At this time last year, the baseball world was still two months away from learning where Bryce Harper would sign in free agency. The Major League Baseball hot stove was a bit of a different story this year, especially where the Washington Nationals were involved.
The Nationals entered the winter with not one, but two marquee free agents hitting the market, and both major question marks were answered this week.
Anthony Rendon left town to sign with the Los Angeles Angels for a reported $245 million over seven years. Days earlier, Stephen Strasburg agreed to a seven-year deal, also for $245 million, to return to the Nationals.
With that settled, what’s left for the Nationals to do this winter? The checklist is short: Strengthen the bullpen, figure out the first base situation and find someone to take over for Rendon.
Some Nationals fans are abuzz that the Chicago Cubs are reportedly engaging in trade conversations centered on third baseman and former MVP Kris Bryant.
But a more likely target than Bryant for the Nationals would be free agent Josh Donaldson — he would be a bit more affordable, the Nationals wouldn’t have to trade assets to land him and he also has an MVP in his trophy case.
Donaldson played for the Atlanta Braves in 2018, so signing him would come with the nice bonus of luring him away from an NL East rival the Nationals have to see 19 times. Donaldson hit 37 home runs and drove in 94 runs in 2019.
“The third base market specifically is an active market,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said at the Winter Meetings. “There are several teams that are in the market for that particular position. I think it will move fairly rapidly, not only in the free-agent market but in the trade market I think we’ll see some activity.”
If they don’t land a top name to take over the hot corner for Rendon, the Nationals backup plan might be a minor leaguer. Manager Dave Martinez told reporters at the Winter Meetings that he’d be confident making Carter Kieboom a starter somewhere in the infield next year. While he’s listed as a shortstop and second baseman, the Nationals might need to try him at third.
Kieboom is the Nationals’ top-rated prospect and the No. 20 overall prospect in the minors, according to MLB.com.
At first base, the decisions hinge on what Ryan Zimmerman wants to do and what he and the front office could hammer out. The Nationals declined their club option on Zimmerman for 2020 because he was set to make $18 million.
Zimmerman, 35, said at the debut of the Nationals’ World Series documentary that he’d rather retire than play elsewhere.
“It’s either play some more here or play more golf,” he said.
Kendrick could play some first base, though neither he nor Zimmerman is an everyday starter at their ages. Bringing back first baseman Matt Adams is also on the table after the Nationals declined the mutual option on his contract.
Finally, there’s that undeniable sticking point, the team’s weakness last season from start to finish: the bullpen. Rizzo told MASN that the front office will put a greater focus on shoring up the pen this winter, so they won’t have to make more in-season trades like they did last summer.
Besides Sean Doolittle and Tanner Rainey, no other reliever under contract in Washington is a particularly proven arm. Daniel Hudson took over the closer role a few months after the Nationals acquired him last year, but his contract expired and it’s unknown whether he’ll return.
Otherwise, the Nationals already took care of re-signing their other top priorities, like Kendrick and catcher Yan Gomes. The outfield of Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Adam Eaton is set in stone. And the starting rotation is one of the best money can buy: The Nationals now have spent a combined $595 million on Strasburg’s new deal plus Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin.
While the Harper saga was drawn out into last February, this week packed the drama into a shorter timespan. Soon the Nationals will have assembled a tentative opening day roster, and the focus will turn to defending their World Series title.
This article is based in part on wire services reports.
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