LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Nearly three days into the Winter Meetings, the Nationals have yet to make any transactions. Then again, most teams that aren’t the Marlins fall into that same category.
What the Nats have done at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort to this point is meet with a lot of rival clubs and agents representing a host of players, with a particular emphasis on relief pitchers. They may not have actually acquired one yet, but the Nats believe they’ve positioned themselves well to make a move when they think the time is right.
“We’ve made progress in the fact we’ve gathered a lot of information,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We’ve met with a lot of people about a lot of players. So we’ve made progress in that regard.”
While free agent sluggers and starting pitchers have barely made a dent so far in this year’s hot stove league, relievers have been the hottest target of clubs trying to bolster the back end of their staffs. Brandon Morrow, Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, Bryan Shaw, Anthony Swarzak, Jake McGee, Juan Nicasio and Tommy Hunter all have signed as free agents since Sunday, and Greg Holland is reportedly closing in on a deal to return to the Rockies.
All of those pitchers have been getting at least two-year contracts, most of them making upwards of $8-$10 million per season. Rizzo can’t help but notice the trend.
“It’s good to be a reliever,” he said. “It’s good to be a middle reliever. With the way the game has transpired the last couple of years with these mega bullpens, I think you’ve seen a groundswell of relief contracts. And the market has grown. I think that they’re being more appreciated and compensated as well.”
The Nationals don’t currently have any relievers making more than $7.5 million per year. In fact, if you combine the 2018 salaries of veterans Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Shawn Kelley, it still only totals only $17.35 million, with all other current projected relievers making at or near the league minimum of $545,000.
They may have no choice but to pony up for more relief help, though, especially if they are determined to add at least one more experienced right-hander to the mix. The simple move would be to fill Brandon Kintzler’s seventh-inning role with a comparable setup man (or even to re-sign Kintzler) but there’s also some temptation to go bigger and try to sign an experienced closer like Holland or Wade Davis.
The Nationals showed interest in both right-handers last winter, ultimately watching them sign or be traded elsewhere, but they’re willing to engage in the idea again this winter. Even if that means bumping Doolittle (who converted 22 of 23 save opportunities last season) to the eighth inning.
“We’re trying to get the best value for relievers that we can. We’ll keep it at that,” Rizzo said when asked specifically about the possibility of signing a closer. “If we can find a value for a reliever, we’ll make an attempt to go get him.”
Meanwhile, Rizzo confirmed what Scott Boras revealed this morning: The Nationals front office met with the super agent at managing principal owner Ted Lerner’s home in Palm Springs, Calif., last month for preliminary discussions about a Bryce Harper contract extension, trying to get a head start before the star outfielder becomes a free agent next winter.
“We covered a lot of ground,” Rizzo said. “He made his annual pilgrimage over there to Palm Springs and had a good, long discussion.”
Rizzo was careful to avoid making a big deal out of the meeting, which even Boras admitted was merely a first step in what would be a long and convoluted process to an eventual agreement.
“I’m not going to read too much into it,” the GM said. “It was a preliminary conversation. It’s something that we wanted to do. We’d like to get more momentum. Everyone’s heart is in the right place. We’ll see where it takes us.”
Negotiations for a player like Harper are far from routine; there simply aren’t many guys who hit free agency at 26 having already won an MVP and a Rookie of the Year award while making five All-Star teams. That admittedly makes these talks complicated, at least from the Nationals’ perspective.
“Oh, I think they are,” Rizzo said. “They’re much more organizationally changing. It’s a huge commitment for ownership. There’s a lot of things that when you talk about those kind of numbers for a particular player ... when I always talk about those type of deals, you’re signing the person more so than the player.”
Also on the radar for both the Nationals and Boras is a long-term deal for Anthony Rendon, who is still two seasons away from free agency but is fast approaching that critical stage of his career.
“It’s something we’ll certainly discuss,” Rizzo said of his third baseman. “Anthony’s a big part of what we do here, a homegrown player that’s a great performer and a guy that’s a core piece of our organization.”