Change is coming for Nationals, but how much?

The Nationals are going to undergo change this winter, of that there’s no doubt. Nine prominent players (Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Eaton, Howie Kendrick, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Aníbal Sánchez, Sean Doolittle, Kurt Suzuki, Eric Thames and Josh Harrison) will either become free agents or could become free agents if their options aren’t picked up. Several others (most notably Michael A. Taylor and Roenis Elías) could be in danger of being non-tendered.

They aren’t all coming back, that much we know. Perhaps the biggest question facing general manager Mike Rizzo, though, is whether any of them are coming back. Which leads into the fundamental dilemma Rizzo and his front office and coaching staff face in the days and weeks to come: Is the core group from the 2019 World Series roster worth keeping together to make another run in 2021, or is it time to move on and try to win another title with a different group?

Zimmerman-Swings-at-PHI-Gray-Sidebar.jpg“We had a lot of bumps on the road this year,” manager Davey Martinez said over the weekend after signing his contract extension. “But I really believe we’ve got the core guys here that we need to win another championship.”

It’s a perfectly reasonable sentiment. Any team boasting a 1-2-3 rotation punch of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, plus a 1-2 offensive punch of Trea Turner and Juan Soto, should feel like it’s good enough to play deep into October.

But even if the big three starters return to their 2019 form after a disappointing 2020, and even if Turner and Soto continue to deliver MVP-caliber production, there are plenty of issues spread out over the rest of the roster that need to be resolved.

And in many of those cases, the issue is whether the player who helped the Nats win it all in 2019 is still the right choice to try to help them win it all in 2021.

In the cases of Eaton and Sánchez, the answer appears to be no. Both veterans were critical parts of the Nationals’ championship run, but both regressed significantly this season and probably aren’t going to have their options picked up ($10.5 million for Eaton, $12 million for Sánchez). The club could always try to bring one or both players back on lesser deals, but it seems more likely the front office will believe it can do better in right field and in the No. 4 starter’s slot.

The trickier decisions come with those veterans who were really important in 2019 and were OK or injured in 2020 but are now a year older and inching closer to the end of their careers.

Does Kendrick, who dealt with a nagging hamstring injury this season and produced a .705 OPS in 25 games, have one more good year in him at 37?

Can Cabrera, who terrorized left-handers this season but was abysmal vs. righties, still do enough as a part-time player to warrant another contract at 35?

Did Doolittle show enough in five relief appearances between stints on the injured list to suggest he can come back as an effective lefty?

And, of course, will the Nationals bring back Zimmerman, believing the club’s first draft pick in 2005 has more in him after he opted out of this season?

“You look at each person individually and separately,” Rizzo said. “I wouldn’t put a whole lot of weight into if they were with us in 2019 or not. To me, 2020’s a different season. The players have responded differently. What type of injuries do they have? What’s the long-term prognosis of those injuries? What does the system look like at that particular position to take over for veteran players? We take all of that into account when we create rosters, and we’ll do the same this year.”

If they choose to move on from any or all of those veterans, do the Nationals have someone younger waiting in the wings to take over? Not in every case.

Carter Kieboom was supposed to replace Anthony Rendon at third base this season, but he struggled mightily at the plate and remains an enigma heading into 2021. Austin Voth and Erick Fedde did little to prove they deserve permanent spots in the rotation. There are no upper-tier prospects at first base, catcher or left-handed reliever ready to jump in and replace Zimmerman, Suzuki and Doolittle.

Change, if it comes, probably needs to come from the outside. Will the Lerner family, which should have plenty of available payroll space to work with, spend big or cite this year’s pandemic-related revenue losses as reason to cut back? Does Rizzo have the kind of prospects who could net an established big leaguer via trade to fill one of the holes?

These are among the questions the Nationals now confront on the heels of a disappointing season. For what it’s worth, this franchise hasn’t missed the playoffs in back-to-back years since 2011. If it’s going to ensure that doesn’t happen in 2021, it’s going to have to figure out how much of the band is worth keeping together and how much they need to add new members to the group.

“We’re always trying to get bigger, better, faster and more successful,” Rizzo said. “But having a good hybrid of exciting young players and experienced veterans was our recipe for success from 2012-19. And we’ll take steps to stick with our philosophy. But I think we have to get a roster that can handle the rigors of a 162-game season and then an extra month of playing. I think after we do our summary of 2020, we’ll find what worked, what didn’t work, what we have to improve on. And by spring training, we’re hoping to have a roster in place that’s going to compete for the National League East championship and the World Series championship.”

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