Can the Same 2016 Nationals Realistically Beat the Cubs in 2017?
Yes, there are going to be big changes coming to Washington that spring from a fulcrum point in early November. But not THOSE kind of changes. There is a whole other kind of transition team that–beginning in November, after the last pitch of the 2016 World Series–will look to build a better future for the Washington Nationals. The Washington baseball transition team needs to decide how to solve the vexing conundrum of the team’s continuing playoff frustrations. How DO you build a team that can go deep into October?
So far Washington has built off high draft picks and Scott Boras talents that they have signed in free agency. That approach built a team that has been one of the best in the Majors over the past five seasons, but has not been able to scratch in the post season. And there is almost no way to continue along that path. The team has not had a high draft pick in five years and this year’s free agent crop is extremely thin. There are many in the local press corps, Chelsea Janes for one, who believe in a less is more approach. A little trim here, a tuck there and all is good. It is a reassuring pat on the back for season ticket holders. I mean no disrespect to anyone, but this current group of fan favorites is getting older, not better. Something needs to change.
The starting point for a new vision for the Washington Nationals in 2017 assumes they need more to beat not just the Los Angeles Dodgers, but the best in both leagues. To make the World Series they need to put together a team that is better than the Chicago Cubs. How do Mike Rizzo and company field a team in April, 2017 that has a legitimate chance at beating the team heavily favored to win this year’s World Series? Tinkering around the edges will not do it. There is no need for a total do-over, but it will require some tough decision-making and targeted personnel acquisitions.
The immediate concern is departing free agents that include closer Mark Melancon, catcher Wilson Ramos and lefty setup man, Mark Rzepcynski. There are numerous free agents to replace Melancon including Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. Melancon himself would be an excellent fit. The Royals are allegedly open to offers for Wade Davis, but that should be a non-starter. The Nationals have chips to trade, but need to use them wisely. The free agent closers are plentiful enough without looking to trade for Wade Davis. Additionally, the Nationals have the salary flexibility to sign a free agent closer without much trouble. Janes projects the Opening Day salaries to be at or above $140 million as things stand–allowing for arbitration raises. Washington salaries were $165 million in 2015, so there is room to operate.
The pat answer for replacing Ramos is to go with Pedro Severino, the rookie who filled in capably for him after the injury. Severino’s .271 batting average at Triple-A Syracuse was encouraging for a 23-year old and he showed remarkable savvy behind the plate during the playoffs. Reserve catcher Jose Lobaton is arbitration eligible and his three-run home run in Game Two against the Dodgers made the difference. Overall, however, neither his defense nor offense warrants more playing time, which would likely come if he and Severino were a tandem. Lobaton is a serviceable backup but should be traded to allow Severino to develop at the Major League level.
The free agent catchers include Jason Castro, Kurt Suzuki and Matt Wieters. Castro would be the cheap option and Wieters the more expensive one, but the Yankees are also shopping Brian McCann. McCann is available because Gary Sanchez has laid claim to his job with notable authority. The Yankees would trade McCann willingly and cheaply. He might provide a good fit with the Nationals. McCann still has pop and while he will be 33 in 2017, he could provide an excellent tandem for Severino. As a left-handed bat McCann could also platoon with Ryan Zimmerman at first base when Dusty Baker wants a different kind of lineup against a tough right-hander.
The most important early decision the Nationals must make is whether to exercise their $12 million option on Gio Gonzalez. Keep him and you are almost certainly settling for the status quo. Gonzalez is a serviceable innings eater who also throws from the left side. He is the only lefty in Washington’s starting rotation, is a likable chap and fan favorite. However, he is is NOT even a fourth starter on a team that wants to win in the playoffs. Gonzalez has excellent stuff and no ability to harness it consistently. Against the Dodgers in Game Three of the NLDS, Gonzalez gave a textbook Gio performance. It took him 83 pitches to get through 4 and 1/3 innings. Carlos Ruiz deposited pitch number 83 into the left field bleachers to get the Dodgers back into the game, trailing 4-3. If the Nationals want more of that and the 4.57 ERA he posted in 2016, it is there for the low, low price of $12 million.
If the Nationals want to beat the Cubs, then they need a better starting rotation that what they had in 2016. Strasburg has proven to be fragile and while they have a lot of good young arms, only Joe Ross showed any consistency in 2016, and he was hurt for two months. A rotation of Scherzer, Strasburg, Roark and Ross is a good one, but adding Gio to that mix hardly recommends for strength in the post-season. That Scherzer’s 2017 Opening Day age is 32 doesn’t help either.
The bold option is to let Gio walk and use some of those good young arms to trade for a top tier left-hander. Two names have been mentioned on MLB Rumors that spring to mind, namely Jose Quintana and Chris Sale. Reportedly Chicago and Boston talked about a trade of the two hurlers, but Boston would not give up Jackie Bradley. Washington has two young outfielders in Brian Goowin and Michael A. Taylor, as well as Lucas Giolito who was surprisingly discussed at the trade deadline as well. Other possibilities include right handers Eric Fedde and Austin Voth. If the Nationals want to play with the big boys, they need a big boy lefty and they have the pieces to craft an acceptable trade with the Chisox for Quintana whom FanGraphs ranks among the top ten pitchers in either league. Quintana is owed $7 million in 2017, which would add less to the Nationals payroll than Gio, allowing more money to be targeted at a high end closer and on the following.
The other bold move is adding an outfielder. This is a more well-recognized need that would allow the Nationals to return Trea Turner to shortstop and move Danny Espinosa back to a utility infield position. Here is where the Nationals can truly make themselves into a team that can compete with the Cubs. A rotation that has Scherzer, Strasburg and Quintana at the top is competitive with anyone, but the offense is what let the Nationals down so often in the 2014 and 2016 playoffs. The free agent market is thin at best, but there is one signing that literally kills two birds with one stone.
Last off-season, the Nationals went after both Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes without success. Cespedes could still be talked out of staying with the New York Mets with an aggressive long term offer. Would he relish a chance to hit behind Daniel Murphy again? Would the Nationals be willing to ride those two bats to the World Series much the way the Mets did in 2015? It is worth considering very seriously and depleting the Mets’ offense would be a big part of the equation.
The Nationals will have to pay Jayson Werth for only one more season, so the ability to sign Cespedes to a long term deal could work financially. Bryce Harper will be a free agent in 2019. He is unlikely to re-sign with the Nationals, so having a stalwart like Cespedes longer term could keep the team competitive for numerous seasons, well into the Victor Robles era.
No one in DC wants to hear about Harper leaving, but outside of Washington most commentators take it as a given. Washington baseball fans are not susceptible to the beltway mentality. They are not New Yorkers who cannot see beyond the five boroughs. So Washington baseball fans should be able to grasp that if Harper does not sign long term this off-season, trading him might be a wise option. Maybe Harper has another MVP season in 2017 and I wish him well regardless. He has been a delight to watch play the field and swing the bat, but after 2018–whatever kinds of numbers he posts–they will occur somewhere else, most likely in New York playing for the Yankees.
The trading deadline in 2016 was the first time that Mike Rizzo has traded away minor league talent for immediate, short term gain. Rivero for Melancon was genius, but Schrock for Rzepcynski was not and it cost the team a player with considerable upside potential for a rental player who helped only marginally. Trading for Quintana or Sale would aggravate the loss of talent in the minors and that is something that cannot be done indefinitely. Trading Harper for Brian McCann and three high quality Yankee prospects–Aaron Judge, Domingo Acevedo and Dustin Fowler might work–would replenish what is lost in the trade for Quintana and then some.
Change is coming to DC after November. The Winter Meetings will be held here on December 4-8. Hopefully there will be one or two bold changes to a lineup that does not look like it can win against the best clubs in the National League. It needs something more and finding it will take imagination rather than stay the course.