An offseason of uncertainty begins for Nationals

The World Series ended last week. They held a parade in Atlanta. More than 180 players officially became free agents. The general managers’ meetings are currently taking place in Carlsbad, Calif.

Suffice it to say, the offseason has begun. And for the Nationals, it’s an offseason loaded with more questions and less certainty than anyone around here has experienced in a long time.

Some winters, the storylines and the objectives are crystal clear. This winter? It’s anybody’s guess, with the franchise’s decision to tear down and rebuild coinciding with Major League Baseball’s pending labor war to create a whole lot of unknowns at this point.

This isn’t as simple as asking what roster holes the Nats need to fill and running through the various options available to them. We really don’t even know yet if they intend to fill roster holes, or at least fill them with anything other than short-term solutions. We don’t know how much money general manager Mike Rizzo has to spend, or wants to spend. And on top of all that, we don’t even know what rules MLB will have in place for rosters in 2022, and probably won’t for weeks or even months.

So, yeah, it’s tough to draw any conclusions right now, not with any level of certainty.

Do the Nationals have needs? Yes. Several come to mind.

They need pitching, plain and simple. That could come in multiple forms, though. They could certainly use an experienced big league starter, someone who could be counted on to take the ball 30 times, total 160-plus innings and take some of the workload off the inexperienced and the returning-from-injury members of the current rotation.

Thumbnail image for Rogers-Throws-Blue-Debut-Sidebar.jpgIf the season began today, they’d be choosing from a pool that includes Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Joe Ross, Josiah Gray, Erick Fedde, Paolo Espino, Josh Rogers, and perhaps Cade Cavalli and Joan Adon. There really are no sure things in that entire group. Potential, yes. Guys with track records from several years ago, yes. But sure things, no.

The bullpen has even fewer locks. Tanner Rainey and Kyle Finnegan may figure into the late-inning plan, but one or two veterans with real experience pitching the eighth and ninth innings would sure help make life a lot easier on manager Davey Martinez.

There aren’t as many obvious holes to fill in the lineup. Truth be told, the Nationals could go into spring training with the same eight guys who held down regular roles in September. But that probably won’t happen.

Third base and left field, in particular, seem like the positions most likely to be upgraded. Carter Kieboom hasn’t come close to proving he’s the answer at third, and the 2016 first round pick has had ample opportunity to do so at this point. At minimum, you’d think they’d want to provide some spring training competition for him.

And though Yadiel Hernandez did some nice things at the plate this season, the 34-year-old doesn’t look like an everyday major league left fielder. He may figure into the mix in some capacity, but a more proven power hitter and capable defensive corner outfielder would make a lot of sense.

The Nationals did already re-sign their starting shortstop, Alcides Escobar, with a modest $1 million deal right after the season ended. But that deal doesn’t necessarily guarantee the veteran the everyday job. Escobar could wind up in more of a utility role if Rizzo seeks a more productive starter at shortstop.

And what if the Nats need a full-time designated hitter next year? They won’t know that until there’s a new CBA, but there’s a more-than-realistic chance every team in the National League will have nine true hitters in 2022, which could add another item to their winter shopping list.

Then again, maybe Ryan Zimmerman figures into that mix, if he chooses to return for another season. The face of the franchise has said he’s not likely to make his decision until at least December, so the team can’t do much for the next several weeks but wait with the rest of us for that momentous announcement.

Of course, everything could be put on hold if there’s no new CBA before the current one expires Dec. 1. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB Players Association head Tony Clark can speak with all the optimism they want, but history shows us these things tend not to get done until there’s real pressure on both sides to strike a deal. Will either the owners or the players feel pressure on Dec. 1, some 11 weeks before pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report?

If they don’t, we could be looking at an offseason lockout, which would put a halt to free agency and all other business for a while. It’s entirely possible December and January will be dead, leading to frantic February of signings and trades once a new CBA is in place.

This is the environment the Nationals find themselves as the offseason begins in earnest. It’s full of questions, short on answers and promises to be unlike any we’ve witnessed in a long time.

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