At this point 12 months ago, the Nationals had three holes to fill in their 2023 starting lineup. They needed a left fielder. They needed a third baseman. And, after choosing not to tender a contract to Luke Voit, they needed a first baseman (or designated hitter).
Mike Rizzo promptly filled all three of those holes in the form of Corey Dickerson, Jeimer Candelario and Dominic Smith, who combined made less than $10 million. One of them worked out wonderfully and was flipped at the trade deadline for a pitching prospect who could make his major league debut next season. The other two didn’t work out at all, with Dickerson injured and unproductive and out of a job by early August, and Smith offering smooth defensive work but not nearly enough offense at a traditionally offense-first position.
So as they progress into the heart of this offseason, the Nationals find themselves yet again with three lineup holes to fill. They need a left fielder. They need a third baseman. And, after choosing to designate Smith for assignment this week, they need a first baseman (or DH).
There are, to be fair, some potential in-house options at each position. Stone Garrett could be the starting left fielder, but how confident is the team in his ability to be 100 percent recovered from a gruesome broken leg by Opening Day? Carter Kieboom or Ildemaro Vargas or Jake Alu could be the third baseman, but none provides the kind of assured offense you’d think the Nats prefer at that position. And they could make Joey Meneses their regular first baseman and hope his defense is good enough, but even then, would still need to find another DH.
So, it feels like Rizzo is probably going to be looking once again to fill all three of those holes from outside the organization.
The real question, though, is whether he intends to mirror last winter’s strategy and sign three veterans to modest, one-year contracts, or whether he might be bolder and try to acquire a long-term answer for at least one of those vacant positions.
The all-important caveat is that the organization hopes it has long-term answers in the upper levels of the minor leagues, young cornerstones who could be ready to debut sometime in 2024.
How much do the Nationals want to spend on a left fielder if James Wood or Dylan Crews is ready to take over come June or July? How committed are they to acquiring a new third baseman if Brady House or Trey Lipscomb or Yohandy Morales stakes his claim to the job by midsummer? Is it worth it to get another first baseman if Morales might actually be bumped to the other side of the diamond because House or Lipscomb seizes the third base job first?
Rizzo was asked during the season’s final weekend how he intended to balance the readiness of prospects with the need for proven players available in free agency.
“I mean, our top prospects are certainly a year further along in their development, certainly closer to the big leagues,” he said. “When you can perform at a high level at the Double-A level, that’s an important milestone for me in gauging timelines and that type of thing. So we like where we’re at. I think that the players have really, if not exceeded our expectations, have definitely met our expectations in how they’ve developed and how they’ve come along.”
Interpret that as you like, but there’s at least some admission on Rizzo’s part that he doesn’t want to do anything that might block prospects from having a starting job in D.C. whenever they’re ready.
That again suggests short-term signings are more likely than long-term signings.
Unless Rizzo is convinced there’s someone available right now who makes sense in both the short- and long-term, someone who makes more sense now than anyone who could be available next winter.
That’s the real underlying story of this offseason: Are the Nationals ready to make any big splash and acquire a part of an eventual contender now, or are they content to wait and see who makes it from within their refurbished farm system before deciding what else they might still need from the outside to complete the puzzle?