Offseason Options for the Washington Nationals

Check out Ryan Sim’s 2022 Season Review of the Nationals here.

Image: Geoff Burke / USA TODAY Sports

House Cleaning

Amidst another developmental 2022 season for the Washington Nationals, there are expiring contracts, holes in the lineup, and front office decisions to be made. Some players will leave, some will stay, and some will be newcomers with the club come April next year. However, this is not an ordinary offseason for a franchise vying for its next competitive window. Ownership of the franchise is currently at stake. 

Over 15 years of owning the Nationals, starting with its inaugural 2005 season, the Lerners’ ownership group has explored a sale of the franchise. This ownership period was largely a success, with 4 NL East titles, 5 playoff appearances, and a 2019 World Series championship in its tenure, but this Nationals team is a lot different from its peak 3 years ago, and this ownership change signals a new chapter for the Nationals.

Although the Nationals found themselves near the top of payroll lists amongst the likes of the Dodgers and Yankees from 2010 until 2020, the public opinion of the Lerners has soured since their championship, evidenced by the departures of many star ballplayers, including Bryce Harper, Trea Turner, Max Scherzer, Juan Soto, and more. The focus for the offseason isn’t entirely about the major league roster for the Nats, but more so about who will be watching the 2023 season from the owner’s box. 

Free Agents

Playing in the most games in 2022 among this Nats free agent class, Cesar Hernandez will leave the biggest hole (in terms of playing time) for the club should the Nats decide to refrain from re-signing him. He had a subpar 2022, posting a .248/.311/.318 slash line accompanied by a 79 wRC+, but he consistently found himself anchoring himself at the top of the lineup at second base almost every game, which proved useful considering the Nationals current lack of depth in their roster. With a young Luis Garcia likely assuming duties at the keystone next season, I do not anticipate the Nationals will bring back Hernandez.

Erasmo “The Eraser” Ramirez did it all in 2022, posting a 2.92 ERA, 1.077 WHIP, and a career low 3.94 xFIP in 60 games for the Nationals. He accomplished this in a variety of roles, including long relief, middle relief, and setup work. Historically, the Nationals’ biggest weakness has been their bullpen, but this year the bullpen found itself in an unusual position. 

Despite ranking 7th in the MLB in relief innings pitched (638), Nats relievers ranked 6th in ERA and FIP in the MLB. Given the role Ramirez played this season, It would hardly be a stretch to say he is one of the primary reasons the Nationals bullpen excelled this season. It would be a big step backwards for the bullpen if the Nats let Ramirez walk this offseason.

After a one year hiatus from the Nationals following a disappointing 2020, Anibal Sanchez returned on a one year deal to the Nats as depth for the backend of their rotation. He was limited in 2022, missing the first half due to a neck injury, before returning in mid July to start 14 games down the stretch for the Nats. He posted a subpar 4.28 ERA, 91 ERA+, and 5.77 FIP in 69.1 innings. The Nationals will have many pitchers auditioning for a spot in the rotation next year in spring training, but Sanchez most likely won’t be one of them.

Signed as a high-floor reliever with an intent to flip at the trade deadline, Steve Cishek filled a hole in the middle of a young Nats bullpen in 2022. Cishek started strong, turning in a 4.05 FIP and a .256/.354/.329 slashline until June 1st, but his start proved he was overperforming as he finished the year with a 4.84 FIP and a .223/.329/.380 slash. He ultimately did not get traded at the 2022 trade deadline, and I would not be surprised to see him end his stint in Washington this offseason.

Only pitching 108 innings since 2019 due to opting out of the 2020 season along with injury concerns, Joe Ross finds himself a free agent this offseason. He has a decent injury history, his recent ailment being a second Tommy John operation in the summer of 2022. When healthy, Ross has shown he can be a strong middle of the rotation option, with the floor of a league average starter. Given his health situation and ceiling, I do not think it would hurt the Nationals to offer him a minor league contract for 2023.

Since undergoing surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome in June of 2021, Will Harris has hardly seen the field, and his career seems all but over. Although his $24,000,000 contract signed in 2020 was ultimately a dud, Nats fans can still cherish the homer he served up to Howie Kendrick in the deciding game of the 2019 World Series.

Injured List Moves

The biggest name on the Nationals injured list is Stephen Strasburg, who experienced a stress reaction in his ribs after returning from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome in 2022. Strasburg has faced a myriad of injuries throughout his tenure in the big leagues, and the timetable for his return is unknown for this recent setback. The Nationals will pay him $35,000,000 in 2023, over a third of their estimated payroll.

Former top prospect Carter Kieboom also finds himself on this list, following an uncommon Tommy John operation for a position player in May of 2022. He should be ready for Spring Training in 2023 where he will jockey for the starting third base job.

After a strong bounceback season in 2022, Tanner Rainey went down in mid July with an elbow injury after he firmly entrenched himself in the closer role. His timetable to return is on the longer side, as the hope is he can return by September next season.

Coming over in the blockbuster Juan Soto trade, young starting pitcher Mackenzie Gore was tending to an elbow injury. Although he was able to avoid Tommy John surgery, he never made a start for the Nats in 2022. He should be ready to go for Spring Training in 2023 with a spot in the rotation that is his to lose.

Options to be Executed

The lone option the Nationals will face this offseason is Nelson Cruz’s 2023 mutual option for $16,000,000 (or a $3,000,000 buyout). After a disappointing 2022, Cruz produced an underwhelming 85 wRC+ and 10 HR in 124 games as the DH. Considering his age and poor 2022 performance, I would be shocked if the Nationals did not decline his mutual option.

Arbitration Eligible Players

This offseason the Nationals have 10 players eligible for arbitration, half of which are relievers. Considering how well they performed in 2022, I believe most if not all of them should be tendered contracts. 

One of the youngest of the relievers eligible for arbitration, Hunter Harvey was a force to be reckoned with for the Nationals in 2022, posting a 2.52 ERA in almost 40 innings. Considering his estimated arbitration number hovers around $1,000,000, he is without a doubt deserving to be tendered a contract.

Although they may not be in their late 20s anymore, Carl Edwards Jr. and Kyle Finnegan are also arbitration eligible. Between the two of them, they pitched to 4.24 and 3.76 FIPs in 62 and 66.2 innings a piece. If their estimated arbitration totals are indeed totaled at $3,600,000 altogether, then they are definitely deserving to be tendered contracts ahead of the 2023 campaign.

Currently on the injured list recovering from Tommy John surgery, closer Tanner Rainey is additionally eligible for arbitration. Although he has had his share of troubles in majors thus far, he has shown flashes of dominance that make you believe he can be a top closer in the sport. Considering the season he was having before he went down with an elbow injury in July, I would think his estimated arbitration total of $1,500,000 is a fair number for him. He deserves a contract.

The least effective of the group is 31 year old Victor Arano, who was a new addition to this Nats bullpen. After a strong start, he slowed down, turning in a 4.50 ERA and a 3.71 FIP in 42 innings pitched. His estimated arbitration total is also set at $1,000,000, which is more than fair for an average reliever. 

Coming off his first full season since being traded for John Lester in 2021, Lane Thomas is also eligible for arbitration. After a slow start, the outfielder turned his season around, producing a 110 wRC+ and .257/.323/.429 slashline in the final 60 games of the 2022 campaign. Given his young age and strong finish, the Nats should not have any trouble matching his $2,100,000 estimated arbitration total.

The other young outfielder eligible for arbitration is former top prospect Victor Robles. Although he has yet to perform close to expectations so far in his MLB career, Robles has provided consistent speed and elite defense in center field for the Nationals. Given the Nationals low expectations heading into 2023, the Nats have little to lose by accepting Robles’ estimated arbitration mark of $2,500,000. Who knows, he could break out and make the Nationals’ next playoff window that much closer.

Making his debut following the Juan Soto trade was infielder Ildemaro Vargas, and is also eligible for arbitration this winter. Vargas was a utilityman for the Nats in the waning months of the season, playing 43 games at third base, 15 games at shortstop, and 4 games at second base. Although he is not strong with the bat, hitting to the tune of a 92 wRC+ in 2022, his versatility makes him valuable enough to tender him a contract estimated around $1,000,000.

The longest tenured Nat on this list is Eric Fedde, and he is up for arbitration this winter too, before being set to hit the free agent market the following winter. The 1st rounder for the Nats in 2014 has never found it yet at the major league level, despite being talented enough to be selected within the first 20 picks of his draft. Throughout his first 6 seasons, he has never had a FIP below 4.66, a high number considering the amount of time he has spent in the majors since his callup in 2017. Although he has never been that strong middle of the rotation starter Mike Rizzo envisioned, he eats innings for a MLB worst pitching staff and could potentially be worth his estimated arbitration figure of $3,600,000.

Luke Voit was the final piece in the Juan Soto deal in August after Eric Hosmer exercised his no-trade clause when he was included in the initial exchange. After his debut in August with the club, Voit was an average hitter at first base, while filling in for Nelson Cruz at the DH at times. With his estimated arbitration figure hovering around $8,000,000, I would deem Voit the most likely of the 10 arbitration eligible players to get non-tendered this offseason.

Rule V Draft Eligible Players

Despite having a fairly top heavy system, the Nationals still have prospects worth protecting deep in their ranks in this December’s Rule Five Draft. The headliner of the group, Jeremy De La Rosa, is a strong contender to be protected following a 2022 breakout in Low-A Fredericksburg where he crushed his way to a 148 wRC+ while cutting a third of his K% in the process.

Teammate of De La Rosa and former first round pick Jackson Rutledge is also Rule Five eligible this winter. Up until 2022, a mix of underperforming, injuries, and a lost 2020 season has pushed his development behind schedule, as he is still in Low-A in his fourth season of minor league ball. But this year he turned in a strong season as he achieved a career best FIP, BB/9, and innings pitched. Given his upside, and the Nationals lack of pitching in the organization, Rutledge certainly qualifies to be moved to the 40-man this offseason.

Moving off the Nats top-30 list, third baseman Jake Alu proves to be the strongest candidate to be protected from this year’s rule five draft. Not only has he hit in all levels of the minors, he has done it with authority, finding himself on exclusive lists in the process. In 2022, Jake Alu is one of only twelve minor leaguers in 2022 under the age of 25 to hit .280 and post 20+ HR, 15+ SB, and at least a .200 ISO. Given the lack of third base depth in the organization, Alu must be protected.

Rounding out the group of the most deserving players to be protected is Matt Cronin, a lefty who projects as a starting pitcher down the road. Since being drafted as a 4th round pick in 2019, Cronin has steadily ascended the minors, relying on his plus fastball and above average curveball all the while. In 2022, he dominated AA and AAA, posting a 2.42 ERA in 52.0 IP between the two levels. If Cronin can continue to develop his changeup, he should have no trouble maturing into a back of the rotation arm, which certainly deserves protection from the upcoming Rule V Draft.

Victims of the Roster Crunch

Although this young Nationals team may have many holes to fill this offseason, catcher is likely not one of them. The nationals catching corps is supported by young catchers Keibert Ruiz, Riley Adams, and newly called up Israel Pineda. Who did I leave out? Tres Barrera. Since his callup in 2019, he has struggled to put it together, producing a 73 wRC+ in his first 51 games. This may seem like a short leash, but it would not surprise me if the Nationals trust the upside of the other current big league catchers on the 40-man roster.

After the Nationals claimed Lucius Fox last November from the Baltimore Orioles he struggled in AAA in 2022, producing a .228/.306/.340 slash line in 55 games, good for a paltry 73 wRC+. At the big league level, he struggled to even get his first couple hits, both weak ground balls at that. Given the Nationals have recently obtained the immensely talented CJ Abrams in the Juan Soto deal, Fox’s tenure with the Nats may be coming to a close. 

Filling in following the wake of the 2022 trade deadline, Josh Palacios was given a shot at the major league level with the Nationals. In 29 games with the Nationals, he struggled to get anything going with the Nationals, generating a horrible 39 wRC+. Oftentimes, he seemed overmatched, further supported by a 30.6 K% and a 2.0 BB%. I am sure the Nationals would have little trouble letting him go this winter for younger, higher-upside players.

Potential Trade-aways

Following his 2022 breakout after 10 years in the minor leagues, most Nats fans would scoff at the idea of trading away Joey Meneses. However, there is reason to believe he will regress in 2023. In 56 games at the big league level in 2022 he carried a .371 BABIP, a total fifty points higher than his .321 mark in AAA this season and eighty-one points higher than the MLB average in 2022. This statistic shows how often every ball in play resulted in a hit, and compared to the MLB average and his AAA totals, nearly everything he hit turned into a base-hit, deeming him a lucky player. 

He still projects to be an above average player in 2023, but his numbers this past season need to be taken with a grain of salt. Although this is unlikely to happen, it makes sense for the Nationals to sell high on older players at this point in time especially if they can return high end prospects from other organizations. 

Lineup After In-House Moves

Major League Lineup (9)

C – Keibert Ruiz (S), Riley Adams (R)

1B – Joey Meneses (R)

2B – Luis Garcia (L)

SS – CJ Abrams (L)

3B – Carter Kieboom (R)

RF – OPEN

CF – Victor Robles (R)

LF – Lane Thomas (R)

DH – OPEN

OF – Alex Call (R)

UTL – Ildemaro Vargas

The biggest thing that jumps out of the page to me is the Nationals’ youth and inexperience. However, despite the recent trades and expected departures in free agency this winter, I believe the Nats have a solid blueprint for the opening day roster next year. Although most of this young team is filled out already, I believe there are still a couple of holes.

Upon further assessment of the big league roster, I project the biggest current hole in the lineup to be a corner outfielder. Given that the Nats’ outfield is exclusively younger players, it only makes sense to supplement that youth with the steady hand of an older, more experienced outfielder. 

Additionally, the DH spot appears to be open. If the Nationals end up letting go of Nelson Cruz and Luke Voit, I could see the DH spot utilized as a place to put a player who needs some time off from the field if they’re nursing an injury, playing in a blowout, or other extraneous reasons throughout the 2022 season. This hole is not as large as the former, but it is a notable one.

Players on the 40-man (6):  C Israel Pineda (R), 3B Jake Alu (L), OF Jeremy De La Rosa (L), OF Yadiel Hernandez (L), OF Yasel Antuna (S)

Aside from the prospects here protected from the Rule V draft, the Nats have a few players here that may get left off the Major league roster but left on the 40-man for various reasons.


Although Israel Pineda was able to get his first taste of the big leagues last september following Keibert Ruiz’s groin injury, I don’t think there is a spot for him currently on the active roster due to his thin track record past AA, and the blockage of playing time with Keibert Ruiz and Riley Adams finding themselves firmly entrenched in the catching tandem in Washington.

On the flip side, Yadiel Hernandez seems to be the odd man out in the outfield puzzle for the Nationals next year. Given his old age and average play, I don’t see him having a role at the major league level for the next year until players become injured. He will probably make an appearance next year for the Nationals with the big club, but not for a little while.

Potential Lineup Additions

Right Field (2)

Michael Conforto is coming off a missed season due to a shoulder surgery, which has left him under the radar since then. The former Met has been a great hitter his whole career, earning a 124 wRC+ in his first seven seasons. His mix of upside and somewhat affordable price due to his missed season is exactly the kind of player the Nationals could seek out on a short term deal, due to the possibility of his stock booming, allowing them to trade him for assets, or eating his salary in a noncompetitive season. He’s primarily a right fielder, but can also shift over to left field if need be.

Mitch Haniger is another great right field option for the Nationals. Since he was traded following the 2016 season, he has silently hovered around a 120 wRC+ in five seasons with Seattle, leading him to be one of the most underrated players in baseball. Even though he’s missed a fair amount of games due to injury in the past, the value he has provided while healthy is too good to pass up, considering he will only cost around $15,000,000 per season. The Nationals certainly have enough money to make Haniger their big splash this offseason, and he would improve the club in many facets of the game.

Pitching Staff After In-House Moves

Major League Pitching Staff (12)

Starting Rotation

SP1 – LHP Patrick Corbin

SP2 – LHP Mackenzie Gore

SP3 – RHP Cade Cavalli

SP4 – RHP Josiah Gray

SP5 – RHP Erick Fedde

Bullpen

CL – RHP Kyle Finnegan

SU – RHP Hunter Harvey

SU – RHP Carl Edwards Jr.

MR – RHP Mason Thompson

MR – RHP Victor Arano

MR – OPEN

LR – RHP Paolo Espino

LR – LHP Matt Cronin

The Nationals starting rotation projects to be the same as last year, except Mackenzie Gore has now joined the staff, coming over in this past trade deadline. Gore raises this group’s ceiling, while also having a higher floor than most of the other arms here. If he replicates a stellar 2021 first half with the Padres, then he will likely be the best pitcher on this staff, barring a Cade Cavalli or Josiah Gray breakout.

One question mark with this staff is the status of Erick Fedde come Spring Training next season. Being a former first round pick in 2014, the Nationals may opt to tender him a contract next season despite his poor play in his Major League career so far. However, I would not be surprised if they cut him loose, opening up a spot in the rotation to be filled by organizational depth or a free agent signing.

Like the Nationals starting rotation, the bullpen also projects to be very similar to the 2021 bullpen. The biggest (and only) hole currently is the spot left by Erasmo Ramirez, a current free agent. In order to continue enjoying their solid to fringe-good group, it is imperative that they retain him this winter, following a stellar campaign in which he turned in a 2.92 ERA in a variety of roles.

The other change is a bit of a dart throw, but I could see Matt Cronin making his MLB debut next year as a member of the bullpen in a long relief role. Following a 2022 campaign in which the backend of the bullpen was a revolving door at times, I think the future starter has the potential to round out this group while continuing to prove himself at the highest stage.

Players on the 40-man (8): RHP Cory Abbott, RHP Joan Adon, RHP Gerardo Carillo, RHP Reed Garrett, RHP Jake Irvin, LHP Evan Lee, RHP Andres Machado, RHP Jackson Rutledge, RHP Jackson Tetreault, RHP Jordan Weems

Injured Players on the 40-man (2): RHP Stephen Strasburg, RHP Tanner Rainey

The Nationals’ biggest weakness is shown here, as their pitching depth is sub-par at best. Aside from a few lottery ticket prospects and injured players listed here, Joan Adon has the largest sample size, and the most disappointing results, as the newly graduated prospect pitched to an ERA north of 7.00 in 64.2 IP in 2022 for the Nats. 

Another pitcher here with a decent sample size for the Nationals is Cory Abbott, who pitched to a 5.25 ERA and a 6.36 FIP in 48.0 innings for the Nats. He primarily worked in long relief while also providing a few spot starts down the stretch of the 2022 campaign. The other names, Reed Garrett, Andres Machado, and Jordan Weems, were all relievers for the club in 2022 and will be bullpen depth entering the 2022 season. Expect all of them to end up with the big club at certain points in the year.

Potential Staff Additions

Starting Pitcher (2)

Since breaking into the big leagues in 2016 with the Dodgers, Ross Stripling has hovered around a 4.00 ERA and FIP, and turned in solid inning totals in almost all of his big league seasons in a mix of a rotation and bullpen role. With his high floor however, I believe the Nationals can ink him for a figure of less than $10,000,000 per year to solidify the middle of the rotation and provide veteran experience for a very young starting rotation.

Another arm which the Nationals could slot into their rotation is Corey Kluber. Following his 2-time Cy Young winning tenure with Cleveland, Kluber struggled to stay on the field with the Rangers and Yankees, until the Rays worked their magic with him in 2021. Although he experienced career lows in velocity for all of his pitches in his arsenal, Tampa Bay was able to transition him into a successful finesse pitcher, pitching to his lowest hard contact rate (HardHit%) since 2013, and pitching to his lowest K/9 in his career. Following his successful revamp in Tampa Bay, I believe the Nationals can snag him for a figure around $10,000,000 per season on a one or two year contract.

Reliever (1)

As I previously mentioned, Erasmo Ramirez should be the only free agent reliever on the Nats front office member’s minds following his 2022 performance. Among all relievers past July 26 with at least 35 IP, he had the lowest ERA, solidifying him as a very sharp swiss army knife for Davey Martinez’s already talented bullpen in 2022. Considering he’s the only notable free agent from this year’s bullpen (outside of Steve Cishek), it would be malpractice to let him walk this offseason.

What’s Going to Actually Happen?

With the Nationals’ young crop of players, I expect my 40-man roster (before free agent signings occur)  transactions to be somewhat correct, barring any controversial questionable decisions or if Stephen Strasburg magically becomes healthy again. If one thing is for sure, before Spring Training occurs, there will be a revolving door of young players coming and going to make room for the opening day roster. 

Although I may have seemed a little conservative with the free agent signings, I fully anticipate the Nationals to make cheap, low-risk moves on short contracts given their ownership situation. Even though I would love to see them sign the Michael Confortos, Mitch Hanigers, and Ross Striplings of the world, it would not shock me in the slightest to see them grab guys like Matt Duffy or Garrett Richards. This will probably end up being a disappointing offseason to the casual fan once again, but those fans can take solace in the fact that the only direction this team can go is up in 2023, whether that be 1 win, 5 wins, or even 10 wins.

 



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