The Nationals’ biggest offseason questions

The Nationals have been in this position before, entering the offseason following an abrupt and disappointing exit from the postseason, facing a handful of significant questions that need to be addressed in the weeks and months to come.

There’s the managerial situation to sort out. There are some veterans about to become free agents. There are some really important players about to enter their contract years. And there are a few holes that need to be filled.

So as we transition into offseason mode around here, let’s take a preliminary look at the biggest questions the Nationals need to answer before they convene again in West Palm Beach four months from now ...

1. Is Dusty Baker returning as manager?
It’s hard to dispute that Baker has been highly successful in his two seasons at the Nationals’ helm. He inherited an 83-win team with some significant clubhouse discord and proceeded to direct that team to a 95-win season in 2016. Then he led that team to a 97-win season and a second straight division title, despite the fact that team dealt with significant injuries to four of its everyday players and its No. 5 starter, while also being forced to cobble together half a season’s worth of games with a disaster of a bullpen.

Baker-Arms-Crossed-White-Sidebar.jpgIs Baker perfect? No. Does he sometimes manage a game like it’s 1987 instead of 2017? Yes. Have his teams underperformed in October? Yes. But is he beloved by his players? Has he been a calming influence for a franchise that was at a crossroads before he arrived? Is he one of the most successful managers in baseball history? Yes, on all counts.

So why haven’t the Nats signed him to a new contract yet? Because ownership has tended to wait to do these things until they absolutely have to, and because they’ve been burned on the few occasions they did extend a manager before they needed to. And because they wanted to see how this season ended before making a decision on next season.

But a decision should be coming soon. And most would be surprised if that decision doesn’t involve Baker’s return. This franchise has already had six managers in 13 seasons. Not one has lasted more than 2 1/2 years on the job. It’s long past time for some continuity around here.

2. Will they attempt to sign Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy or Anthony Rendon before they become free agents?
We’ve all known this moment was coming for some time, and now the time has officially come. Harper is only under contract with the Nationals for one more season. Which means this is the club’s last chance to negotiate a long-term deal with one of the sport’s biggest stars before he’s free to talk to 29 other clubs.

Players of this caliber who reach their walk year almost always play it out and hit the open market. But there have been a few exceptions, most notably Stephen Strasburg (who signed his $175 million extension in May of his walk year). Few believe Harper (who turns 25 on Monday) is going to make the commitment before having the chance to be a free agent, but the Nationals need to make a legitimate run at it this winter, with a real dollar figure placed on the table for Harper to either accept or decline.

And Harper isn’t the only one in this position. Murphy also enters the final year of his three-year deal. Would the Nats be interested in locking up a guy who in his two seasons here has averaged 24 homers, 98 RBIs, 45 doubles, a .334 batting average and .956 OPS? Or are they going to be scared off by Murphy’s age (he’ll be 34 when his next contract takes effect) and defensive liabilities?

Rendon, meanwhile, is still under club control for two more seasons. But that doesn’t mean the Nationals should forget about him. Now would be the time to start talks about a long-term deal with one of baseball’s best all-around players. And given Rendon’s low-key personality, he might just be the type to want to make a deal now and avoid the attention that comes from free agency.

3. Do they need to upgrade at catcher?
The Nationals already faced this dilemma last winter, after an injured Wilson Ramos became a free agent. General manager Mike Rizzo initially traded for Derek Norris, then signed Matt Wieters after spring training had already begun. (Norris was later released, signed by the Rays and released after domestic abuse charges were leveled against him.)

Wieters wound up having a difficult season, hitting a career-low .225 with a .288 on-base percentage and .632 OPS. He also didn’t rate well behind the plate, ranking 16th out of 21 catchers with at least 750 innings played, according to Fangraphs.

But here’s the thing: Wieters has a $10.5 million player option on his contract. The Nats don’t get to decide if he comes back in 2018. He gets to decide. And the hunch is that he will want to return.

Which means the Nationals have to decide what they want to do with their other catching position. Jose Lobaton, who also had a bad year, is a free agent and is unlikely to be re-signed. Pedro Severino is highly thought of in the organization, but it’s unknown if he’s the long-term answer yet. Raudy Read made his major league debut in September but needs more seasoning.

4. Is this the end of the road for Jayson Werth?
His signing back at the 2010 Winter Meetings was a seminal moment in franchise history, the moment the Nationals declared they intended to make themselves a destination for top-tier free agents. And while he missed considerable time with injuries and really saw his production decline the last two seasons, Werth unquestionably had a positive impact on the Nats (and will continue to have that impact for years after he’s gone).

The time to part ways, though, has come. And both sides know it. Werth turned awfully sentimental (by his standards) over the last few months. And he was on the verge of choking up following the Game 5 loss to the Cubs, recognizing he had just played his last game for this team.

Werth has said all along he believes he can keep playing for several more years. The question is how many teams out there are going to be interested, and at what price and for what role? Werth turns 39 in May. Is he a productive enough offensive player at this point to be a full-time DH? Is he willing to accept a significantly reduced contract to be a bench player in 2018? Is there a chance he not only has played his last game for the Nationals, but his last game in the big leagues?

5. Are more pitching reinforcements needed?
The core four of the Nationals rotation will return intact next season, with Max Scherzer, Strasburg, Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez all under contract. But they may need to go outside in search of a reliable No. 5 starter. Joe Ross won’t be back from Tommy John surgery until midseason (at best) and top prospect Erick Fedde is far from a sure thing. The Nats got by with Edwin Jackson for 2 1/2 months; they probably need to do better in 2018.

And though Rizzo did a masterful job of revamping his bullpen midseason, he still will be looking a relief corps with plenty of holes this winter. Sean Doolittle is under team control for three more seasons, and Ryan Madson is already signed for 2018. But Brandon Kintzler, Matt Albers, Oliver Pérez and Joe Blanton are all free agents and will need to be replaced. Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley will be trying to come back from significant injuries. Sammy Solís and Enny Romero remain inconsistent options.

Look for Rizzo to go after at least one prominent reliever this winter (probably a lefty) and perhaps make a run at re-signing Albers (who enjoyed pitching here this season).

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