Last year, the Washington Nationals, yet again, were unable to play up to expectations when it mattered most. Failing to escape the NLDS for the fourth time in the last six years, their championship aspirations came to an end rather quickly, and their window to do so is rapidly coming to a close. With Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy hitting free agency after the 2018 season, general manager Mike Rizzo is working against the clock.
Going into this season, the Nationals have an entirely different coaching staff in place. Opting to not bring back Dusty Baker, the Nats went out and hired Cubs’ bench coach Dave Martinez to man the clubhouse. In addition to Martinez, the Nats’ wooed Mets’ hitting coach Kevin Long to the nation’s capital, brought in Cardinals’ pitching coach Derek Lilliquist to replace Mike Maddux, and got Chip Hale to be their new bench coach.
The Nationals have one of the most well-rounded rosters in MLB, in terms of talent; they could do nothing and still be a 90+ win team. But there are still some areas of need, and factors this team’s success is heavily reliant on. Here is the Nationals’ 2018 wish.
1. Bolster The Bullpen
Last year, the Nationals’ bullpen was its Achilles heel. Pitching to an ERA over five going into the month of July, the contending Nats were being held back by their bullpen’s inability to finish in the game’s waning moments. To help aid those woes, they went out and made two key trades. Acquiring Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson from the Oakland Athletics and Brandon Kintzler from the Minnesota Twins, the Nats bolstered their pen in an effort to help fortify their powerhouse reputation. All three relievers were worthwhile additions.
Doolittle converted 21-of-22 save opportunities, Madson pitched to a 1.37 ERA, and Kintzler pitched to a 3.46 ERA. However, with Kintzler and righty Matt Albers up for grabs on the free agent market, the Nats have some work to do if they wish to have a reliable bullpen in place for 2018.
Two late-inning options the Nats could pursue are the Red Sox’ Addison Reed and the Indians’ Bryan Shaw. Reed has served as a closer and set-up man over the duration of his career. Last season, the Montclair native pitched to a 2.84 ERA in 77 appearances, while converting 19-of-21 save opportunities with the New York Mets and Red Sox.
Shaw was apart of the Indians’ stellar 2017 bullpen. Pitching to a 3.52 ERA, while recording 73 strikeouts in 69 appearances, Shaw was a workhorse for Terry Francona‘s bullpen. Adding Reed or Shaw would provide Washington with another late-inning option, as would retaining the righty Albers, who surrendered just 11 earned runs in 61.0 innings pitched.
2. Add A Backend Starter
The Nationals’ rotation is one of the best in the majors. With Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the top of the rotation, and Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark not far behind, inking a top-tier starter is not a priority. However, they are in need of a fifth starter.
With righty Edwin Jackson liking heading elsewhere, and Joe Ross still recovering from Tommy John surgery, the Nats need an arm to round out their rotation. While Martinez could opt to throw A.J. Cole or Erick Fedde in the fire from the get-go, the youngsters have yet to show that they’re capable of starting on a consistent basis, making it more likely management looks to free agency to fill the void. Two names who fit the bill are Yankees’ southpaw C.C. Sabathia and Phillies’ righty Clay Buchholz.
While his career is winding down, Sabathia still has the ability to take the hill for 25+ starts a season. Pitching to an ERA below four in each of the last two seasons and taking the hill when it matters most, in the postseason, the veteran lefty has shown he can still be a productive arm. Pitching to a 2.37 ERA and recording 19 punchouts in his four postseason outings, the 37-year-old came up big for the New York Yankees in October.
While he’s been plagued by the injury bug over the course of his career, Buchholz can also still provide an MLB team with meaningful innings. For his career, the 33-year-old Buchholz has pitched to a 4.01 ERA and while he’s not an overpowering presence on the rubber, Buchholz can serve as the Nats’ number five starter, and if Cole or Fedde show signs of improvement, Martinez can put one of them in his place — moving Buchholz to the bullpen.
3. Rotation Durability
Last year, the Nationals finished with the sixth best ERA in baseball (3.88). With two Cy Young finalists (Scherzer, Strasburg), and a rejuvenated Gonzalez, they had one of the league’s most formidable rotations, but not the most durable one.
Strasburg, for starters, has always been plagued by injuries. Ranging from elbow woes to back discomfort, he has endured injuries over the duration of his career. In fact, after taking the hill just 28 times last year, Strasburg hasn’t pitched more than 30 games in a season since 2014.
Scherzer started in only 31 games as a result of a neck injury, and was practically pitching on one leg versus the Cubs in the NLDS with a hamstring injury. Joe Ross was also hit with an elbow injury over the summer. It’s crucial that the three of them and, their rotation as a whole, remains healthy if the Nationals aspire to finally make that World Series push. And if they can all do so, Washington could potentially crack the 100-game mark for the first time in franchise history.
A healthy rotation consisting of Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez, Roark and potentially Sabathia, or another veteran arm, would make for one of the most lethal pitching staffs in MLB.
4. Dave Martinez Hiring Pays Off
The Nationals will go into Spring Training with their fourth manager since the 2013 season, which is incredible for a team as talented as them. With Martinez now the team’s new skipper, Rizzo and the Nats are banking on him finally being their guy, for longer than two years.
It’s become a theme in D.C. that a manager is not prioritized, nor safe in the position he holds. Just two years ago, it appeared Bud Black was going to be the team’s manager before it was leaked that management significantly low-balled him in contract negotiations. They fired Matt Williams after two years, and just weeks ago opted to not renew Baker. While they did give Martinez a three-year deal, it’s certainly not a lock that he manages through his contract.
The Nationals could’ve kept Baker, or even given John Farrell the managerial reins; Baker’s a proven commodity and Farrell has won a World Series. The Nationals are putting a lot of faith in Martinez, a first-year manager, to flip the script, and get this team over the hump; management is crossing their fingers that his hiring pays itself off.
5. Extend Bryce Harper
It’s no secret that Harper has become the face of this Nationals’ franchise. He’s been crowned the NL MVP, and has been a force to be reckoned with in the middle of their order. But Harper is in search and likely will receive a deal in excess of $400 million, according to Joel Sherman of the NY Post.
The Nats have given Scherzer $210 million, Strasburg $175 million and Ryan Zimmerman $100 million; they’re not afraid to spend the big bucks. And with Jayson Werth‘s contract off the books, as well as Gonzalez and Murphy hitting free agency after next season, the Nats could probably find a way to afford Harper. But if and when he hits free agency next Winter, the competition will be incredibly hard for Washington to overcome.
Whether it be the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, or any other big-market team or franchise, the interest in Harper will be overwhelming, which is why the Nationals’ should be doing whatever they can to find common ground on a deal with him before the 2018 season begins.
Harper is identity for this Nationals’ team; when you think of these Nats, Harper’s the first head that comes to mind. But he is likely going to seek a record-setting deal, and with another All-Star season, chances are Harper may very well get what he’s looking for. They may find themselves swinging and missing, but Rizzo and the Nationals have to try to do whatever they can to retain Harper before he hits the open market next offseason; it’s their best chance at keeping the former number one pick. Who knows, maybe the two sides move heaven and earth, and agree on a deal.