Perspective: This is not the Free Agency you are Looking for
While the 2023 Nationals took a step forward, the road to contention may be longer than we would like with a lack of free agent additions this offseason.
Free agency brings back the joys of being a little kid. You’re walking down the toy aisle, beaming at all the different toys that you want. For some, it may be an action figure, or a LEGO set, or maybe even that new Hot Wheels car. But then you leave, often with no toy in hand. As you check the free agent lists, you may want a starting pitcher, or a third baseman, or maybe even that closer. This year’s free agency for the Nationals is likely to be no different than that trip to the toy store, leaving empty-handed.
Unfortunately for the Nationals, without trading away players or cutting out early on guaranteed contracts, their roster is set in stone. They have seven potential starting pitchers for next season. That number will climb to eight once Cade Cavalli returns from Tommy John surgery this summer. Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey, Tanner Rainey, Jordan Weems, Robert Garcia, and Jose A. Ferrer all seem locked to return to the bullpen.
Most of the position player core, including Lane Thomas, CJ Abrams, and Keibert Ruiz are locked in for 2024, and most of the shuffling could come internally.
Among players who aren’t locks to make the roster, you still have guys like Mason Thompson, Víctor Arano, Andrés Machado, and Joan Adon. On the position player side, you have players like Jake Alu, Carter Kieboom, and Alex Call.
There are also top prospects James Wood and Dylan Crews. There is absolutely no reason both players shouldn’t be on the Opening Day roster. With the last Collective Bargaining Agreement, the MLBPA and MLB agreed to a program called the Prospect Promotion Incentive (PPI).
Under the PPI, if a top 100 prospect wins Rookie of the Year while achieving a full year of service time, the team gains a draft pick after the first round. If the player does not win Rookie of the Year, they can still earn the team a pick by placing in the top three in MVP or Cy Young voting in the following two seasons.
We watched the Seattle Mariners use this in the 2023 Draft. They gained the 29th overall pick for rostering Julio Rodriguez for a full season. Having a draft pick like that is so valuable, it makes no sense in not using it. They come with additional pool money in the draft, in this case, it was an extra $2.8M, and we already know from an owner that these picks can often be worth up to 15 times the actual slot allotment.
Now you may ask yourself, but what if they are terrible while they are up? Well, we watched a team play this perfectly in 2023. The St. Louis Cardinals had outfielder Jordan Walker on the Opening Day roster after he demolished Double-A pitching in his age 20 season. In April, he had a .718 OPS with multiple other rookies having successful campaigns. So the Cardinals sent him back down for just long enough to regain that seventh year of team control that caused this program to be introduced.
So it makes zero sense for the Nationals to not roster James Wood and Dylan Crews on Opening Day. The only defense is if the front office believes they will not be big-league-ready until mid-August. There are reasons to keep them down in the minors. Wood struck out over 33 percent of the time in Double-A this season. Crews has 159 professional plate appearances.
In James Wood’s defense, he is one of five players in Double-A this year with a walk rate higher than 10 percent and an isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average) above .200. Wood’s swinging strike percentage was 14.7 percent, which is not that bad. Bryce Harper just put up a .900 OPS season with a swinging strike rate of 16 percent. That high strikeout rate is likely more tied to Wood’s height and poor Double-A umpiring than poor bat-to-ball skills.
Dylan Crews put up one of the most dominant seasons by a college position player in recent memory. His toolset is the kind that climbs the minors quickly. Why not be aggressive and see if you can snag an extra pick in the next draft?
With them on the roster, the outfield quickly becomes crowded. Lane Thomas is a lock to start in right field. Jacob Young and Stone Garrett have both earned a spot on next year’s roster. A move to first base might make sense for Stone Garrett, who despite being an above-average left fielder, is the worst defender of the five.
This all goes without discussing the 40-man roster implications. Cole Henry, DJ Herz, and Mitchell Parker all must be on the 40-man to avoid being taken in the Rule 5 draft. Perhaps Henry can go unprotected as he continues to make his way back from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery.
The Nationals already must clear six spots on the 40-man this offseason to clear room for players returning from the 60-day injured list. One of which is Stephen Strasburg, whose retirement could have cleared a spot. Non-tendering players, like Michael Chavis, Hobie Harris, and Blake Rutherford, clears some spots, but there needs to be significant roster turnover to activate these players. Then you have to clear room for Rule 5 additions, any potential free agents, and then Crews and Wood on Opening Day.
With ownership looking like they are trimming the budget, at least according to reports in the Washington Post, a path to free agency additions seems more and more unlikely. Maybe they grab a player like Rhys Hoskins or Carlos Santana on a one-year deal. A signing similar to Jayson Werth prior to the 2011 season just will not happen.
Having 2024 act more as a prove-it year for everyone and then filling the holes in 2025 makes more sense. Right now there are so many question marks, that one breakout season could change what the areas of need are for the still-improving Nats.
The 2024-2025 pitching class is filled with names like Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Shane Bieber, and Tyler Glasnow, to just name a few. There are just as many dominant relievers in that free agency class. If the lineup progresses as many expect in 2024, the Nationals could easily become contenders in 2025. If not, a familiar face could return home to help them out.
If you enjoyed reading this post, we would greatly appreciate your support by subscribing.