Play ball, after all.
The chains of Major League Baseball’s 99-day lockout were broken Thursday afternoon, ending the second-longest work stoppage in league history.
So … what now?
Well, for the Nationals — and every other team in baseball — an expedited free-agency period awaits, starting as early as Thursday night. And now the questions that fans pondered before the lockout sucked up all the oxygen the past 99 days are more pressing than ever.
Most important among them: What type of team will the Nationals be in free agency?
If the front office’s actions before the lockout began on Dec. 1 are any indication, then the team plans to rebuild. The Nationals re-signed shortstop Alcides Escobar to a one-year, $1 million deal and inked second baseman Cesar Hernandez to a one-year, $4 million contract right before the lockout began — two moves that shored up the squad’s middle infield with low-cost veterans. They’ve also made smaller moves, like signing players with past big-league success to minor-league deals, such as third baseman Maikel Franco, utility man Dee Strange-Gordon and reliever Carl Edwards Jr.
Most of the moves — inexpensive deals for veterans at positions of need — suggest the team will not make any splashy moves for the game’s top free agents: shortstops Carlson Correa and Trevor Story, first baseman Freddie Freeman, starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw and third baseman Kris Bryant. In fact, if the Nationals offer a significant contract to anyone, it’s almost certainly going to be to star right fielder Juan Soto, who turned down a 13-year, $350 million offer from the team in November.
That’s not to say the front office will do nothing in the next four weeks, as the team’s projected payroll is significantly less than in previous seasons and the roster still has holes in left field, the back end of the starting rotation and the bullpen. The Nationals and the 14 other National League teams will also be tasked with figuring out what to do at designated hitter — a long-expected part of the labor deal.
While Nationals fans may not have much to look forward to in free agency, the season-opening series is expected to be a treat. Instead of kicking off the campaign on March 31, the MLB season will start on April 7.
Scheduling details have yet to be finalized as of Thursday evening, but it’s likely the Nationals will face off on Opening Day at home against the Mets. The three-game series is likely to result in former Washington hurler Max Scherzer on the mound at Nationals Park in his new blue and orange uniform. On what day the Nationals would see Scherzer depends on who the Mets decide to pitch on Opening Day — Scherzer, who signed a three-year, $130 million deal with New York before the lockout began, or two-time Cy Young Award-winner Jacob deGrom.
To prepare for a season that is only 28 days away, MLB players are required to report by Sunday for spring training — an end to one of the strangest and most tumultuous offseasons in baseball history.
• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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