. Donaldson wasn’t as good of a hitter in Atlanta last year, batting .253, but still managed to hit 37 homers and record 94 RBI. The 33-year-old Donaldson isn’t a much cheaper option compared to Rendon, but could be headed for a shorter contract.
That makes even more sense considering that more talent at the position will be available via free agency in the upcoming years. Mike Moustakas is slated to leave the Brewers after the 2020 season, his age-32 year, while Nolan Arenado will have the chance to opt out from his 8-year-deal with Colorado.
Fixing the bullpen
Meanwhile, the Nationals should also look to improve their worst statistical component, which was the league-worst bullpen. Washington’s 5.66 bullpen ERA ranked dead last in Major League Baseball.
The Nationals will have to decide whether to opt out of Sean Doolittle’s contract, which is highly unlikely as Doolittle finished the year with 2.25 ERA after taking a back seat to Daniel Hudson, who became the Nationals’ closer. Hudson, unfortunately, is also leaving after his strong performance in the postseason.
If the Nationals desperately needed to re-sign someone, Daniel Hudson is a candidate. Keeping him would be a sign of relief, but it doesn’t end there.
The Nationals certainly will start their search with a closer and could sign multiple relievers this offseason. Will Smith is the best available option, while star closers Kenley Jensen and Aroldis Chapman could opt out and join a good relief free agency class. Tony Watson, Joe Smith, Will Harris, Sergio Romo and Craig Stammen could all be targets or become the team’s next closer if Hudson was to decline a new deal to stay in D.C.
Last, but not least, a change could be coming to the catching group. Kurt Suzuki had an excellent season but now enters his age-36 campaign. Yan Gomes, in the meantime, has two more years to bounce back from a disappointing year in which he hit .223 with 12 home runs. He might be a trade candidate, which would mean Yasmani Grandal is on Washington’s radar. The former Brewers catcher, who is also the best hitter on the catcher market, declined a $16 million option to stay in Milwaukee and will look for something along the lines of the Mets’ offer last offseason (4 years, $60 million).
Brian Dozier and Adam Eaton also have contracts that have come to an end. While Eaton is a key piece of the top of the lineup, Dozier was a bench player for the most of 2019 and doesn’t have much leverage if he wants to stay in the capital.
The Nationals, led by an intelligent front office, made many moves in the last few years to establish the first championship-winning team in franchise history. Now, with many key players leaving for free agency, they face a very tough challenge to stay at the top.