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Unfortunately due to issues both personally and professionally, NatsGM.com & THE NatsGM Show is going on an indefinite hiatus beginning today.  I do not know when, or if, we will return.  Thank you!

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THE 2016-2017 NatsGM Washington Nationals Offseason Manifesto – Part 1 Pitching

The 2016 Washington Nationals enjoyed a tremendous year, winning 95 games and capturing the National League East division for the 3rd time in 5 seasons.  No question the loss in Game 5 of the National League Division Series leaves a sour taste for both the fans and organization, but most should consider last season a success.

Now General Manager Mike Rizzo and Washington’s front office must look toward 2017 and how they can improve their roster to advance in the playoffs and win a World Series.  The roster seems fairly spoken for, with potentially 20 of the 25 roster spots already locked up, although the team has clear needs at catcher, closer and improved roster depth.  Also, there are questions about payroll, as the ambiguity involving the team’s television revenue likely puts a ceiling on what the team can spend this winter.

Last season Washington’s pitching staff was outstanding, finishing 2nd in Major League Baseball in team ERA (3.51), 2nd in total strikeouts (1,476), 11th in total walks allowed (468), and 3rd in batting average against (.234).  These numbers compare favorably against the 2015 pitching staff, who finished with an ERA of 3.62, 1,342 strikeouts, 364 walks allowed and a batting average against of .250.

In Part-1, I have tried to rebuild the back of Washington’s bullpen through trades in order to be budget conscious, while also building a deep relief corps with pitchers of varying styles.  The starting rotation will miss Gio Gonzalez’s dependability, but considering the overall payroll and his status as the 5th starter, his departure and the reallocation of his salary was necessary.  However, I did not want to rely too heavily on youngsters Joe Ross and a the combination of A.J. Cole, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez to manage the back-end of the rotation, so I signed a competent, veteran innings-eater to shore up the pitching staff.

Finally, to make this realistic, I am assuming Washington will have a $160 million payroll next season, up from $145 million last season but in line with the $162 million in 2015.  Therefore, I prioritized keeping the salary total for the 12 members of the pitching staff below $75 million, no small feat considering Scherzer and Strasburg make a combined $40 million themselves.  Keeping these factors in mind, here is my master plan to build a pitching staff capable of winning the 2017 World Series.

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2017 Washington Nationals Hypothetical Payroll ->  $160 million

Signings ->          Jon Niese 1yr $4 million plus incentives

Trades ->             1) Washington trades LHP Gio Gonzalez to Miami for *** and A Top Prospect

                            2) Washington trades RHP Blake Treinen and OF Andrew Stevenson to St. Louis for RHP Trevor Rosenthal

                            3) Washington trades SS Danny Espinosa to Seattle for RHP Steve Cishek

Starting Rotation

SP #1 –                  Max Scherzer                                     $22,143,000

SP #2 –                 Stephen Strasburg                              $18,333,000

SP #3 –                  Tanner Roark                                      $6,100,000

SP #4 –                  Joe Ross                                             $525,000

SP #5 –                 (Jon Niese )                                        ($4,000,000 Plus Incentives)

Starting Rotation Total Salary:                                      $51,101,000

Depth:  A.J. Cole, Erick Fedde, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez & Austin Voth

In the 2nd year of his 7-year $210 million contract with Washington, Max Scherzer was again stellar for the Nationals, throwing 228.1 innings with a 2.96 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, and 284 strikeouts this past season.  In addition, he is one of three finalists for the National League Cy Young award.  He is one of the top handful of starting pitchers in baseball and should serve as Washington’s #1 starter again in 2017.

Stephen Strasburg endured a rather adventureous season in 2016, starting off the year in dominant fashion and finishing July with a 14-1 record, a 2.68 ERA and 155 strikeouts in 127.2 innings pitched.  Along the way, Strasburg also signed a monster 7-year $175 million extension with Washington, likely keeping him under contract for the rest of his career.

Unfortunately August hit and Strasburg struggled the rest of the season with injuries and ineffectiveness, finishing 2016 with a 15-4 record, a 3.60 ERA and 183 strikeouts over 147.2 innings pitched.  In early September Strasburg was diagnosed with a partial tear of the pronator tendon in his pitching elbow, which forced him to the disabled list for the season.  Assuming a winter of rest and rehabilitation can cure his ailing elbow, Strasburg should again serve as Washington’s #2 starter (or Co-#1) next year.

Bravo Tanner Roark!  After a demotion to the bullpen in 2015 and a mediocre season pitching in relief, Roark was a revelation for Washington last season, finishing 16-10 with a 2.83 ERA and 172 strikeouts in 210 innings pitched.  Not to diminish Scherzer’s excellence, but it often felt like Roark was the stopper and the backbone of the 2016 starting rotation.  As a result, Roark will see his salary jump quite significantly this winter in his first time through salary arbitration and should begin 2017 as Washington’s #3 starter.

It was a bit of a tale of two seasons for Joe Ross in 2016, as he was excellent through mid-June (3.01 ERA, 59 strikeouts in 72 innings) but unfortunately a shoulder injury cost him much of the second half of the season.  Ross looked rusty in his return from the disabled list in September and finished 2016 with a 3.43 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and a 93/29 strikeout to walk ratio.  A full offseason to rest and recover should greatly benefit Ross, and the 23-year-old projects as Washington’s #4 starter next season.

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In this exercise I have traded away Gio Gonzalez – this was primarily due to the fact he will make $12 million in 2017 with an option for $12 million in 2018.  He is a solid pitcher and worth his salary, but as the Nationals projected 5th starter, I “traded” him to clear payroll, improve the bench and bolster the farm system.

But after “trading” Gonzalez, I did feel the need to replace him in the starting rotation.  In his proxy, I was looking for a durable left-handed pitcher, who has consistently thrown 150+ innings per season and has mild salary demands.  After scouring the available free agents and the potential trade market, I believe LHP Jon Niese capably fills this role at a solid price.

Prior to last season the 30-year-old Niese had spent his entire 8-year career with the Mets with generally solid results, throwing 1,068 innings for New York with a sub-4 ERA.  From 2010-2015 Niese made 24+ starts each season and provided the Mets with 143+ innings annually – certainly not a superstar, but a capable #4/#5 starter.

Unfortunately Niese was traded last offseason to Pittsburgh and struggled through a mostly nightmarish year, posting a 4.91 ERA in 110 innings before the Pirates traded him back to the Mets.  Niese only threw 11 innings for the Mets before suffering a season-ending knee surgery.  Now he enters free agency coming off his worst career season with a 5.50 ERA in only 121 innings pitched.  Obviously Niese is a gamble for whichever team signs him, but considering his age, prior track record of success and history of durability, he represents a potentially nice value in free agency this winter.

Bullpen

Closer –                 (Trevor Rosenthal)                          ($6,300,000)

8th Inning –            ((Steve Cishek))                               ($6,000,000)

RH S/U –              Shawn Kelley                                     $5,500,000

RH S/U –              Koda Glover                                       $525,000

LH S/U –               Sammy Solis                                     $525,000

LH S/U –               Oliver Perez                                       $4,000,000

Long –                   A.J. Cole / Austin Voth                        $525,000

Bullpen Total Salary:                                                                       $23,375,000

Pitching Staff Total Salary                                                             $74,476,000

Much like his teammates in St. Louis, Trevor Rosenthal struggled through a disappointing, injury-plagued 2016, posting a 4.46 ERA, 3.72 FIP and 56 strikeouts against 29 walks in only 40.1 innings.  Prior to 2016, Rosenthal had established himself as one of the top relievers in the National League, with two consecutive seasons of 45+ saves and an all-star appearance in 2015.  Rosenthal lost the closer job to Seung-hwan Oh last season and St. Louis might be interested in clearing his projected $6.3 million salary to shore up other weaknesses.  I would think an offer of Blake Treinen and his four years of control plus a strong prospect like Andrew Stevenson (or someone similar) could bring back the new Nationals’ closer.

Additionally, I am proposing trading the last year of Danny Espinosa’s contract to Seattle in return for side-slinging righty Steve Cishek.  I can envision these players being the frame work of a mutually beneficial trade for both teams, as Seattle seems to want a shortstop to allow prospect Ketel Marte to further develop and Washington needs relief help more than Espinosa.

The 30-year-old Cishek was impressive in his first year in Seattle last year, providing the Mariners a 2.81 ERA, 1.016 WHIP and 76 strikeouts in 64 innings pitched, along with notching 25 saves.  His unique delivery makes him especially difficult against righties (.573 OPS) and his experience as a closer would provide nice depth in case Rosenthal struggles.

In the first year of a three year contract, the 32-year-old Shawn Kelley was a reliable member of Washington’s relief corps, providing Washington with a 2.64 ERA, 0.897 WHIP and 80 strikeouts in 58 innings pitched.  The Nationals must protect Kelley a bit more than the average reliever due to his past Tommy John surgeries, but he should form a potentially lethal right-handed setup combination with Cishek.

A revelation in his rookie season, the 23-year-old Koda Glover went from an 8th round pick in 2015 to become a major cog in Washington’s bullpen, pitching 19.2 innings for the Nationals with a 5.03 ERA and 16 strikeouts.  He did appear to tire down the stretch in his first full professional season and there are reports he was dealing with an injury, causing his numbers to suffer.  Glover should be fully healthy by spring training and projects as a major piece of the relief corps going forward.

Sammy Solis has long struggled with injuries but the 27-year-old stayed relatively healthy in 2016 and provided Washington with an effective lefty in their bullpen.  Solis made 37 appearances for Washington with a 2.41 ERA, 1.268 WHIP and 47 strikeouts over 41 innings pitched.  His success was a big reason Washington parted with Felipe Rivero in the Mark Melancon trade last July.  Assuming Solis can stay healthy, he should serve as Washington’s top left-handed reliever in 2017.

Signed as a free agent last winter, Oliver Perez had mixed results for the Nationals in 2016, making 64 appearances and throwing 40 innings with a 4.95 ERA and 46 strikeouts.  Perez was reasonably successful against lefties last season, allowing a .720 OPS and has a career .684 OPS against left-handed hitters.  He might not be the dominant lefty specialist Washington hoped when they signed him, but his experience and skills against lefties should allow him to rebound in 2017.

The long reliever role in Washington’s bullpen will likely be a competition between Washington’s most experienced young righties, A.J. Cole or Austin Voth.  The 24-year-old Cole spent much of 2016 in Triple-A with strong results, and showed some promise in 8 starts and 38.1 innings pitched, striking out 39 and allowing only 37 hits.  The also 24-year-old Voth spent the entire 2016 season at Triple-A Syracuse, posting a 3.15 ERA with 133 strikeouts in 157 innings pitched.  After an impressive collegiate career, Voth has now logged nearly 500 minor league innings and deserves the opportunity to prove he can be a major league contributor.

Further bullpen depth can be provided by RHP Trevor Gott, acquired from Los Angeles last winter in exchange for Yunel Escobar, along with LHP Matt Grace.  In addition, I would not be surprised to see the front office sign several minor league free agents like Sean Burnett, hoping to uncover another Matt Belisle type value among the group.

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In Part-1 of this endeavor, I must first acknowledge the many assumptions I am making, as I am hypothetically trading Gio Gonzalez, acquiring Steve Cishek and Trevor Rosenthal, plus signing a free agent in Jon Niese.  I have reached out to various people to ask their opinion of the plausibility of each individual move and want to avoid hindering the legitimacy of this piece with lopsided, fantasy style deals.

Next I should confess the weaknesses of this 12-man pitching staff I have assembled – The starting rotation, while extremely talented, has several members such as Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross who have injury concerns entering 2017.  Additionally, the team will be relying on unproven young arms like Reynaldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito and A.J. Cole to provide depth when injuries occur.  Losing Gio Gonzalez weakens the rotation, but I am confident Niese can suitably replace those lost innings.  Finally, I am counting on the health and return to form of new closer Trevor Rosenthal, along with Shawn Kelley and Sammy Solis avoiding the disabled list.

That said, the starting rotation has the potential to have four excellent right-handed starters, along with a proven left-hander looking to pitch well enough to sign a big contract next winter.  In the bullpen, the team has two pitchers with closing experience, several power arms and a collective group with various differing styles.  Health questions aside, this pitching staff has a nice mix of veterans and young players, and nearly everyone has experienced success in the major leagues.

In conclusion I believe this starting rotation is comparable to last season’s, with the legitimate possibility one of Lopez or Giolito blossoms into a impact starter during the season.  The bullpen is deeper with more quality arms than last season, as five possess closer quality “stuff”.  Finally, I have preserved the farm system by not parting with any top prospects and have successfully kept the budget for the pitching staff below $75 million.  Overall, if the team can stay relatively healthy, there is no reason they do not have a top-5 pitching staff in 2017.

Thanks for reading… Please return Wednesday for Part-2 as we retool the Nationals’ offense. 

THE NatsGM 2015-2016 Washington Nationals Offseason Manifesto – Part-2 Pitching

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No question the 2015 Washington Nationals were one of the bigger disappointments in recent memory. But while the sting remains from the poor season, the front office has had proper time to lick their figurative wounds, and it is now time to refocus toward 2016 and giving the Nationals the best chance to return to the playoffs.

Last season the Washington Nationals’ pitching staff failed to live up to the overwhelming preseason expectations, finishing 6th in the National League in ERA (3.62), 4th in Strikeouts (1,342), 1st in Walks Allowed (364), and 7th in Batting Average Allowed (.250). These results compare reasonably but unfavorably with 2014, as the team finished 1st in ERA (3.03), 6th in Strikeouts (1,288), 1st in Walks Allowed (352), and 6th in Batting Average Allowed (.244).

In Part-2 of this article, I have prioritized improving the overall depth of the pitching staff and attempting to overhaul the team’s bullpen. In addition to keep this realistic, I am focusing on keeping the pitching payroll under $71 million and the total 2015 team payroll at $151 million.  Keeping this in mind, here is my masterplan to bolster the Nationals pitching to help them return to the playoffs and reach the World Series in 2016.

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Signings: None

Trades:  2B/3B Yunel Escobar to the Chicago White Sox for LHP Dan Jennings ; RHP Drew Storen to the Detroit Tigers for a Prospect ; Prospect RHP Austin Voth plus a (C grade prospect) to the St. Louis Cardinals for RHP Steve Cishek

Starting Rotation

#1 Max Scherzer $ 22,142,900
#2 Stephen Strasburg $ 10,500,000
#3 Gio Gonzalez $ 12,100,000
#4 Joe Ross $ 550,000
#5 Tanner Roark $ 550,000
Total: $ 45,842,900

Max Scherzer signed a 7-year $210 million contract with the Nationals last offseason in hopes of leading the Nationals to the World Series. While he fell short of the goal, the 31-year-old Scherzer threw 228.2 innings for Washington last season with a 2.79 ERA, 2.77 FIP, and 276 strikeouts against 36 walks, in addition to throwing 2 no-hitters. If not for the superlative performances of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Jake Arrieta this past season, Scherzer would be receiving CY Young discussion. Nevertheless, he will return to front the Nationals’ rotation in 2016.

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After an unusually difficult first half of the season that saw his ERA balloon to 5.16, the 28-year-old Stephen Strasburg settled down in the second half to show his dominant form. For the season Strasburg pitched 127.1 innings for Washington with a 3.46 ERA, 2.81 FIP and 155 strikeouts. There will be trade rumors surrounding him this winter due to his impending free agent status next offseason, but expect Strasburg to remain with Washington as their #2 or Co-#1 starter next season.

Lost amongst the static of the disappointing 2015, left-handed pitcher Gio Gonzalez completed yet another successful season for the Nationals, throwing 175.2 innings with a 3.79 ERA, 3.05 FIP, and 169 strikeouts. Gio’s above-average walk rate and propensity for the occasional poor start often overshadow his skills, as he has been one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball this decade. Signed through this season with two additional club options, Gio should remain a rock in the middle of the Nationals’ rotation for the next few years.

Acquired as part of the Steven Souza trade with Trea Turner, Joe Ross was a valuable member of the 2015 rotation, pitching 76.2 innings and posting a 3.64 ERA, 3.42 FIP and 69 strikeouts last season. The Nationals decided to shut him down late in the season due to the large innings increase from his previous season, along with some signs of fatigue in his results. Ross still needs to improve his changeup to keep left-handed hitters off-balance, as lefties had a .809 OPS against him in 2015. That said this 22-year-old projects to be part of the Nationals rotation for much of the rest of this decade.

Following two consecutive solid seasons as a starter, the transition back to the bullpen was as successful for Tanner Roark as the return of Dustin Diamond to Saved By The Bell: The New Class, posting a 4.38 ERA and 4.70 FIP over 111 innings pitched. One of many lessons learned from last season is Roark is more successful as a starting pitcher, which is convenient as the Nationals need innings at the back of their rotation next season. The 29-year-old Roark figures to benefit from the team’s improved defense in 2016 and eat plenty of innings at the back of the rotation.

In addition to these five, the Nationals will depend on depth in the minor leagues at Triple-A Syracuse in terms of RHPs A.J. Cole, Taylor Hill, and Taylor Jordan and at Double-A with Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez.

Bullpen
Closer: Jonathan Papelbon $ 11,000,000
Stopper: (Steve Cishek) $ 7,100,000
RH Set-Up: Craig Stammen $ 2,400,000
RH Set-Up: David Carpenter $ 1,500,000
LH Set-Up: Felipe Rivero $ 550,000
LH Set-Up: (Dan Jennings) $ 700,000
Middle/Long Man: Blake Treinen $ 550,000
Total: $ 23,800,000
Total Pitching Staff: $ 69,642,900
Total Offense: $ 78,571,429
Total 2016 Payroll: $148,214,329

Likely against the wishes of every Nationals’ fans, I would recommend the team bring back 34-year-old right-handed pitcher Jonathan Papelbon to serve as the team’s closer in 2016. Certainly fans will remember the ugly incident involving Bryce Harper toward the end of the season and want him to be on another team next year. But regrettably the rest of baseball is aware of this incident, and Papelbon’s trade value is currently at its nadir. Given my background as a financial advisor, I cannot sell low on any asset and would gamble on a rebound season for Papelbon in 2016.

That is not to say Papelbon was not solid in 2015, as he pitched to a 2.13 ERA and 3.70 FIP, with 56 strikeouts and 24 saves in 63.1 innings pitched. In short, he is still one of the best 10-20 relief pitchers in the game, and his presence in the bullpen makes the team better. How new manager Dusty Baker manages Papelbon and his relationship with Harper could be one of his biggest challenges next year – I am willing to wager it works out well for the Nationals.

Unfortunately the time in Washington is likely over for Drew Storen, who many expect to be traded this offseason after a “vote of no-confidence” in him with the Papelbon trade last summer. I see a natural fit for a deal with Detroit, a team that needs bullpen help and gobbled up some prospects at this past trade deadline. Several names I would discuss in trade talks with Detroit would be JaCoby Jones, Jairo Labourt and Kevin Ziomek.

In order to replace Storen in the late innings, I am suggesting the Nationals make a swap with the St. Louis Cardinals to acquire right-handed submariner Steve Cishek. Scheduled to earn approximately $7 million in 2016 and under arbitration through 2017, there have been mentions that Cishek could be a non-tender candidate after a subpar 2015. However, Cishek is only 29-years-old and has been one of the best, underrated relievers in the National League the past few seasons. He possesses a career 2.82 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 9.55 K/9 ratio against a 3.42 BB/9. In addition he owns a career .40 HR/9 rate, proving he keeps the ball in the ballpark. If the Cardinals would accept Double-A pitcher Austin Voth and a prospect for Cishek, I would quickly strike this deal to make him our 8th inning stopper.

Losing Craig Stammen early in the 2015 season was a major blow to the Nationals’ bullpen, as this reliable performer had previously done yeoman’s work in the bullpen throwing 72+ innings per year for 3 previous seasons. Prior to injury Craig Stammen was the definition of a quality reliever, striking out a good percentage of hitters, issuing few walks and seldom allowing home runs. Assuming he is healthy, expect Stammen to again be a major force in the Nationals’ bullpen in 2016.

Acquired from the Yankees in June, David Carpenter suffered through an injury-plagued and forgettable season in 2015, pitching 24.2 innings with a 4.01 ERA, 5.24 FIP and 15 strikeouts before being shut down with shoulder issues. However, the two seasons prior to 2015, the 30-year-old Carpenter was one of the best relievers in the National League. Scheduled to earn $1.5 million in 2016 and under contract through 2017, the Nationals would be wise to gamble that Carpenter returns to health and previous form next year while pitching in middle relief.

Easily the best surprise in the Nationals otherwise underwhelming 2015 bullpen, LHP Felipe Rivero took advantage of his opportunity, throwing 48.1 innings with a 2.79 ERA, 2.64 FIP and 43 strikeouts. Still only 24-years-old and possessing an upper-90s fastball, Rivero has late-inning reliever potential in the future if his move to the bullpen continues to blossom. For now, Rivero expects to serve as the Nationals top left-handed reliever in 2016.

As mentioned in Part-1 of this piece, I have the Washington Nationals selling high and trading infielder Yunel Escobar before the season, ideally for bullpen depth. Several teams are seeking second baseman and third baseman this offseason and the best fit in terms of a trade appears to be the White Sox, who need help at both infield positions, plus potentially shortstop as well. In addition, Chicago appears to have good pitching depth, both in terms of young starting pitchers in the minors and in their bullpen. Ideally, I would swap Escobar’s contract of 1-year $7 million plus an option for 2017, for four seasons of left-handed relief pitcher Dan Jennings.

Possessing a solid 3-pitch mix including a 92-93mph fastball, sinker and slider, the 28-year-old Jennings owns a career 2.99 ERA, 3.54 FIP, 7.48 K/9 ratio against a 3.91 BB/9 ratio. Furthermore he shows no obvious career platoon split, allowing a .702 OPS verses righties and a .718 OPS against lefties. Jennings is scheduled to earn $700,000 in his first time through salary arbitration and would provide Washington with another solid lefty to pair with Felipe Rivero in the bullpen.

Blake Treinen provided the Nationals with 67.2 innings pitched in 2015, posting a 3.86 ERA, 3.49 FIP and 65 strikeouts against 38 walks. Blessed with an upper-90s fastball and a hard slider, Treinen dominates righties, holding them to a .184/.276/.216 batting line; unfortunately due to his lack of a quality changeup, Treinen struggles against lefties, as they slugged .336/.425/.509 against him in 2015. Until Treinen improves against lefties, he will remain as a righty-specialist and long reliever. If however, he develops even a passable changeup, the 27-year-old Treinen could still develop into a high-leverage reliever.

Additional depth at the minor league level will be provided by righties Abel De Los Santos and Rafael Martin, plus Aaron Barrett could return late in the season after Tommy John surgery. Southpaws Matt Grace and Sammy Solis will provide additional support from the left side.

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While it feels strange to write a column like this and not include Drew Storen and Jordan Zimmermann, 2016 is shaping up as a transition year for the Washington Nationals pitching staff. The organization will let veterans Doug Fister and Zimmermann depart, while relying on Tanner Roark and Joe Ross to serve as the #4 and #5 starters. Furthermore there is expected to be significant turnover in the bullpen, as five or more spots could see new faces in 2016.

The weakness of the starting rotation lies in the lack of depth and the question marks at the back of the rotation in Roark and Ross. Both men have performed well at the major league level, but the Nationals need them to pitch 160+ innings next season to be successful.

Additionally, the bullpen projects to be stronger with more veteran leadership, although each of these pitchers have some possible negative working against him. That said I prioritized retooling the bullpen and striving to have seven quality pitchers in the fold. I feel like each of these seven individuals is unique and bring a different skillset, not to mention having a good blend of youth and experience.

In conclusion this master plan has added power and versatility to the offense, overhauled the bullpen with potentially seven above-average relievers, and has cut the payroll nearly 10% from last season. I have parted with three prospects, including two in the top-10, but replace them with one prospect from the Storen trade, the potential for a compensation pick for Reddick next winter and I protected all four picks inside the top-75 in the 2016 MLB Draft. If the Nationals can reasonably avoid the injury bug, there is no reason they cannot win the National League East in 2016 for the 3rd time in 5 years and challenge for the World Series.

THE NatsGM 2015-2016 Washington Nationals Offseason Manifesto

Nationals Park

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

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Lineup
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.

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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.

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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.

Reserves
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.

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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! ****