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A practical free agency wishlist
How can the Nats make serious improvements without blowing up the budget?
Free agency is a-comin’, and for the first time since the afterglow of the 2019 World Series title the Nationals *might* be looking to sign someone to a long-term contract in addition to attempting to upgrade on the margins with lower-cost or bounce-back signings as they have done in the past three winters. We are going to look at three different team roles that could use an immediate upgrade for a franchise that would like to make the jump from “frisky” to “legitimately competitive” and a strong candidate for each role, keeping in mind that a) Mark Lerner is probably not authorizing Mike Rizzo to hand out blank checks just yet and b) that this year’s free agent class is not the most exciting group, which means more competition not only for the top names but for the middle class as well.
The first and most desperate area of need is a starting pitcher who can soak up 150-180 innings at a league-average level or better. The Nats’ rotation was remarkably healthy this summer, making it the full 162 games with a mere eight different pitchers taking the bump (in a year that featured a heavy narrative dose of “everybody is getting Tommy John,” no less), and the only lengthy IL stint was a phantom one for Chad Kuhl for other reasons. They cannot expect that health to repeat itself in 2024, and there is precious little to look forward to from the minors. Apart from Jackson Rutledge (whose four September starts made him that eighth pitcher) and DJ Herz, the upper minors are largely bereft of young arms of even modest quality. The Nats have developed exactly one league-average starter since Stephen Strasburg debuted THIRTEEN YEARS AGO (Tanner Roark), and virtually every pitcher they promote from the minors features at least two of the following: not enough strikeouts, too many walks, and too many home runs. If Herz can keep opponents in the yard, he will be the first pitcher since Roark to have only one of those three issues, because we know he can miss bats. But Herz will also have to earn that promotion first.
This is not the winter to go looking for an ace unless you believe that the Nationals will buck their entire organizational history and jump into the bidding for 25-year-old Japanese star Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Beyond him, Blake Snell (probably a bad fit for the Nationals), and the injured Shohei Ohtani, no potential ace exists on the hot stove this winter, whereas - depending on your taste for risk - next winter there are at least seven such pitchers: Tyler Glasnow, Corbin Burnes, Walker Buehler, Shane Bieber, Max Fried, Zack Wheeler, and possibly Gerrit Cole (if he opts out). Why is Snell probably a bad fit? If you accept the premise that the most important characteristic of a free-agent pitcher this winter is someone who can consistently give the team quality innings, it might be a mistake to rely on a guy who has cleared 130 innings pitched only twice in his career, and five years apart at that. Granted, both times he did that he threw 180 frames and earned a Cy Young Award, but it would be a stretch to assume that he will come close to that level of performance in consecutive years.
There are, however, several pitchers hitting the market next month who would immediately be a strong second banana as part of any rotation and perhaps the best pitcher for the Nationals depending on the growth of Mackenzie Gore (easily the most talented current member of the staff). While I thought about making a case for signing Aaron Nola, both because he has been one of the most durable pitchers in the sport since he debuted in 2015 and because adding him would also subtract from the rival Phillies, I have the sense that John Middleton is not about to lose a bidding war for a homegrown product to a division opponent. And although one could make a solid argument for Jordan Montgomery, Eduardo Rodríguez, or perhaps James Paxton/Michael Wacha if one is willing to stretch the bounds of reliability and durability, the choice here is Sonny Gray.
Unlike Snell, Gray has only failed to post 130 innings twice since he became a full-time regular in 2014 (117 innings in 2016 and 119.2 in 2022). This past season he led the majors in FIP on the strength of allowing just eight long balls all season and striking out almost exactly a batter per inning (183 punchouts in 184 innings). Gray has never allowed twenty home runs in a season, a number that all five of the Nats’ most prominent starting pitchers (Gore, Josiah Gray, Patrick Corbin, Trevor Williams, and Jake Irvin) met or exceeded in 2023. His WHIP has been remarkably consistent over the past five seasons, with a low of 1.084 and a high of 1.219 during that span, and he has become a better strikeout pitcher as he has aged, posting his five best K/9 rates over the last five seasons, including double-digit numbers in each of his three seasons in the National League (with the Reds). Gray mixes six pitches effectively and is average or better in every Statcast pitching metric except fastball velocity, and his strong groundball rate (77th percentile) would play quite nicely in front of an infield that by the end of 2024 could feature not just the rangy CJ Abrams but also Brady House and Trey Lipscomb.
What then is the catch? Well, Gray does turn 34 in a couple of weeks, so the possibility exists that he declines quickly, if not in 2024 then in 2025 when the Nationals might expect to put together a legitimate contender. He is currently 19th on the active list in innings pitched, and half of the guys ahead of him are no longer effective pitchers. But the Nats would not be paying him to be an ace, mitigating that risk. He is also likely to give up more than eight home runs moving from a division with Kansas City and Cleveland to one with Atlanta and Philadelphia. However, Gray has never made more than $12 million in a season, and three years at $12-$15 million per year feels like a good deal for what he could provide to the Nats’ staff.
The next most pressing area of need is for more thump in the lineup, at least until Wood, House, and perhaps Yohandy Morales arrive and prove that they can live up to their very high power ceilings. This need is therefore of the more short-term variety, and the most obvious place to put such a hitter would be at first base or designated hitter on a short-term contract. Carlos Santana is a popular name among Nats fans as a placeholder at first to replace Dom Smith’s .366 slugging percentage, but he will be 38 in April and was only just above league average at the plate in 2023 (.240/.318/.429). What if I told you there was a part-time power hitter with some first base experience who could probably be had for relatively cheap because he is almost 33 and has never played more than 103 games in a season, but boasts a .252/.342/.483 career slash line, including .270/.370/.500 in just under 300 PA this past season? And what if I added that this same hitter has a career AB/HR ratio of 17.34, which would rank 13th among all active players with at least 3000 career PA (he has a little over 1600)? Are you intrigued?
If I were Mike Rizzo, I would strongly consider throwing $10-$12 million at Mitch Garver for a year - doubling his career earnings, by the way - with the promise of a regular role (mostly first base and designated hitter, but he could catch on occasion as well) and see if that power translates over a full season. Five hundred at-bats should equate to about thirty home runs, which would both be a tremendous boost to the Nats’ offense and provide a showcase for Garver to prove that he can handle being in the lineup every day. On a one-year (or even two-year) pillow deal, Garver is preferable to other comparable options like Rhys Hoskins (health), Santana (age), Garrett Cooper (production), Hunter Renfroe (production), Teoscar Hernández (OBP), or C.J. Cron (Coors Field). He has only played fifteen career games at first base, but he could also potentially replace Joey Meneses (unlikely to replicate his absurdly high batting average with RISP) as the designated hitter.
The third thing that the Nats need is more stability from their bullpen, but I’m willing to wager that internally, the Nats are hoping that Tanner Rainey’s return will be their big bullpen addition - teams shooting to go .500 don’t go out and spend eight figures on an expensive closer. So instead, let’s see about upgrading the roster spot most recently occupied by Michael Chavis. Neither Jake Alu’s .226/.286/.289 batting line nor his defense are currently adequate to hold down that role. Trey Lipscomb will eventually be the utility infielder, but as a young player the Nats will want him to play every day - expect him to start 2024 in Rochester and be the first call if Luís García stumbles in what is likely his final opportunity with the Nationals. The player taking Chavis’ spot does not need to be a backup shortstop since the Nats already have Ildemaro Vargas, nor do they need to be an elite pinch runner (Jacob Young’s destiny). Therefore the focus should be on the bat - who on the market can at least fake three or four positions and provide some thump?
With two switch-hitters likely to be coming off the bench (Millas and Vargas), handedness is of little concern. How about a minor league invite for Jonathan Schoop? And would you perhaps be interested in Gio Urshela? Urshela hit .299/.329/.374 in 62 games for the Angels this season and would seem to be a perfect one-year candidate to hold down third base on a semi-regular basis should House’s progress stall in 2024 and be a trade candidate if House ascends quickly. That would keep Vargas in the bench role that better suits him and hopefully be a repeat of the 2023 bet on Jeimer Candelario bouncing back (Urshela’s health is of more concern than his performance, although that too was down from his .285/.338/.429 output of 2022 with the Twins in a full season). Urshela played every infield position for the Angels (and played them well), which would suit the Nats perfectly. Even if he doesn’t reprise the success that Candelario had before he was traded to the Cubs, Urshela would appear to be an ideal candidate to keep third base warm for House and provide some bench offense once he is supplanted.
While Nats fans can dream of Ohtani or Yamamoto donning a curly W, realistically the team is not going to make huge splashes in free agency this winter. However, they should and can start to spend more as their most talented prospects close in on joining the major league roster, and signings along the likes of Gray, Garver, and Urshela should put them in a better competitive place as they seek to continue and accelerate the rebuild.