The baseball world came to an abrupt halt at midnight Thursday, and we don’t know when the machine is going to be turned back on again. It would be weeks. It could be months.
Which leaves every club and a whole lot of players feeling helpless for the time being. Normally, everyone would be gearing up for the Winter Meetings, which were to begin Monday in Orlando. Trades would’ve been made, free agents would’ve been signed, Scott Boras quips would’ve been trotted out to a throng of reporters hanging on his every word.
Instead, club officials and players have gone their separate ways and aren’t allowed to communicate with each other until a new collective bargaining agreement is ratified and the lockout ends.
Some teams did try to squeeze in weeks’ worth of transactions in the final 48 hours of business, like a poor soul who waited until Christmas Eve to start shopping for presents. Others sat back and made the decision to wait this out and try to address their remaining needs whenever this ordeal is over.
The Nationals most certainly fall into that latter category. They were awfully quiet during the pre-lockout portion of the offseason. They signed only two free agents to major league contracts: infielders Alcides Escobar for $1 million and César Hernández for $4 million. They acquired a couple of depth pieces off waivers: left-hander Francisco Pérez and infielder Lucius Fox. And they released two struggling members of their bullpen via the non-tender process: Wander Suero and Ryne Harper.
Otherwise, the Nats haven’t done much of anything from a roster-building standpoint this winter, focusing instead on making changes to their major league coaching staff and player development operation.
General manager Mike Rizzo can’t make any 40-man roster moves now, but he can set his priorities and make sure when the bell does ring he’s ready to pounce on whatever free agents he believes he needs to acquire to fill remaining holes.
What are those holes? Well, you’ve got to believe the Nationals still want to add a veteran starter to a rotation that was a mess this season and is chocked full of question marks heading into 2022. Most of the big names (Max Scherzer, Robbie Ray, Marcus Stroman, Kevin Gausman, Eduardo Rodriguez, Jon Gray, Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood, Steven Matz, Noah Syndergaard) already signed in the last couple of weeks. But let’s be honest, the Nats were never going to be in the market for those guys. They’ll be looking for a short-term deal, someone who hopefully can be counted on to deliver 150 quality innings and perhaps even be flipped to someone else at the trade deadline for more prospects.
The same philosophy could apply in the bullpen, where an inexperienced group could really use some veteran help. Some top closers (Raisel Iglesias, Kendal Graveman, Corey Knebel, Héctor Neris, Mark Melancon, Daniel Hudson) are already off the board, but a whole lot of experienced late-inning relievers remain unsigned.
Offensively, three big questions remain:
1. Will the Nationals pursue a big bat, most likely to play left field? A certain slugger who went on a historic power surge in June before getting injured and traded to Boston remained a free agent as the lockout commenced. Or if not him, there are other potential options who will be looking for jobs as spring training draws closer.
2. Will someone be bought in to challenge, or possibly outright bump, Carter Kieboom at third base? The Hernández signing could figure into this situation, depending on where the versatile infielder winds up playing, and what that means for Escobar and Luis García. But the Nats could just go get another true third baseman once the market opens for business again.
3. Is Ryan Zimmerman returning for another season? He originally said he’d make his decision around Dec. 1, but he may not have been counting on a lockout disrupting the entire sport right at that critical moment. So now what? Zimmerman has offered hints he wants to return, but he’ll need to start working out soon if that is indeed his plan. And he’ll have to do that without actually having a contract yet.
These are the questions and issues that will linger for the Nationals as long as this transaction freeze endures. And unfortunately, there won’t be any opportunity to answer them until the locks come off the doors.