Oct 9, 2015, 6:00 AM EDT
The 2015 season was a massive disappointment for the Nationals, who fell short of the playoffs and a World Series title they were expected to compete for. In attempt to make sense of what went wrong for them and how they can prevent it from happening again, we’ve put together a three-part series on the 2015 season. In our third installment, we look at what the Nationals have to accomplish this offseason…
AFTER A DISAPPOINTING 2015, WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE NATIONALS?
If this was the most eventful season in Nationals history, this very well might be the most fascinating offseason in Nationals history. There is so much that needs to be done, so much more that could be done and so many different directions the club could go to try to make it happen.
Consider everything on Mike Rizzo’s plate in the days and months ahead…
— Hire a manager and coaching staff
— Replace four key free agents
— Reconstruct a bullpen
— Gauge the trade market for Drew Storen, Yunel Escobar and others
— Figure out what to do with Jonathan Papelbon
— Potentially start negotiations with Bryce Harper on a long-term deal
What makes this winter fascinating for the Nationals is that there are no simple answers/fixes to any of those issues.
Is the search for a new manager as simple as Bud Black vs. Ron Gardenhire, or does Rizzo give a long, hard look at guys without big-league managerial experience but years in the minors on on major-league coaching staffs?
Do the Nats use in-house replacements for Jordan Zimmermann (Joe Ross), Doug Fister (Tanner Roark), Denard Span (Michael Taylor) and Ian Desmond (Trea Turner) or do they look outside the organization to fill some of those holes?
How do you reconstruct a bullpen? Free agency? Trades? Promotions from within the system? All of the above?
Do you try to sell high on Escobar, or do you need the veteran to be part of your 2016 infield? What is Storen’s value on the trade market right now, and might he be more valuable in the end to your team?
Are you willing to eat $11 million to dump Papelbon, or might somebody out there be willing to give up something for him? Or is there any possible way you bring him back and hope all is forgotten?
And how serious do you want to get right now into extension talk with Harper, who is three years from free agency but is only going to cost more with each passing day?
Ultimately, I think you can lump all of this into one overriding issue: This is an offseason in which the Nationals need to restore their good name.
This franchise was held in high regard not long ago, but the events of 2015 (especially over the final month) put a serious dent into that reputation. Rizzo and the Lerner family have an opportunity to correct that this winter, both by making smart baseball decisions but also by establishing an organizational philosophy for everything they do.
Do they really value character above all else? Do they have faith in their home-grown talent? Are they willing to spend the money it will require to address roster holes, hire an experienced manager and lock up the best young player in baseball for years to come?
That’s a tall task for one offseason, but the Nationals left themselves in this position through their on-field performance and the manner in which they handled things off the field.
It’s up to Rizzo and ownership to make significant strides toward fixing that overarching problem during what promises to be a fascinating winter.
Several of the Nationals’ objectives for this offseason are obvious. For one, they need to find a new manager and ideally one who will be around for a while. Their bullpen is an absolute mess and will likely need a complete overhaul. Not only do they need to add a large group of relievers, they may have to sell low on both their setup man and closer in trades.
The Nationals, however, do still have plenty working in their favor. They have one of the best players in baseball to build around and another wave of young pitchers emerging in their system. Their payroll is also dropping considerably with the expected departure of four key players who combined to make $47.9 million in 2015.
The Nationals have financial flexibility even with Max Scherzer’s contract and even with the salaries of Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman. Even though they have few holes on their roster, the Nats can pretty much do anything they want to retool and reload.
Speaking of money, that Bryce Harper guy is someday going to command a lot of it. One would have to imagine the Nationals will at least try to have a conversation this winter about a long-term extension. Getting something done three years before he can test free agency is unlikely, but the attempt has to be made. Perhaps a seed can be planted, a foundation can be laid to get an extension done next offseason or the following winter.
As far as actually adding players, the most obvious non-bullpen hole is outfield depth. They signed Nate McLouth two years ago to be their fourth outfielder. They thought he was a starting-caliber player who could fill in for the inevitable 100 games or so that would be up for grabs with the dubious health histories of Werth, Harper and Denard Span. That didn’t work out, of course, but expect the Nationals to be on the hunt for a similar player this offseason with the hope for better results. Maybe they circle back to Ben Zobrist, whom they have long been known to covet.
In terms of the outfield, could the Nationals go bigger than we think and sign a marquee name? There is a lot of depth at there with Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes, to name a few. It would be surprising if they bumped Michael Taylor from the lineup, but I thought Tanner Roark’s rotation spot was safe at this time last year. And, with Werth’s durability issues – he’s played in only 68 percent of their games over the last four seasons – there could be plenty of at-bats to go around. Plus, with Werth’s contract expiring in two years, outfield is technically a long-term need.
The Nats’ starting rotation may already be set with Scherzer, Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Joe Ross and Roark returning. Throw Lucas Giolito in and that’s a solid six with a very high ceiling, depending on the development of Ross and Giolito.
But, if we have learned anything about Rizzo, a good rotation on paper entering an offseason does not mean he is comfortable. Each winter Rizzo has had something up his sleeve whether it be signing Scherzer or trading for Doug Fister or Gio. Don’t be surprised if another trade like that is in the works. He has financial flexibility and a farm system stocked with young arms to deal from.
The one other area where I think the Nationals could pull off a surprise move is at catcher. Wilson Ramos was healthy this season, but his production at the plate was not what many expected it would be if he could stay on the field. Does that now highlight the catcher position as a spot they could improve? Matt Wieters, who happens to be represented by Scott Boras, is the best free agent at the position.
The Nationals’ roster has few holes outside of the bullpen, but that hasn’t stopped Rizzo and their front office from being aggressive in the past. I fully expect the same this time around, for them to load up both in free agency and through trades to restock and revitalize a team for 2016 in what should be an improved NL East division.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
ON THE RADIO
As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
MON: 12:45 p.m.
TUE: 2:30 p.m.
WED: 4:30 p.m.
THU: 2:30 p.m.
FRI: 5:30 p.m.
SAT: 10:30 a.m.
*All times Eastern. You can also listen to the station on 94.3 FM, 92.7 FM and online at ESPN980.com. Click here for past audio clips.
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