4 roster holes the Nats need to address this offseason originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
Change is coming for the Nationals this offseason after finishing 65-97, their worst record since losing 103 games in 2009. Washington entered the year with World Series aspirations, but those hopes faded by mid-summer and the club instead traded away most of the veterans on its roster in an effort to build for the future.
Even with some young players emerging as potential everyday regulars, the Nationals are expected to be busy this offseason. While Mike Rizzo and Co. aren’t expected to go all in on returning to the playoffs in 2021, there are still plenty of roster holes that need filling.
Which positions will be at the top of their priority list? Here are four spots the Nationals should address this offseason.
After re-signing Alcides Escobar to a one-year deal Tuesday, the Nationals’ projected starting infield includes Carter Kieboom, Escobar, Luis García and Josh Bell from left to right. Though Kieboom and García are two young players the Nationals hope can develop into staples of their lineup, Washington would benefit from adding another middle infielder to push them.
Shortstop is going to be a key position for many teams this offseason. The free agent market will be deep at the position, with Javier Báez, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Trevor Story all set to have their contracts expire next month. Washington could jump in on the bidding to add another foundational player to their roster alongside Juan Soto, but potential qualifying offers for most of the top names likely takes the team out of the running.
That’s fine by the Nationals, who after acquiring a cheaper middle infielder could still give García and Kieboom their fair chance to earn starting spots. Meanwhile, Escobar, who can play second, third and short, would take on a utility player role. Washington entered spring training last season with a similar plan before deciding Kieboom wasn’t ready.
Free agent targets: Eduardo Escobar, Chris Taylor, Jonathan Villar, Cesar Hernandez
Whether or not the Nationals will have an opening in left field comes down to two things: the designated hitter and Victor Robles.
MLB’s collective bargaining agreement with the players union expires this offseason and the widespread expectation across baseball is that expansion of the DH to the NL will be used as leverage in negotiations. As for Robles, the Nationals demoted the struggling center fielder to Triple-A in August and must now decide where he fits in their plans moving forward.
The Nationals’ internal candidates for left field are deadline acquisition Lane Thomas and 33-year-old Yadiel Hernández. Thomas thrived as their everyday center fielder after Robles was demoted and the two players may be in for a spring training competition for the job. That would leave a spot open in left for Hernández, but his defensive limitations make him a better fit at DH. Though Washington won’t know whether it will have the DH for at least a few months, that shouldn’t preclude Rizzo from finding outfield help.
After Andrew Stevenson put up a .632 OPS in 213 plate appearances this season and top outfield prospect Donovan Casey struggled in his first taste of Triple-A, the Nationals would be well-served to find another corner outfielder that gives them depth heading into the year.
Free agent targets: Kyle Schwarber, Chris Taylor, Starling Marte, Eddie Rosario, Mark Canha
Heading into the offseason, the Nationals’ only starters assured a spot in their rotation next season — assuming they’re healthy — are Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Josiah Gray.
Joe Ross is a non-tender candidate after finishing the season on the Injured List with a partially torn UCL. Paolo Espino provided their rotation with some much-needed stability this year but he’ll be 35 next spring. Erick Fedde showed flashes of brilliance as well as prolonged stretches of futility. Even if the Nationals bring Ross back, Espino and Fedde would be just candidates for the bullpen as they would be for the rotation.
Beyond their arms with extended big-league experience, Josh Rogers, Joan Adon, Sean Nolin, Seth Romero, Gerardo Carrillo and Steven Fuentes round out the starters on their 40-man roster. Top prospects Cade Cavalli, Cole Henry and Jackson Rutledge should be in the minors for at least the start of next season, though strong results could translate to quick promotions.
Given how poorly the Washington rotation performed in 2021, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the team bring in one or two veteran starters to give the group some stability next year. It would make sense for the Nationals to seek out one-year deals with some upside, giving them players they could flip at the trade deadline should they be out of the race once again.
Free agent targets: Michael Pineda, Tyler Anderson, Martín Pérez, Zach Davies, Julio Teheran
Back end of the bullpen
The Nationals’ bullpen is in flux and there’s no clear answer for the seventh, eighth or ninth innings. Will Harris is the de facto closer for his long resume and $8 million salary next season, but he’s coming off thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. Washington turned to Kyle Finnegan for the ninth down stretch and he performed admirably, just not well enough to earn the job. No one else showed enough consistency to even warrant a mention here.
As a team not expected to make a serious push for the playoffs next season, the Nationals will trot out a significant number of relievers to see who sticks. However, that doesn’t mean they will be out of the reliever market this offseason. As Washington has learned the hard way, a lack of stability at the back end of the bullpen can have a trickle-down effect on other relievers.
Similar to what they will likely do in the rotation, the Nationals should entertain one-year deals for relievers with closing experience this offseason. They could use two or three arms to bolster their late-inning corps while hoping some of their carryovers from 2021 take a step forward next year and prove they belong.
Free agent targets: Alex Colomé, Adam Ottavino, Hansel Robles, Yimi García, Adam Morgan