The 2023 Major League Baseball season has been submitted to the history books. Congratulations to the Texas Rangers on removing themselves from the “Never Won a World Series” list. Now, the offseason has arrived for the entire sport.
For the Washington Nationals, this offseason is one of continual transition, but an important, offseason nonetheless. The team is coming off a 16-win improvement from the dreadful 55-win 2022 campaign and boasts one of the better farm systems in baseball and certainly the Nats’ best in over a decade. In particular, the system is top-heavy with high-end talents who could play in the majors in 2024 – James Wood, Dylan Crews, Brady House, Cade Cavalli and Yohandy Morales.
The Nats are eyeing 2025 as a return to contention, but they can get a head start on the 2025 roster now. And hey, we just witnessed two teams two years removed from 100-plus-loss seasons – as the Nats are now – face each other in the World Series. So, who knows.
Washington is in a good position to let the market play out and pounce on value when it’s there. There is no immediate pressure to contend nor is there any reason to sit out the offseason completely. The front office must balance improving the club while not blocking its top prospects. Teams in the Nationals’ spot are always well served to see how the market is playing out and do the opposite – eg., be aggressive if nothing is happening and wait it out if it is hyperactive and see whose left when the dust settles.
Below is a realistic potential roadmap this winter that fills needs for the short and long term while maintaining flexibility going forward.
First, the 40-man roster will sit at 41 once the 60-day Injured List players are returned to the active roster in the offseason, so some immediate trimming is mandatory. The Nats only have one departing free agent from last season in Carl Edwards Jr. Michael Chavis, Blake Rutherford, Travis Blankenhord and Victor Arano were outrighted at the end of the season and opted for Major League free agency. Hobie Harris is now a Minor League free agent.
So, the first thing we need to look at is the list of candidates to be non-tendered or designated for assignment. But before we get to that there is an obvious elephant in the room in the status of Stephen Strasburg. This is a unique situation in which Strasburg is still under contract for three more years but is effectively retired. He will never pitch again, and a retirement ceremony was planned during the summer. But for some reason, owner Mark Lerner has decided to engage in a public fight with a franchise icon over money. It is one of the more embarrassing episodes in a recent string of them. The bottom line is the team needs to clear that roster spot. They should Strasburg every cent he’s owed and let him retire with dignity and hold a ceremony early next season in which the fans can say their goodbyes.
Strasburg aside, the Nats have two arbitration-eligible players who are non-tender candidates in Dominic Smith and Victor Robles. Smith and Robles are under team control, but sometimes players aren’t as good as what they are projected to make in arbitration, so the team will either non-tender them, effectively making them free agents, or agree to terms beneath the arbitration projection.
Smith is the most obvious non-tender candidate. He is projected to make $4.3 million in his final year of team control. While Smith finished strongly offensively and was a major help defensively in a young infield while serving as a mentor to young players – especially CJ Abrams – that figure is too steep. The team needs a power bat at that position. Smith and Joey Meneses just don’t slug enough to warrant everyday at-bats at first base.
Robles is a much more complicated situation. Robles had a $3.3 million team option for 2024, which the team has declined to pick up. So, now he will either be non-tendered or agree to an arbitration salary under $3.3 million. The former top prospect has just never put it together and clearly has fallen out of favor with many in the organization due to maturity issues. Admittedly, his MLBTR arbitration projection of $2.7 million is doable for a good defensive center fielder. But I would move on. I would much rather give those at-bats to Jacob Young early next season, with James Wood and Dylan Crews waiting in the wings. There is an argument that Robles could be motivated to perform next season in a walk year and perhaps could give the Nats a trade asset if he plays well, but that seems unlikely. However, general manager Mike Rizzo has traditionally been loath to give up on former top prospects. Something tells me Robles will be back for one last go, but I would advocate for cutting bait.
Rule 5 Protection
In addition to removing players from the 40-man roster, the Nats will also have to decide which Rule 5 Draft-eligible players they want to protect by adding to the 40-man roster. Every winter, Major League Baseball stages the Rule 5 Draft, in which teams can select unprotected players from other organizations but must keep them on the Major League roster for an entire season to keep the player. Otherwise, they must return the player back to their original organization. Last year, the Nats took Thaddeus Ward with the first overall pick of the Rule 5 Draft and kept him in the organization through some clever Injured List manipulation.
I would add four players to the 40-man roster and protect them from the Rule 5 Draft: LHP DJ Herz, RHP Zach Brzykcy, RHP Cole Henry and LHP Mitchell Parker. Herz, who was acquired in the Jeimer Candelario trade, is a slam dunk. He’s the best prospect on this list and could be a part of the bullpen soon. Brzykcy missed all of last season due to Tommy John surgery, but should be in the majors shortly after he is done rehabbing in Triple-A. Brzykcy has back-of-the-bullpen stuff. Henry, a former second-round pick, once was one of the top prospects in the Nats’ system but has simply not been able to stay healthy. He returned from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery last year to very inconsistent results and plenty of missed time due to setbacks. That said, it seems the team is ready to move him to the bullpen, where his stuff can play and his MLB timeline can be accelerated as his stuff is good enough to get big-league hitters out when he's healthy. Parker is similar to Herz as a funky lefty who strikes out a lot of guys with middling velocity and poor command.
Other potential options include LHP Tim Cate, UTIL Jackson Cluff and RHP Holden Powell. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cate was protected over Parker. He is a former second-rounder who is strictly a reliever with a big curveball. Powell was an elite college reliever who has never been healthy or productive. Cluff is an organizational depth guy, but the front office has always seemed higher on him than anyone else. Frankly, Rizzo’s decisions here have often baffled me, so this will probably prove to be way off.
If you’re keeping a mental tally of the roster, the roster would sit at 42 if they figure something out with Strasburg and move on from Robles and Smith while adding Herz, Henry, Brzykcy and Parker.
Realistically, however, the Strasburg dilemma won’t be solved in a timely fashion and the roster would sit at 43 for the relevant time period.
That won’t be a problem as the roster has improved but still has plenty of fat to trim to get down to 40 and continue to trim incrementally as free agents are signed. The following players will be on the chopping block this winter and into Spring Training: Jeter Downs, Matt Cronin, Cory Abbott, Roddery Munoz, Carter Kieboom, Amos Willingham, Andres Machado, Alex Call and Jeremy De La Rosa.
I would not feel comfortable if I was anyone on that list, with Kieboom being the trickiest to figure as he is a former first-round pick, the team has no better third-base option ahead of free agency and he is out of options.
Now to the fun part. Instead of listing potential targets, I’m going to list specific players I think make a ton of sense for the Nats in their current position. The roster still has plenty of holes, and the following players all would help without breaking the bank, blocking young players or hurting the Nats’ ability to be aggressive in future years. Here is my ideal free-agent class.
1B/DH Rhys Hoskins
This would be the only “splash” signing for me. I have wanted Hoskins for a year now. It seems very unlikely he will return to Philadelphia, and he is a good fit for the Nats’ roster. The lineup desperately needs an influx of power. Hoskins obviously can provide that. He is also known for being a good teammate and the Nats’ farm system is completely devoid of first basemen unless you count Yohandy Morales as a first baseman. That’s a bridge you cross later. Hoskins may have better teams vying for him, but he could still be had at a doable price, and you could sell him on the reinforcements coming to protect him in the lineup soon. He would be my No. 1 priority as he serves an immediate need and could also be a lineup mainstay on contending Nats teams of the future.
RHP Seth Lugo
Before speaking about Lugo specifically, a word on the Nats’ rotation in general. In one way or another, the team is going to have to acquire high-end pitching externally. MacKenzie Gore is very promising but not a sure thing. Josiah Gray has certainly had his moments, but there are also a lot of red flags on his Baseball-Reference page. Cade Cavalli has the best stuff but is coming back from Tommy John and we have no idea what the future holds. It’s too early to determine Jake Irvin or Jackson Rutledge’s futures. Patrick Corbin and Trevor Williams are here one more year if they even get through the season. So, if the Nats decided to stun the industry and sign Blake Snell or Aaron Nola, there would be logic to it, and I would support the move. But more likely, the Nats will wait a year to pounce on pitching. Rizzo had interest in signing Lugo and making him a starter before the Padres signed him and did exactly that. Lugo is a solid pitcher and an instant upgrade who can help at an affordable price.
RHP Jack Flaherty
It’s hard to predict Flaherty’s market based on his injury history and wildly oscillating production. This could be a good upside play for a team in the Nats’ position. They could strike gold or get nothing from him. But the Nats could initially guarantee him a place in the rotation, which many contenders won’t be able to do. I’d absolutely roll the dice here.
RHP Phil Maton
Maton is a solid, reliable reliever who can fill multiple roles and lengthen a bullpen in need of proven vets. They would likely have to overpay to keep him from a contender, but Maton could provide playoff experience if the Nats make the postseason in the coming years. He would help in the now and in the later, when the team should be a contender itself.
LHP Brent Suter
Washington has very little in the way of lefty relievers. Suter is solid if not spectacular. He could pitch in short stints vs. lefties, serve as an opener and provide multiple innings. He is also one of the great personalities in the game and would be a major asset in the clubhouse.
3B Mike Moustakas
Moustakas is not a good player anymore, but hear me out. The Nats don’t have anything at third base right now, either. They need to sign someone to keep the seat warm for Brady House. Moustakas could play part time with Ildemaro Vargas or Carter Kieboom at third, but this would be a clubhouse culture signing. Moustakas is a baller with an attitude who has won a championship and knows the pressure of performing as an elite prospect. Rizzo loves to sign guys like this just to have them around. Assuming Moustakas doesn’t want to retire yet, the Nats could offer more playing time than most teams. I know there is chatter about bringing Jeimer Candelario back, but in my opinion, you struck gold there once and I don’t want to sign anyone to a multi-year deal at that position.
LF David Peralta
This is another veteran presence signing. The Nats also need a lefty bat as they currently have nothing but righties in the outfield until James Wood debuts and we have no idea how Stone Garrett will be moving after his injury. This would be a low-risk signing and someone you could easily move on from if he’s totally washed up like Corey Dickerson a year ago.
I don’t know what the Nats will do this winter. They say they won’t be incredibly active, but you should never take anyone at their word in this industry. Maybe they will be passive, but I wouldn’t at all be stunned if they turn out to be much more active than anticipated.
Trades don’t seem a viable path at this point, nor should it unless they are minor deals. One more year of acquiring assets should give the Nats plenty of powder to aggressively pursue trades a year from now to fortify a roster that should be aiming to contend.