NASHVILLE – The Nationals’ winter wish list – first base, third base, left field, starting pitcher – reads a whole lot like it did one year ago, when Mike Rizzo filled those needs with one-year deals for Dominic Smith, Jeimer Candelario and Corey Dickerson, plus a two-year deal for Trevor Williams.
So, is it fair to assume the same type of approach this winter, or might the Nats take a different tack this time around?
“We’ve got several holes to fill,” the general manager said tonight in his first media session of the Winter Meetings. “We’ve got our work cut out for us this year, and I think we’re going to take our aggressive approach when it suits us and wait for the market when it suits us. I think we’re going to be busy here.”
“Busy,” of course, doesn’t necessarily mean the Nationals will leave town with any new players signed. It may refer only to meetings they take with agents, which could eventually lead to the signing of new players.
Rizzo doesn’t deny, though, what he’s looking for.
“I think you’re seeing everyone’s needs are the same,” he said. “Everyone needs starting pitching in the whole sport. We’re no different. You can never have enough of it, and we’re in search of it.”
Starting pitching doesn’t come cheap, with veterans like Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson still getting at least $10 million guaranteed even after struggling this season. The Nats may have a hard time topping that, especially if they’re only seeking a back-of-the-rotation starter to eat innings.
There are more viable options for the three positions they currently lack, having cut loose both Smith and Dickerson after disappointing performances and traded Candelario to the Cubs in July for pitching prospect DJ Herz and minor league infielder Kevin Made.
“I think we’re going to be aggressive again this year looking for a bat that can play the corner infield, be it third base or first base or DH or left field, or a combination of all three of those,” Rizzo said. “And then we’ll resort back to getting more pitching.”
Candelario would certainly fit that description, perhaps as a short-term answer at third base until top prospect Brady House is big-league-ready and then moving to first base or DH long-term. The 30-year-old spoke glowingly about his four months in D.C., and the feeling was mutual from the Nationals.
But after accepting a $5 million deal last winter when the Tigers non-tendered him, Candelario is sure to command a much larger contract this time around. He should get at least three years (maybe four), with an average annual salary approaching or even exceeding $15 million.
Would that still fit within the Nationals’ parameters?
“I’m not supposed to name specific free agents, but he’s a great guy,” Rizzo said. “We liked what he did for us last year. And knowing that if you want to go after that type of player, you’re going to have to go multiple years. I think we’re prepared to do that also, in the right situation.”
First base could be held by Joey Meneses (who was restricted to mostly DH duties this season while dealing with nagging knee issue that was only revealed publicly today by manager Davey Martinez) or a free agent or a combination of the two.
Left field figures to be manned by a yet-to-be-signed free agent, with the Nationals hoping for better results this time than they got from Dickerson (.637 OPS, two homers, 17 RBIs in 152 plate appearances).
Rizzo does have to thread a needle, though, when filling his current lineup holes. With top prospects Dylan Crews, James Wood, House and others perhaps ready to debut sometime in 2024, the Nationals can’t block their prospective positions with veterans who don’t figure into the organization’s long-term plans.
“We’re not going to block guys,” the GM said. “But if we’re fortunate enough that we have this influx of guys knocking on the big league door, then that’ll be a good day for us here. Players, they tell me when they’re ready by their play on the field. We’ve never had a problem with moving players quickly to the big leagues if they can perform up there. And we’ll have no qualms about putting them there now.”
If they’re able to consummate a deal with any free agents this week, the Nationals do have two open slots on their 40-man roster. They achieved that by dropping pitchers Joe La Sorsa and Roddery Muñoz last week, with La Sorsa clearing waivers and getting outrighted to Triple-A Rochester but Muñoz claimed by the Pirates.
Still occupying space on the 40-man roster, meanwhile, is Stephen Strasburg, the 2019 World Series MVP who has made only eight major league starts since and has conceded he won’t be able to pitch again following a string of debilitating injuries. Because Strasburg and the Nats haven’t been able to work out details of a retirement agreement that settles how and when he’s paid the $105 million he’s still owed on his $245 million contract, he is required to stay on the 40-man roster throughout the offseason and spring training.
Suffice it to say, it makes for an awkward and less-than-ideal situation.
“I don’t want to get into the Strasburg situation. Is it unfortunate that he’s taking up a roster spot? Yeah, it’s unfortunate,” Rizzo said. “But these things are above your and my pay grade. We’re going to let the Players’ Association and Major League Baseball sort this thing out. The bottom line is: Stephen Strasburg’s one of ours. He’s a pillar of the organization. His name’s going to be in the Ring of Honor someday. And I love the guy. So that’s where I leave it.”