The Winter Meetings are now completed, which means the offseason is now half completed. Yep, it’s been 10 weeks since the Nationals’ season ended in Colorado, and it’s 10 weeks until pitchers and catchers report to West Palm Beach.
So this feels like a good opportunity to take a broad look at the state of the roster, figure out what the Nats have accomplished so far and what they still need to accomplish before they assemble in Florida.
Here’s where things currently stand ...
* The rotation is better at the top but worse at the bottom
The Nationals can boast the biggest signing of the winter so far in Patrick Corbin, who got six years and $140 million. No other free agent in the majors has received more than $50 million so far. And the Nats were willing to go big in this case because they really needed this guy.
Did they overpay Corbin? Probably, but he was the best starting pitcher on the market, he was coming off a breakthrough season, he’s only 29, he’s left-handed, he misses a ton of bats and he was exactly what the Nationals needed. Along with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, he gives this team the kind of 1-2-3 punch it has been seeking for several years, a dominant trio Mike Rizzo believes is the key to any championship club.
The problem is the rest of the rotation as currently constituted. Wednesday’s trade of Tanner Roark to the Reds (for minor league reliever Tanner Rainey) may save the club some money but it leaves a huge hole toward the bottom of the rotation. If the season began today, Joe Ross would be the No. 4 starter, Erick Fedde would be the No. 5 starter and the depth at Triple-A would be led by Austin Voth, Kyle McGowin and recent addition Henderson Álvarez.
That’s not going to get the job done. The good news: The season doesn’t start today, and there’s plenty of opportunity to address this new need. The question is what path Rizzo will take to fix it. Dallas Keuchel is the only top free agent left, and though the Nationals are interested in the lefty they’re leery of giving him the five- or six-year deal he seeks, according to a source familiar with their thinking. Aníbal Sánchez, Wade Miley and Jeremy Hellickson are among the more affordable free agents, but those veterans have fairly low ceilings at this stage of their careers.
Rizzo could try to acquire a starter via trade, but that’s going to cost prospects. And he doesn’t have that many coveted minor leaguers left to deal, especially if he’s determined not to part with Victor Robles or Carter Kieboom.
* They’ve upgraded nicely at catcher, but not at second base
The Nationals knew they needed to improve significantly behind the plate after watching Matt Wieters, Jose Lobaton, Pedro Severino and Spencer Kieboom collectively struggle the last two seasons. And despite a year’s worth of failed attempts to acquire J.T. Realmuto from the Marlins, Rizzo made a couple of savvy moves to acquire Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki. They may not have star power, but combined they should give this team one of the best offensive catching tandems in baseball while also providing trusted experience for the Nats’ pitching staff.
The Nationals have not yet addressed second base, which was another area that needed improvement, but there are signs of a forthcoming move. Despite initial insistence that a Howie Kendrick-Wilmer Difo tag team was acceptable, Rizzo now admits he’d like to find a better alternative.
There is no shortage of second basemen available. D.J. LeMahieu is the top free agent, but even if the Nats don’t want to meet his asking price, there are plenty of more affordable, short-term options, such as Brian Dozier, Ian Kinsler and Jed Lowrie. They also could go for a more versatile player who could also back up Ryan Zimmerman at first base, someone like Marwin Gonzalez, Josh Harrison, Derek Dietrich, Daniel Descalso or Neil Walker.
* The right side of the bullpen looks solid, but the left side needs help
Rizzo was ultra-aggressive in acquiring both Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough in the early days of the offseason, and in doing so he addressed the vacancies that he created last summer by trading away Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler and Shawn Kelley.
With a healthy Sean Doolittle pitching the ninth, Rosenthal pitching the eighth and Barraclough joining returning right-handers Koda Glover and Wander Suero, the Nationals have the makings of a solid bullpen. But they still don’t have the lockdown lefty they sorely needed this season.
Matt Grace is a valuable jack-of-all-trades guy to have in the ‘pen, and Sammy Solís will get yet another shot to prove he can turn his career around. But the Nats need an experienced left-hander who can come in to get one or two key outs late in games. It was a problem in 2018, and it will continue to be a problem in 2019 if not addressed.
Again, there are a host of available relievers who fit the bill. The Nationals probably won’t go big and sign Zach Britton or Andrew Miller, but an under-the-radar pickup like Tony Sipp or Justin Wilson could pay huge dividends down the road.
* We are no closer to knowing where Bryce Harper is signing
These Winter Meetings had been anticipated for years because of the perfect confluence of Bryce Harper reaching free agency the same time the event was going to be held in Las Vegas. The circus would be coming to Mandalay Bay, right?
Not exactly. Though Scott Boras’ annual media scrum had circus-like qualities, the super agent didn’t shed a whole lot of light into Harper’s future home. Bryce himself was never seen publicly, choosing to meet with clubs off-site and out of the spotlight. Just about every team that had been presumed a pursuer of Harper tried to downplay its interest. And Rizzo went out of his way to take back what owner Mark Lerner said last week and insisted the Nationals’ door remains open for Harper and Boras if they want to come back.
Where does that leave the biggest story of the offseason? It’s anybody’s guess, but it sure feels like this isn’t going to be resolved soon. Maybe Boras secretly has a record-setting offer from a big-market club like the Dodgers, Cubs or Yankees and is just waiting to strike. Or maybe he intends to let this saga continue to play out and let teams sweat it out before finally succumbing to his demands and agreeing to a monster deal sometime in January.