Levels of interest in Nats' free agents

The first full week of the official offseason is complete, and with that, the deadline for teams to negotiate with their respective free agents has passed.

Thursday was the last day the Nationals had exclusive rights to re-sign any of their free agents before they became available to speak with other teams. Of their eight free agents, the Nats had already made decisions on two of them.

On Sunday, the day after the conclusion of the World Series, the Nats announced they had agreed to terms with Sean Doolittle on a minor league deal that includes an invitation to major league spring training. A couple of hours later, the team also announced they declined the $16 million mutual option for 2023 on Nelson Cruz’s contract, instead buying out the 42-year-old designated hitter for $3 million.

Both moves made sense.

Doolittle has a long history with the team, showed flashes of returning to his previous form in limited action this year (5 ⅓ scoreless innings over six games) and has been recovering from his internal brace procedure. The expectation is that he’ll be ready to go when pitchers and catchers report to West Palm Beach in mid-February.

Cruz, on the other hand, was a bust for the Nats. The team had hoped for one of two outcomes: He'd either be a trade chip at the deadline or be the feared power bat in the Nats lineup for two seasons. Instead, Cruz didn’t produce at the plate and failed to garner any trade interest or to earn a $16 million salary for next season. He did express interest late in the year in continuing his playing career and tweeted on Nov. 1 that he had successful eye surgery to fix the nagging ailment that kept him out of the lineup for the last few weeks of September. That opportunity just won’t come again in Washington.

That leaves six other free agents from the 2022 Nationals roster. Here’s a quick breakdown of each and the level of interest the Nats should have in bringing them back in 2023.

STEVE CISHEK – RHP
Age on opening day 2023: 36
How acquired: Signed as free agent, March 2022
Contract: One-year, $1.75 million

After Cruz, Cishek was the Nationals’ big free agent signing in the spring. Along with Doolittle, he was the major addition to the bullpen on a short-term, low-cost major league deal.

But the side-throwing reliever didn’t live up to the expectations. After posting a 3.42 ERA with the Angels in 2021, Cishek had a 4.21 ERA and a 1.221 WHIP in 69 appearances with the Nats this year. He also hit 13 batters this season, tied for the sixth-most in the majors while having the fewest innings of any pitcher with that many or more.

The veteran was a strong presence in the clubhouse, however. He was a leader to a lot of the young pitchers, especially when Doolittle wasn’t around because of his injury.

Is that enough to give him one more season in Washington? Probably not.

Interest level: Low

WILL HARRIS – RHP
Age on opening day 2023: 38
How acquired: Signed as free agent, January 2020
Contract: Three-year, $24 million

What more can be said about this unfortunate situation?

The Nationals took a chance on a productive, yet aging 36-year-old reliever after winning the World Series in an effort to reinforce the back end of the bullpen for another title run.

Of course, nothing worked out the way it was supposed to over the next three seasons. The pandemic-shortened campaign, the 2021 trade deadline and the decision to go into full rebuild mode this year shook the Nats organization to its core. All the while, Harris dealt with his own problems.

Harris pitched in 20 games in 2020 and then in only eight games in 2021 before being shut down with a mysterious injury. This past year he learned it was thoracic outlet syndrome, which could be a devastating injury to any pitcher, especially one of his age.

Over his three-year, $24 million contract, Harris only pitched 23 ⅔ innings, allowing 28 hits, 12 earned runs and 12 walks with 30 strikeouts and one save over 28 games.

The question isn’t whether Harris will return to pitch for the Nationals again. It’s whether he’ll return to pitching at all.

Interest level: Low

CÉSAR HERNÁNDEZ – INF
Age on opening day 2023: 32
How acquired: Signed as free agent, November 2021
Contract: One-year, $4 million

Add Hernández to the list of busts from last offseason. He also joins Cruz on the short list of position-player free agents.

One of the few signings the Nationals made before the lockout, the utility infielder was brought in to play multiple positions and get on base at the top of the lineup.

Hernández did play multiple positions, especially down the stretch. But he had -8 Defensive Runs Saved, per FanGraphs, at second base, the position he played the most. And he struggled as a leadoff hitter, batting just .248 with a .311 on-base percentage over his 147 games.

He was not brought in to supply power, but his one home run and 34 RBIs certainly didn’t cut it after he hit a total of 21 homers with 62 RBIs in 2021.

With CJ Abrams and Luis García manning shortstop and second base, respectively, there won’t be room for Hernández in next year’s starting lineup. And while the Nats would like to find another super-utility bench player, they can probably find a replacement-level player on the cheap to cover Hernández’s 0.4 fWAR from this season.

Interest level: Low

ERASMO RAMIREZ – RHP
Age on opening day 2023: 32
How acquired: Signed as minor league free agent, March 2022
Contract: One-year, $700,000

Ramirez is the perfect example of minor league deals that turn out right: Low-cost investment for a high reward in terms of production. General manager Mike Rizzo will surely look to make more signings like this over the offseason.

The right-handed reliever filled numerous roles for the Nats: Long-inning relief, emergency starter, high-leverage escape artist.

While pitching to a 2.92 ERA and 1.077 WHIP in 86 ⅓ innings over 60 games, Ramirez was named the Nationals’ Pitcher of the Year, as voted on by the local media. He was also one of only three major league relievers to finish with an ERA below 3.00 while pitching at least 75 innings.

Ramirez proved his worth and should earn a major league deal before next season. He’s familiar with the Nats and could play a major role on this staff in 2023. But will other teams seeking bullpen help be willing to offer him more money and/or years than the Nationals?

Interest level: High

JOE ROSS – RHP
Age on opening day 2023: 29
How acquired: Traded from Padres, December 2014
Contract: $2.4 million in last year of arbitration eligibility

Tommy John surgery is never good news. That was especially the case for Ross, who learned he needed the operation for the second time in his career in May, months before he was set to become a free agent for the first time.

Now he finds himself in a situation similar to the one that Doolittle was in before re-signing last week. Ross already started his rehab program with the Nationals. There is mutual interest in him returning to D.C. And there probably is little interest outside of Washington in a pitcher recovering from his second Tommy John procedure.

Ross and the Nats know each other. The tricky part is the timeline. It usually takes between 12 and 18 months to recover from Tommy John. That would place Ross on track to be cleared to resume baseball activities in June, at best. It’s more likely than not that Ross will miss all of next year as well, perhaps only returning to pitch late in the season.

Maybe a minor league deal makes the most sense here. That way Ross can continue his rehab with the Nats and, if everything goes well, make a few minor league starts near the end of the year. But don’t expect Ross to make any major league appearances until 2024.

Interest level: Medium

ANÍBAL SÁNCHEZ – RHP
Age on opening day 2023: 39
How acquired: Signed as minor league free agent, March 2022
Contract: One-year, $2 million

Nats fans will always have fond memories of Sánchez. The goofy sunglasses, the singing and dancing, and the team camaraderie he brought to the 2019 World Series run will always bring smiles to faces around here. Not to mention how well he pitched for an aging starter.

In his return to the major leagues this year, Sánchez struggled over his first couple of starts after dealing with a neck impingement for most of the season. But when he turned things around, he was the Nats’ best starter down the stretch.

Over his last eight starts, the right-hander pitched to a 2.06 ERA in 39 ⅓ innings. That stretch may be enough to earn him some looks from other clubs. But as he approaches 40, it might be hard to find any suitors outside of another rebuilding team that is looking for someone to eat innings and be a veteran influence in the clubhouse.

You can never have too much pitching. Injuries and poor production have depleted the Nats rotation over the last couple of years. If the Nationals need starting pitching help at any point next spring and Sánchez remains unsigned, they could look to bring back the master of the “Mariposa” pitch, if he wants to continue his career.

Interest level: Medium-low

You can hear more about these free agents on the MASN All Access Podcast, as Amy Jennings and I discussed it on this week’s episode. Links to podcast platforms and videos are here.

* On a personal note, I got married Saturday and am leaving for our honeymoon Monday morning. I won’t be writing while I’m gone, so my next posts won’t come until the week of Thanksgiving.

Many thanks to Mark Zuckerman and everyone at MASN for covering for me while I enjoy this special time!

Looking at the Nats' organizational depth chart
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