With a brief Thanksgiving break behind them, the Nationals get back to work today on what is sort of the unofficial first true day of the hot stove league.
Yes, roster moves have already been made over the last few weeks and a few other clubs have already signed a handful of prominent free agents. But most of the significant offseason transactions happen between Thanksgiving and Inauguration Day, and so that portion of the baseball calendar commences now.
A week from today, the Winter Meetings begin at National Harbor. And the Nationals figure not only to be front-and-center as the pseudo-hosts of the annual event, but also as a prime participant in the rumor mill that will consume everyone in attendance. They have several holes to fill, not to mention some other improvements they could choose to make, depending on how bold they’re willing to be to get it done.
We know what the Nationals probably need. But what about what they already have? Between those 2016 roster members who are now free agents, plus some other moves that have been made since season’s end, the organizational depth chart looks a little different than you might remember it.
And so let’s run through it all right now, using this as something of a refresher course on where things currently stand for the Nationals, where they are well-stocked and where they are thin. Everyone listed here is either on the 40-man roster or is a high-level prospect who figures to be in the mix for a big-league roster spot at some point in 2017.
Outlook: With Wilson Ramos a free agent and rehabbing from a torn ACL, the Nationals find themselves needing a new No. 1 catcher. They could go outside the organization, or they could decide to try some combination of Lobaton (the veteran backup who excels behind the plate) and Severino (the rookie who has impressed in limited playing time to date). Kieboom and Read are organizational depth, but neither is likely ready for any kind of significant role in the majors at this point.
Outlook: Zimmerman remains the starting first baseman, both because of his contract (three more guaranteed years for a guaranteed $48 million) and his standing within the organization. But the pressure’s on the veteran to bounce back from an awful 2016. Robinson provides a solid left-handed backup option, with Murphy a more plausible alternative to slide over from second base if a long-term replacement is needed. Snyder, a Northern Virginia native and former Orioles first-round pick, just joined the organization on a minor-league deal. Skole and Marmolejos were recently added to the 40-man roster.
Outlook: Murphy, the reigning National League MVP runner-up, won’t need much backup help unless he gets hurt or is needed to switch to first base at some point. If another second baseman is needed, Turner could take that spot, shifting from either center field or shortstop. Espinosa also has plenty of experience on that side of the infield (if he doesn’t retain the starting shortstop’s job). With Stephen Drew a free agent, Difo could be in prime position to make the opening day roster as a utility infielder. Joseph, who played for the Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate this season, just joined the Nats on a minor-league deal.
Outlook: The Nationals have some options here. They could stick with Espinosa, prioritizing his defense over his one-dimensional and streaky offensive abilities. They could move Turner back to his natural position, prioritizing offense in that scenario. Or they could try to find a shortstop elsewhere, though that seems the least likely possibility of the three. Difo would serve as a backup unless the club re-signs Drew or acquires another veteran infielder.
Outlook: This is Rendon’s job, and nothing is going to change that unless he gets hurt. Neither Difo, Espinosa nor Murphy has extensive playing time at third base, but all have done it and could do it if needed. Skole also has played the hot corner in the minors.
Outlook: Werth enters the seventh and final year of his contract, hoping to still be able to produce at 38 the same way he has throughout the majority of his time in D.C. Revere is a strong candidate to be non-tendered before Friday’s deadline, but the Nats could elect to keep him either as their starting center fielder or as a fourth outfielder, hoping he bounces back from an awful 2016. Heisey’s primary role will once again be as a pinch-hitter, but he can play all three outfield positions. Goodwin will try to push his way onto the opening day roster with a strong spring. Robinson has been used in left field in the past, though he was exclusively a first baseman this season.
Michael A. Taylor
Outlook: Turner was outstanding during the second half of the season, learning how to play the outfield on the fly. The Nationals must now decide whether to keep him out there or bring him back to his natural positions in the middle infield. If they do move him in, they’ll have to decide whether to take a chance on either Revere or Taylor bouncing back from rough seasons, or whether to acquire another outfielder that either could play center or else play a corner position and slide Harper to center. Goodwin could make it as a backup. Bautista isn’t ready yet, but the intriguing prospect is now on the 40-man roster.
Outlook: Mike Rizzo prefers to keep Harper in right field, where he won the MVP in 2015, because it produces less wear and tear on his young superstar than center field. That said, the general manager would be comfortable shifting Harper to center if he acquires another corner outfielder. The rest of this group fall into the role of backups.
Outlook: The Nationals have five established big-league starters, including the reigning Cy Young Award winner in Scherzer, a two-time All-Star (who is coming off an elbow injury) in Strasburg, the most underrated pitcher in baseball in Roark, a veteran left-hander in Gonzalez and a promising young right-hander in Ross. They also have high-end depth, though all four young righties (Giolito, Lopez, Cole, Voth) are unproven and still need to establish they can be successful in the majors. That doesn’t mean Rizzo won’t still go out and acquire another big-name starting pitcher, though. We’ve seen him do it before, and we’ve seen the Nationals attached to the likes of Chris Sale in trade rumors already this winter.
Outlook: There is plenty of work still to be done here. Mark Melancon, Marc Rzepczynski, Matt Belisle and Sean Burnett are all free agents. Any of them could return to Washington, but none are assured of doing that. Kelley and Treinen will return as key right-handers, with Solis and Perez returning as key lefties. Glover has the stuff and makeup to perhaps be a big-league closer, but he still has much to prove. Gott, Martin and Grace all pitched at times for the Nats this season and provide needed organization depth. Cordero, a flame-throwing right-hander, was just acquired from the Phillies and will get a look in spring training. So will Lara and Eitel, recently signed to minor-league deals with invitations to big league camp.