Although Washington failed to advance in the playoffs and continued their string of postseason misfortune, the 2016 season must be considered a success for the Nationals. The team won 95 games in route to winning the National League East in dominating fashion. Unfortunately as talented as the team was in 2016, they still fell to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost to the eventual champions the Chicago Cubs, so the front office must improve the roster this winter in hopes of winning the 2017 World Series.
Offensively, the Nationals enter the offseason with a major void as longtime catching stalwart Wilson Ramos is likely to depart via free agency. Further, Washington needs to settle on a defensive position for talented youngster Trea Turner and additional depth on their bench. Finally, considering the ambiguity with the team’s revenue from MASN, the payroll is unlikely to surpass the last two seasons at $162 million and $145 million.
Last year the Washington Nationals overcame surprisingly poor seasons from Ben Revere and Ryan Zimmerman, plus subpar numbers from Bryce Harper to produce a .256/.326/.426 team battling line. Washington finished with 763 runs scored ( 4th in NL), 203 home runs ( 4th in NL), 536 walks ( 5th in NL) and 1,252 strikeouts (4th in NL) in 2016, which compared extremely favorably with their 2015 numbers of .251/.321/.403 with 703 runs scored, 177 home runs, 539 walks and 1,344 strikeouts.
In Part-2 of this Manifesto, I focus first on moving Trea Turner permanently to shortstop, then filling the subsequent vacancy in center field plus at catcher. Next I sought to fill these spots with at least one left-handed hitter and two players who have a track record of getting on-base.
Also I attempted to strengthen the depth and quality of the bench, gathering players with position versatility and offensive skills. Finally I (almost) stayed within an $85 million budget for the 13 offensive players, which when combined with my sub $75 million payroll for the pitching staff, keeps me under my hypothetical $160 million limit. With this in mind, here is my master plan for rebuilding the Washington Nationals’ offense and capturing the 2017 World Series.
Signings -> 1) Re-signed OF Chris Heisey 1yr $1.4 million plus incentives
2) Sign OF Dexter Fowler 4yrs $67 million ($12m, $16m, $19m, $20m)
Trades -> 1) Trade LHP Gio Gonzalez to Miami for IF/OF Derek Dietrich and a Prospect
2) Acquire Derek Norris from San Diego in exchange for IF Drew Ward
Catcher – (Derek Norris R/R) $3,750,000
First Base – Ryan Zimmerman R/R $14,000,000
Second Base – Daniel Murphy L/R $12,000,000
Shortstop – Trea Turner R/R $525,000
Third Base – Anthony Rendon R/R $6,400,000
Left Field – Jayson Werth R/R $21,571,000
Center Field – (Dexter Fowler S/R) ($12,000,000)
Right Field – Bryce Harper L/L $9,300,000
Starting Lineup Salary Total: ($79,546,000)
The catching position will see turnover in 2017, as it seems unlikely that Wilson Ramos returns to Washington if indeed he is seeking a 4-5 year deal. Assuming another team offers him a 4-year deal, it will be difficult, but the proper decision to let him leave and move on at catcher.
After scouring both the potentially available free agents and trade options, I feel the best choice would be to acquire San Diego’s Derek Norris. The 27-year-old Norris suffered through a difficult year in 2016, hitting only .186/.255/.328 with 14 home runs and 42 runs driven in over 125 games played. Quite simply, there is little excuse for last season; however, prior to 2016, Norris had produced three consecutive solid seasons, including an all-star appearance in 2014.
Without question I am concerned with his decline in performance and his lack of success against fastballs, but considering his age, salary and previous track record of performance, Norris represents an intriguing gamble this winter. San Diego has been known to be shopping Norris and after his difficult 2016, so he should be readily available. While not a superstar, in this uninspiring catching market, I am willing to wager he can rebound in Washington.
Returning at first base this season will again be “Face of the Franchise” Ryan Zimmerman, who scuffled through a difficult season in 2016, hitting .218/.272/.370 with 15 home runs over 115 games played. The 32-year-old Zimmerman has struggled the past three seasons with injuries and poor performance, leading many to worry if he can recover offensively. His stature in the organization and his salary will make him the opening day starter at first base, and the team will be hoping he rebounds at the plate in 2017.
After coming over from New York last winter, Daniel Murphy put together one of the best statistical seasons in franchise history, hitting .347/.390/.595 with 25 home runs and 104 runs batted in. In addition, he won the silver slugger for second base and made the All-Star team. The 31-year-old will act as Washington’s starting second baseman again next season and continue to make Mets’ fans bitter with each extra base hit he notches.
Wow Trea Turner, have yourself a rookie season! After somewhat controversially spending the first half of the year in the minors, Turner reached the majors midyear and took the league by storm, hitting .342/.370/.567 with 13 home runs and 33 stolen bases in only 73 games played. Entering 2017, the biggest question is where the Nationals will play him defensively, as he is versatile enough to play center field, second base or shortstop. My belief is the team should and will move him permanently to his natural shortstop and into the leadoff spot in 2017. While he will still make mistakes like any young player, Turner is one of the best young players in baseball.
Anthony Rendon bounced back from a difficult year in 2015 to post a solid season for the Nationals, batting .270/.348/.450 with 20 home runs and 85 runs batted in. In addition, Rendon played a spectacular third base, making only 9 errors in 155 games along with several stellar defensive plays. The biggest question with Rendon is his lingering injury concerns, but if he stays off the disabled list, he is one of the best third baseman in baseball. He should remain at the hot corner for Washington the rest of the decade.
Somewhat similarly to Rendon, Jayson Werth overcame an injury-riddled season in 2015 to stay relatively healthy and post another solid season for the Nationals. Werth hit .244/.335/.417 with 21 home runs and 69 runs driven in over 143 games played in 2016. The 37-year-old team leader enters 2017 in the last year of his memorable 7-year $126 million contract and should have enough in the tank to produce one more productive year in Washington.
The biggest offensive acquisition I make during this manifesto is the free agent signing of outfielder Dexter Fowler, who re-enters free agency this winter coming off a career season for Chicago. The 30-year-old Fowler hit .276/.393/.447 with 13 home runs and 13 stolen bases, while playing a reasonable defensive center field. He recently rejected a qualifying offer from the Cubs, meaning the Nationals will lose their 1st round pick in 2017 if he signs with Washington. As a self-confessed draft and player development nerd I am loathe parting with draft picks, but Washington’s 1st round pick is 28th overall, making it less painful than in other years.
Even with losing their 1st round pick and signing him to a 4-year $67 million contract, I think he is a perfect fit in Washington. He would be a terrific #2 hitter due to his excellent on-base skills and aptitude to make contact, plus he gives the team another left-handed bat. Defensively he would play center field between Werth and Bryce Harper, with a probable shift to left field when uber-prospect Victor Robles is major league ready. While I worry about signing anyone for four years past age-30, I think his skill set ages well and is an ideal signing for Washington.
Bryce Harper was not able to match his historical 2015 season in 2016, when he hit .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs, 99 runs batted in and unanimously winning the National League MVP award. Last season Harper hit .243/.373/.441 with only 24 home runs and 86 runs driven in over 147 games played. Although it was never publicly acknowledged, most believe Bryce was playing much of 2016 with an injury or injuries, as he never seemed fully comfortable. With a full offseason to rest and rehabilitate, I would be surprised if Bryce did not rebound with a monster season in 2017.
Backup Catcher – Jose Lobaton S/R $1,500,000
Infielder #1 – (Derek Dietrich L/R) $1,700,000
Infielder #2 – Wilmer Difo S/R $525,000
4th Outfielder – Michael A. Taylor R/R $525,000
5th Outfielder – Chris Heisey R/R $1,400,000
Bench Salary Total: $5,850,000
Total Offense Salary: $85,396,000
Total Pitching Salary: $74,476,000
2017 Total Payroll: $159,872,000
Returning for his fourth season, the 32-year-old Jose Lobaton should see more playing time with the Nationals in 2017. Lobaton hit .232/.319/.374 with 3 home runs in 39 games played last season, serving as Wilson Ramos’s backup. The switch-hitter should consider giving up hitting right-handed, as he hit a reasonable .262/.344/.393 against righties and a woeful .067/.176/.267 against southpaws. While Lobaton is far from a superstar, he is a solid defensive catcher and could quietly form a solid catching platoon with Derek Norris.
A long-term personal favorite, Derek Dietrich has stealthily developed into a quality, versatile player for the Miami Marlins. Last season the 27-year-old Dietrich hit .279./.374/.425 with 7 home runs in 128 games, while seeing action at first, second, third and left field. A left-handed hitter capable of playing multiple positions, there is opportunity for Dietrich to see 300-400 at-bats with Washington. He will reach arbitration this winter and is under club control through 2020.
The Marlins are looking for pitching this winter after the horrific passing of Jose Fernandez and Gio’s relatively club friendly contract, along with his popularity in South Florida, make him a natural fit for Miami. Dietrich is blocked at his natural positions of third base and left field in Miami, making him potentially available in trade discussions. I do not believe Gio for Dietrich straight-up is fair, but if Miami included a prospect, this could be a nice swap for both teams.
Serving as the team’s utility middle infielder will be the 24-year-old switch-hitter Wilmer Difo, who showed well in 31 games last season, hitting .276/.364/.379 while playing second, shortstop and third base. The team might prefer to sign a veteran for this role and give Difo more seasoning in the minor leagues. And there is merit if the team makes this choice. However, I believe his versatility, speed and aptitude for making contact at the plate should give him the opportunity for 200-250 at-bats next season in a backup role.
Michael A. Taylor will return as the 4th outfielder for Washington in 2017, providing the team a tremendous defensive outfielder at all three positions, along with some speed and occasional home run power. Unfortunately the nearly 26-year-old struggled in a backup role last year, hitting only .231/.278/.376 with 7 home runs and 14 stolen bases in 237 plate appearances. Ultimately, he might be better served as a trade chip to a team that would give him more playing time. That said, if he can cut down on his strikeouts, I could see him developing into a quality 4th outfielder.
Late Friday evening it was announced that Washington and Chris Heisey agreed to terms on a new 1-year contract worth $1.4 million plus incentives. Heisey was solid in a reserve capacity with Washington last season, hitting .216/.290/.446 with 9 home runs in 83 games and 139 at-bats, while seeing time at all three outfield positions. Most notably, Heisey hit a monster 2-run pinch hit home run in Game 5 of the NLDS to get Washington back in the game. Notably, Heisey hit 4 pinch hit home runs last season. Heisey is a quality reserve with a good reputation in the clubhouse, making him an ideal 5th outfielder.
In rebuilding the offense for 2016, the biggest challenges were staying within an $85 million budget and $160 million overall, plus deciding the defensive position for Trea Turner. After Turner was put at shortstop, I needed to find a starting catcher and center fielder, not easy with budget constraints and a weak free agent market. Also, I wanted to improve the bench, as one of the major takeaways I learned from 2016 was the value of a quality, talented reserve corps. One of the main reasons the Dodgers defeated Washington was the depth of their roster from #18-#25. Unfortunately considering the impact of the MASN deal to the payroll, I had to make sacrifices at catcher and the bench.
I must acknowledge the weaknesses of this hypothetical everyday lineup – First, I wish I felt more confident in the catching tandem of Derek Norris and Jose Lobaton. While I think both are solid defenders, I do wish I was able to acquire a “better” starter and have one as a backup. In addition, there are health concerns with several players and legitimate apprehension surrounding Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth. Finally, I wanted to add another player or two to strengthen the bench in case of injuries, but I was unable to fit these veterans within the budget.
Those concerns stated, I do believe this lineup projects as one of the strongest in the National League. By parting with Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos, I have subtracted some power in exchange for on-base percentage and fewer strikeouts. The offense now has five right-handed hitters, two left-handed hitters and a switch-hitter, complemented with two right-handed hitters, two switch-hitters and a left-handed batter on the bench. Furthermore, with Turner and Fowler atop the lineup ahead of sluggers Murphy, Harper and Rendon, this offense has a chance to score runs. And if they can get reasonable seasons from Werth and Zimmerman, along with a rebound from Norris, they could have as much firepower as anyone in the National League.
Defensively losing Ramos and Espinosa will clearly hurt, as both were outstanding defenders. However, considering the potential upgrade of Fowler from Turner in center field and a healthy season from Harper, the team should still be one of the better defensive units in baseball. Not to mention a full season of Turner and the addition of Fowler should make Washington a top base running team and more athletic overall.
Overall I am extremely pleased with the offense I have been able to construct within the hypothetical and real world constraints for the Washington Nationals. The offense should see an uptick in overall team on-base percentage with the acquisitions of Fowler and Norris and should make more contact with the subtraction of Espinosa. The lineup has excellent on-base ability and speed at the top with Turner and Fowler, plenty of power with Murphy, Harper and Rendon in the heart of the order, and proven veterans Werth, Zimmerman and Norris at the bottom. There are injury concerns, but the bench is stronger than last season, which should help maintain performance when starters miss time. IF the team can stay relatively healthy, I see little reason they will not have a top-5 offense in 2017 and win their 4th division title in the past 6 years.