Although Washington continued their disappointing string of postseason misfortune, the 2017 season must be considered a success, as the team won 97 games in route to winning the NL East in dominant fashion. Unfortunately as talented as the team was, they still lost to the Chicago Cubs and failed to advance past the NLDS for the 4th time in six years. Thus the front office must tweak the roster this winter in hopes of capturing the 2018 World Series.
Offensively Washington enters the offseason with questions behind the plate and seeking bench depth, along with the probable departure of Jayson Werth. Last season the Nationals overcame a disappointing season from Matt Wieters, plus lengthy injuries to Bryce Harper, Trea Turner and Werth to produce a .266/.332/.449 team batting line. This compares well to the 2017 National League average (.254/.325/.423) and 2016 team line (.256/.326/.426). Washington finished with 819 runs scored (3rd in NL), 215 home runs (7th in NL), 542 walks (7th in NL), and 1,327 strikeouts (5th in NL) in 2017, a solid improvement over the 2016 numbers (763 runs scored, 203 home runs, 536 walks, and 1,252 strikeouts).
In Part-2 of THE NatsGM 2017-2018 Washington Nationals Manifesto, I prioritized finding a complementary player to Wieters to upgrade the catching position, ideally a strong defender who hits left-handed. Next I focused on acquiring quality, versatile veterans to fill out the bench, including one reliable right-handed and left-handed hitter. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I was resolute in my stated goal to keep payroll at $175 million total and under $92 million for the 13 hitters. With these goals in mind, here is my master plan for Washington’s offense and capturing the 2018 World Series.
- Traded Brian Goodwin & Prospect Kelvin Gutierrez to Detroit for Shane Greene
- Traded Prospect Blake Perkins & International Bonus Dollars to Milwaukee for Stephen Vogt
- Re-Signed Ryan Raburn to a Minor League Contract
- Re-Signed Howie Kendrick for 2-years $11.5 million
Catcher – Matt Wieters $10,500,000
First Base – Ryan Zimmerman $14,000,000
Second Base – Daniel Murphy $17,500,000
Shortstop – Trea Turner $550,000
Third Base – Anthony Rendon $11,000,000
Left Field – Adam Eaton $6,000,000
Center Field – Michael A. Taylor $2,000,000
Right Field – Bryce Harper $21,625,000
Matt Wieters signed late last winter with the Nationals after struggling to find a home all offseason and suffered through a difficult season, hitting only .225/.288/.344 with 10 home runs. These numbers look even worse when we remember Wieters hit .301/.400/.534 with 4 homers in April alone. Additionally, he struggled framing pitches all season and looked weary most of the summer. Now almost 32-years-old, Washington needs to limit his games behind the plate to conserve his legs, as the 123 game work load from last season was far too much for him.
On the positive side, most metrics rate him as a quality defensive catcher (besides framing) and the pitching staff seemed to believe in his game calling ability. Also, the switch-hitter was much better from the right-side last season, as he has for most of his career, posting a .687 OPS right-handed verses .619 lefty. Perhaps if Washington can limit his games caught to less than 100 and pair him with a left-handed hitter, the duo could form a solid tag-team in 2018.
After battling injuries for several years, 2017 saw Ryan Zimmerman flourish offensively, hitting .303/.358/.573 with 36 home runs and 108 runs batted in over 144 games played. Now 33-years-old, it is unlikely he will replicate the same health or outstanding statistical performance again in 2018. Yet, there is also little reason to believe Zimmerman will not serve as a productive “RBI Machine” batting 5th or 6th in this potent lineup next year.
Truly one of the best free agent signings in recent baseball history, Daniel Murphy had his second consecutive fantastic season for Washington, batting .322/.384/.543 with 23 home runs. Murphy battled a knee injury the final few weeks of the season and looked “out of sorts” in the playoffs, forcing him to undergo offseason knee surgery. He is expected to be healthy around opening day, but fans should expect more off-days in the first half of the season for Murphy. This might temper his overall statistics, but nonetheless, he should continue to be a key cog in the lineup next season.
Trea Turner overcame a slow start and a lengthy injury midseason to have a solid first full season in the majors, batting .284/.338/.451 with 11 home runs and 46 stolen bases in 97 games played. He will benefit from a full offseason to recuperate and act as a “table-setter” in the #1 or #2 spot in Washington’s lineup next year.
Without hyperbole, Anthony Rendon just completed one of the best seasons in franchise history, playing 147 games with a .301/.403/.533 batting line, 25 home runs, 100 runs driven in, while playing elite defense at third base. While unlikely to capture the award, he was my personal pick for National League MVP this past season. He is one of the best players in the National League and will man the hot corner in Washington next season.
Adam Eaton was rapidly becoming a fan favorite in NatsTown before a gruesome knee injury finished his season after only 24 games. In that span, Eaton hit .297/.393/.462 while playing strong defense in center field and providing the team with infectious energy each day. Reports say he should be fully healthy for spring training and Eaton should team with Turner atop Washington’s lineup to form a lethal combination.
Michael A. Taylor took advantage of Eaton’s unfortunate injury and capitalized on the extensive playing time, batting .271/.320/.486 with 19 home runs, 17 stolen bases and played gold-glove level defense in center field. Quite simply, Taylor took “the leap” in 2017 and established himself as a major league quality player. He has uber-prospect Victor Robles looking over his shoulder, but Taylor should return as Washington’s starting center fielder in 2018.
Bryce Harper was tracking to win his second National League MVP award last season before a terrible knee injury in early August all but finished his regular season. Before the injury, Harper played 111 games while hitting .319/.413/.595 with 29 home runs and 87 runs batted in. No question Washington has many talented hitters, but Harper is the proverbial “straw that stirs the drink” in the Nationals’ lineup. He has one season remaining in Washington before reaching free agency next winter and Bryce is poised for a monster 2018.
Catcher – Stephen Vogt $3,000,000
Infield – Wilmer Difo $550,000
Infield– Howie Kendrick $4,000,000
Outfield – Rafael Bautista $550,000
Outfield – Ryan Raburn $700,000
Offense Total $91,975,000
Total 2018 Payroll $175,102,000
After hours of research and thought, the best platoon partner at catcher for Matt Wieters, considering his weaknesses and the team’s limited payroll, is Milwaukee’s Stephen Vogt. Vogt is coming off a subpar 2017, batting .233/.285/.423 with 12 home runs over 99 games. The 33-year-old is a career .251/.310/.416 hitter and the lefty does particular damage against righties with a .754 career OPS. Vogt is a strong pitch framer and overall about average defensively. He is arbitration eligible for the 2nd time this offseason and is under contract through 2019. Milwaukee saw the emergence of Manny Pina and has depth at catcher, so they could be eager to clear his salary to put toward other needs. However, as a quality hitter against righties, excellent pitch framing numbers and a salary near $3 million, Vogt is a solid fit for the 2018 Nationals.
Similarly to Michael A. Taylor, Wilmer Difo took advantage of injuries to capitalize on his increased game action, playing a fantastic defensive shortstop and batting .271/.319/.370 with 5 home runs and 10 stolen bases over 124 games played. A year ago “baseball people” were questioning his long-term future, and again like Taylor, the 25-year-old Difo now has established himself as a major leaguer. He should spend next season in a super utility role and see plenty of at-bats backing up Murphy, Turner and Rendon.
A midseason acquisition from Philadelphia, Howie Kendrick was outstanding for the Nationals down the stretch, batting .293/.343/.494 with 7 home runs in 52 games. For his career, the 34-year-old is a .291/.334/.421 hitter and plays first base, second base and left field defensively, making him an ideal super-utility player. He does not hit left-handed, but otherwise, he is a perfect candidate to backup Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton next season. He could probably land a starting role this winter, so I hope a multiyear deal and the chance to win persuades him to stay in Washington.
Rafael Bautista’s inclusion might surprise some readers and this spot was one specific place I was forced to save some money. I was comfortable sacrificing here because of Victor Robles likely arrival in Washington midseason, giving Washington four starting-quality outfielders, along with the presence of Andrew Stevenson and other outfield prospects in the organization.
That said the almost 25-year-old outfielder is a nice fit for this bench due to his excellent speed on the bases, defensive acumen and ability to play all three outfield positions. He is not the hitter Kendrick is or the lefty masher Raburn is, but Bautista should find opportunities for playing time while allowing Robles and Stevenson more minor league development.
Ryan Raburn has reportedly signed a minor league pact to return next season, after making a good first impression with the Nationals last summer, hitting .262/.304/.431 with 2 home runs in 25 games played. Of particular value is Raburn’s ability to punish left-handed pitching, as his career .259/.338/.480 batting line shows. The 37-year-old is a versatile veteran capable of playing first base and both corner outfield positions, which along with his skills against lefties, make him an interest weapon off the bench.
Providing further depth at the minor league level will be catchers Raudy Read and Pedro Severino, infielder Adrian Sanchez, plus outfielders Victor Robles and Andrew Stevenson. In addition, I would expect Washington to aggressively seek minor league free agents to add additional depth, particularly in the infield.
In my quest to retool the offense for 2018, the biggest challenge was staying within the overall budget of $175 million and $92 million for the position players. Next was the dire need to upgrade from Jose Lobaton and find a good partner for Matt Wieters. Also, I wanted to build a quality bench, as the biggest lesson I have learned the past two seasons is the value of a talented reserve corps. And finally, I did not want to part with any impact prospects, as our farm system is not especially robust at the present moment. Unfortunately the budgetary limitations and Wieters accepting his player option forced me to make sacrifices at catcher and the bench.
Now I should acknowledge the weaknesses of this hypothetical offense – First I wish I felt more confident in the tandem of Wieters and Vogt at catcher. While I think both players have strengths where the other has weaknesses, both are in their 30s and coming off subpar years. Ideally I wanted to acquire J.T. Realmuto from Miami, with the backup plan of signing Jonathan Lucroy or Alex Avila. Regrettably I could not legitimately make those moves in the spirit of this exercise.
Furthermore, there are health concerns involving several players returning from injuries, plus the likely statistical regression for Ryan Zimmerman next season. Finally, I wanted to acquire another left-handed power hitter to replace Adam Lind, but there was no perfect fit within our limitations.
Those concerns aside, I believe this offense projects as one of the strongest in the National League. With a full season from Adam Eaton and some improvement at catcher, the Nationals should have eight solid hitters in the lineup each day. The lineup should have four right-handed hitters, three left-handed hitters and a likely platoon advantage each day at catcher, along with the potent bats of Kendrick, Difo and Raburn on the bench. There is tremendous speed at the top of the lineup with Turner and Eaton, a fearsome heart of the order of Harper, Murphy, Rendon and Zimmerman, plus some thump with Taylor and our catchers at the bottom. Assuming reasonable health, Washington should have as much firepower as anyone in the National League.
Defensively the team will miss Lobaton and the right-side of the infield with Zimmerman and Murphy is one of the worst in baseball. However, there is reason for optimism as Eaton should be a strong upgrade in left field over Werth and hopefully Vogt will allow Wieters to play fewer games and be “better” when he does play. Also, the team has excellent defenders Difo and Bautista on the bench for late game substitutions. The presence of Murphy, Wieters and Zimmerman keeps the defense from being elite, but the unit should be above-average as a whole.
Overall I am quite pleased with the offense I have constructed within the hypothetical and real world constraints facing the Washington Nationals this offseason. There are injury concerns and a bit more swing-and-miss than I would prefer, but there are eight hitters capable of hitting 15+ home runs and a versatile bench packed with intriguing individuals. IF the team stays relatively healthy, there is no reason they do not achieve a top-5 offense next season, along with reaching the playoffs for the 5th time in 7 years and contending for the World Series.
*Thank you for reading! This is my favorite column to write each year. If you enjoyed it, please tell a friend. If you have comments or thoughts, please share them in the comment’s section.