Unfortunately for the Washington Nationals, the 2015 season resembled a near worst case scenario for the team. Predicted to win the division by nearly every publication and the World Series by many others, the Nationals finished in 2nd place in the NL East with an 83-79 record, seven games behind the New York Mets.
Now General Manager Mike Rizzo enters the offseason in need of changes to the roster, as free agents Ian Desmond, Denard Span and Jordan Zimmermann, along with others, are expected to depart. Further, there is a strong expectation that management will want to reduce payroll from a franchise high $162 million in 2015. Finally, the team offensively needs another left-handed bat with power to compliment Bryce Harper, a resolution to who starts at second base, shortstop, and third base, along with improving the quality of their reserves.
Last season the Washington Nationals overcame lengthy injuries to Anthony Rendon, Denard Span, Jayson Werth, and Ryan Zimmerman to post a solid .251/.321/.403 batting line and a .724 OPS, 5th in the National League. The Nationals finished with 703 runs scored (3rd in NL), 177 home runs (T-3rd in NL), 539 walks (3rd in NL) and 1,344 strikeouts (14th in NL) in 2015. While these numbers do not fully explain the team’s disappointing record, the high strikeout numbers did cause the offense to struggle to consistently score runs each night.
Today in Part-1 I focus on improving the overall offense by attempting to reduce the number of strikeouts the team accumulates, adding a left-handed power hitter and talent to the team’s bench. Also, I will bring the team payroll closer to $150 million for 2016, nearly a 10% reduction from last season, while making the depth of the roster stronger in order to return the team to playoffs next season.
2015-2016 Washington Nationals NatsGM Offseason Manifesto: Part-1 Hitting
2016 Hypothetical Payroll: $151 million (2015 $162 million, 2014 $137 million)
Signings: 2B/OF Ben Zobrist 3-yrs $49.5 mm (15, 16.5, 18), INF Cliff Pennington 1-yr $2.25mm
Trade: 2B/3B Yunel Escobar To The **** For **** ; IF Wilmer Difo To Oakland Athletics For OF Josh Reddick & a (C/C+) Prospect
Catcher: Wilson Ramos $ 5,300,000
First Base: Ryan Zimmerman $ 14,000,000
Second Base: Ben Zobrist ($ 15,000,000)
Shortstop: Danny Espinosa $ 2,700,000
Third Base: Anthony Rendon $ 2,500,000
Left Field: Jayson Werth $ 21,571,429
Center Field: Bryce Harper $ 5,000,000
Right Field: Josh Reddick ($7,000,000)
Total Salary Lineup: $73,071,429
Wilson Ramos, aka The Buffalo, suffered through a disappointing campaign for Washington in 2015. Positively, Ramos managed to stay healthy and have over 500 plate appearances on the season; unfortunately his newfound good health did not translate perfectly to his production offensively, hitting only .229/.258/.358 with 15 homers and 68 runs batted in. Defensively, aside from the occasional difficult time catching throws from the outfield, Ramos ranks as a strong catcher in throwing out runners and pitch framing. Perhaps if the Nationals hit him lower in the order and find more days off to help keep him fresh, Ramos might hit closer to his career .258/.301/.411 in his final season before free agency.
The Face of The Franchise, Ryan Zimmerman struggled through an injury-plagued 2015 season, playing in only 95 games and batting .249/.308/.465 with 16 homers. Zimmerman has struggled through two consecutive injury-filled seasons and his absence from the “heart of the order” has been an underrated reason for the team’s struggle to consistently score runs. He will return as the starting first baseman next season and if he can stay healthy, is one of the best first baseman in baseball.
The biggest free agent expenditure I would make this offseason would be to bring versatile Ben Zobrist to Washington on a 3-year $49.5 million deal. However, I would stand firm on only three years for Zobrist and if a competitor offered him more, I would seek another alternative. With Zobrist in the fold, I would use Yunel Escobar‘s fine season in Washington as an opportunity to sell high on him and trade him to bolster the pitching staff or prospect depth. I will discuss this more in Part-2.
I would bring Zobrist to Washington as I see him as an ideal fit for this roster. The 34-year-old Zobrist is a switch-hitter with a career .355 on-base percentage and is capable of playing most every defensive position competently or better. I would use him at second base and bat him #1 or #2, depending on Mr. Werth, with the idea that if multiple injuries occur to the lineup, his defensive versatility could provide some insurance to the roster.
To begin the 2016 season, I would start Danny Espinosa at shortstop, allowing the organization to put top prospect Trea Turner in the minor leagues to delay his arbitration clock and give him additional minor league experience. Fortunately, this allows the Nationals to capitalize on his excellent defensive skills at shortstop and his ability to hit for power from both sides of the plate. Last year Espinosa hit .240/.311/.409 with 13 home runs over 118 games, while playing five different positions. When Turner proves he is major league ready and contract arbitration is in the rearview mirror, Espinosa will slide into a valuable reserve role garnering at-bats at second, shortstop and third base.
Third baseman Anthony Rendon injured himself early in spring training on what appeared to be a routine play and struggled to get on-track all season, batting only .264/.344/.363 and 5 home runs in 80 games played. I am hoping with a permanent return to his natural position and some better luck with his health, Rendon can return closer to his 2014 season, when he hit .287/.351/.473 with 21 bombs.
As with several others Jayson Werth also battled through a difficult, injury-riddled season, playing in only 88 games while batting .221/.302/.384 and 12 home runs. In addition, Werth appeared to struggle at times defensively in his first season back in left field. Considering his salary and age (36), he is a near certainty to return in 2016 for the Nationals, so the team must maximize his skills and bat Werth atop the lineup to capitalize on his on-base skills. Assuming he has a healthier season in 2016, Werth still has another year of above-average production “left in the tank”.
After several years of imagining what a full, healthy season from Bryce Harper would look like, 2015 was his breakout season, slugging .330/.460/.649 and 42 home runs – in short, he was the best player in the National League. My only change with Bryce is the decision to permanently move him into center field, where he has appeared most comfortable during his career and the defensive metrics state is his best position. Otherwise, I would hope for another healthy season for Bryce and another 35+ homers in 2016.
One of the most underrated players in baseball, the 28-year-old Josh Reddick enters 2016 in his final season of salary arbitration before free agency next winter. Oakland has mentioned publicly wanting to discuss a contract extension with Reddick, but their historical track record say he should be available in trade discussions this offseason. If Oakland feels like 2016 is a rebuilding year or Reddick will not sign long-term, they could look to deal him and an offer headlined by nearly major league ready Wilmer Difo would be difficult to refuse.
Reddick is a quality left-handed hitting outfielder coming off a strong campaign in 2015, batting .272/.333/.449 with 20 home runs, 77 runs batted in and 10 stolen bases in 149 games played. In addition, Reddick has the reputation as a solid defender in right field and a quality baserunner, making him a all-around baseball player. He does struggle against left-handed pitching, which could further explain Oakland’s willingness to trade him: however, a platoon with Michael Taylor could provide a way to mask this weakness.
Due to his salary, left-handed bat with power and defensive skills, I feel Reddick would be an ideal addition for the Nationals this winter. Certainly it is steep to trade six years of Difo for one of Reddick, plus a hypothetical compensation pick next winter, thus I would insist on a sweetener to close the deal. But considering Turner is with Washington for six years and Zobrist and Espinosa are also around, Difo feels like an expendable piece this winter.
Jose Lobaton $ 1,500,000
Clint Robinson $ 550,000
Cliff Pennington $ 2,250,000
Michael A. Taylor $ 550,000
Matt den Dekker $ 550,000
Total Reserves: $ 5,500,000
Total Offense: $ 78,571,429
Returning as the backup catcher in Washington, Jose Lobaton played only 44 games and struggled in the limited playing time in 2015, hitting only .199/.279/.294 with 3 homers. That said Lobaton had another strong season defensively and scores well by the pitch framing metrics. A switch-hitter, Lobaton has shown a career platoon advantage batting left-handed – perhaps having him play more games verses righties could give Ramos additional rest and help Lobaton find a groove offensively. I would hope to see Lobaton play closer to 60 games for Washington, not due to injuries to Ramos, in 2016.
Clint Robinson was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing season for the Nationals, turning a minor league contract with a spring training invite into a bench spot and a batting line of .272/.358/.424 with 10 home runs over 309 at-bats. Exposed defensively in the outfield, the left-handed hitting Robinson will spell Zimmerman at first base and act as a pinch hitter in the late innings for the Nationals next season.
In order to delay top offensive prospect Trea Turner’s arbitration clock and allow him more time in the minors, the Nationals should sign a versatile, veteran utility infielder like Cliff Pennington. The 31-year-old Pennington is coming off a subpar 2015 season, but has a solid reputation as an above-average defensive infielder. A switch-hitter, Pennington is a stronger hitter from the left-side, perhaps giving Washington a nice platoon with Espinosa if an injury occurs to an infielder. While it feels expensive paying $2+ million to a utility infielder, his experience and defensive wizardry makes the investment more than worthwhile.
Michael A. Taylor expected to spend most of 2015 in the minors refining his skills, but due to injuries, he played 138 games for Washington last season. The 24-year-old battled with a low walk rate and an excessive number of strikeouts as a rookie to hit .229/.282/.358 with 14 home runs and 16 stolen bases. Those numbers, plus his outstanding defense in center field, gives Taylor a legitimate case to serve as an everyday starter in Washington’s outfield.
However, Washington’s need for additional left-handed power, coupled with his speed and defensive versatility, makes him a better fit as a reserve next season. That said, considering both Harper and Werth’s injury history and the desire to gain the platoon advantage against lefties, Taylor could easily see 400+ at-bats acting as the team’s 4th outfielder in 2016.
Acquired from the Mets for Jerry Blevins, OF Matt den Dekker performed well after a midseason recall from the minor leagues. He added a leg kick to his swing during his demotion and returned with a vengeance, hitting .267 with 4 home runs in 75 second half at-bats. Capable of playing all three outfield positions and owning some legitimate left-handed pop, den Dekker profiles as an ideal 5th outfielder/25th man for this roster.
In this exercise I believe I traded for a terrific left-handed hitter in Josh Reddick to pair with Bryce Harper, while the expensive signing of Ben Zobrist gives the team a strong on-base presence and positional versatility. Furthermore, using Danny Espinosa and Michael A. Taylor in more appropriate reserve roles will bolster the bench while helping accentuate their many strengths and hiding some of their weaknesses. Finally, I have brought the offensive part of the payroll below $80 million, keeping me on course to stay within the $151 million budget.
The offense still projects to struggle with strikeouts and their starting lineup has several players with extensive injury concerns. Certainly the roster is better positioned to survive multiple injuries to starters due to the increased depth, but losing more than 1 or 2 players to long-term ailments would test the run-scoring capabilities of the offense.
However, the starting lineup now has 4 right-handed hitters, 2 lefties and 2 switch-hitters, giving the team far more balance than the heavily righty lineups in 2015. Furthermore, with Werth’s career .365 OBP and Zobrist’s .355 OBP hitting in front of Rendon, Harper, Zimmerman and Reddick, this has a chance to be a dynamic offense capable of wearing out opposing pitchers.
Finally, I should note this team will be better defensively with Rendon returning to third base and Espinosa taking over for Desmond at shortstop, not to mention the positive additions of Zobrist and Reddick. The Nationals have a chance to start an average or better defender at each position next season. If the team embraces fielding analytics more so with the new coaching staff, the 2016 team could make solid improvements in run prevention next season.
Overall I am extremely confident and pleased with the starters and overall offense I have constructed above. The team has good on-base skills atop the lineup, excellent power in the heart of the order and a versatile, deep bench. The Achilles Heels’ for the offense will always be the injury concerns of several top hitters and the propensity toward inconsistent offensive output due to the number of strikeouts. However, this team will get on base, hit plenty of home runs and play solid defense along the way, giving it a chance to win most games. If they can avoid the injury-bug, there is no reason the Nationals will not have one of the better lineups in the National League next season.
**** Return Monday 11/16 for Part-2 as I construct the Washington Nationals Pitching Staff For 2016. Thanks for reading! ****