The Opportunity for Continuous Nationals Improvement

As the Nationals look to retool for the 2017, they are facing next season with largely the same team that they had in 2016. This is a good thing, considering that they won 95 games without a really healthy Bryce Harper. But, there is room for improvement, and I want to focus on how they can do that in the lineup.

The biggest and most obvious trouble spots for them will come from catcher and first base. But I think any thoughts about first base are fantasy, with Ryan Zimmerman owed another $48 M. Catcher is a topic for another day – I’m not sure Pedro Severino is the answer as a starter yet, so something is probably coming.

There is one more place they can upgrade the offense, and that is at shortstop. Danny Espinosa was about average defensively at shortstop, although with his incredible arm, and with Desmond as the comparison in mind, he probably looked better than he was. Offensively he was just plain bad. He had a .684 OPS, and that included his insane month-long run of OPS over 1.200. He has value as a backup, but if you want to upgrade a starter, that’s the spot.

Srsly?

One possibility is to get another shortstop, but there just aren’t many out there. There are basically no viable free agent options (Erick Aybar and Alexei Ramirez are probably the best, and they aren’t really upgrades), and the best trade target may be Zack Cozart. Cozart is better than Espinosa, but not by that much.

So, the obvious other possibility is to move Trea Turner from center field to shortstop. It makes the most sense, given the market, and the need to improve the offense. Espinosa would be an above average backup/bench player, and with Trea at shortstop, the Nats can focus on acquiring someone with a bat to play center field. Let’s take a look at a few of the options.

Dexter Fowler

Fowler is set to get a big contract, and he may well deserve it. He not a superstar hitter, but he is an All Star hitter. And it’s not just this season. He is a guy you can project to have an OBP over .350, and 15 or so home runs and stolen bases. He is a solid defensive center fielder, and he’s young enough, at 30, to convince you he’d be just as good for at least 3 years. He’s the best true CF on the market, maybe the second-best OF, so he might have a 5 year deal ahead of him. The Nats can afford him, and if they think the 4th year will be ok, too, they might be ok with gambling on 5 years. He’d be a strong addition.

Andrew McCutchen

This week, a few reports came out that the Nats were discussed acquiring McCutchen from the Pirates this summer. He is certainly an intriguing possibility for them, as he had a poor 2016 after three top-5 MVP finishes from 2013-2015. He only hit .256/.336/.430 this year (still light years ahead of Espinosa), but he was hurt for a good part of the season. His defensive numbers suffered as well, although I believe he’s more of the just-a-tick-below average CF that he has been for a few years now.

On the positive side, he hit .284/.381/.471 for the last third of the season, and seemed to be himself again. He can play an adequate center field this season, and move to left field in 2018, after Jayson Werth becomes a free agent. McCutchen is considered a leader, which probably can’t hurt. He is owed $14 M this year, and $14.75 in 2018, with a $1M buyout, if he doesn’t work out he isn’t on the books very long. And speaking of books, he becomes a free agent at the same time as Harper. If his $14.75 M disappears a year after Werth’s $21 M, it essentially frees up nearly $36 M per year of outfielder salaries over two seasons. If Mike Rizzo want to make the case to ownership that they can afford Harper, this might help him.

Carlos Gomez

If you think acquiring McCutchen is too much of a gamble, you can skip this paragraph because you won’t like it. But Carlos Gomez is a viable option as a good defensive center fielder with speed and power. He was a complete mess during his 12 months in Houston, but recovered nicely in 130 PAs in Texas, after posting a 4.5 WAR season in 2014 and an 8.5 WAR season in 2013. He will never be a high OBP guy, or a high average guy, but he might be a pretty good overall center fielder compared to the competition. The problem is, he did have those great seasons, and could also be overpaid. He has said he wants a long term deal, and I would avoid that. But if he’s willing to do a 1-year deal, or maybe 2, I think it’s a viable option. With Gomez, one year with an overpay is way more attractive for him than 4 or 5 years below market value.

There is also the possibility of getting a corner outfielder. While Bryce was already considered somewhat injury prone and is coming off a season where he was clearly unhealthy, he’d still probably make a capable center fielder. The Nats may not want him playing there because of the added toll it would take on his body, but as mentioned before, Werth is a free agent at the end of 2017. So moving Bryce to center field could be a one-season move

Yoenis Cespedes

Cespedes is an interesting case for this because he can play some center field, albeit not well. He’s really not a good defensive center fielder, but he could play in a rotation-type sitation with Harper, helping to keep him fresh. If the Nats used Harper in CF something on the order of 3-4 times a week, with Cespedes there once a week, and whatever fourth outfielder they go with, Michael Taylor or Brian Goodwin, the other times, that could work to limit wear and tear of Harper.

As for Cespedes bat, he has steadily improved his hitting from his days with the A’s. He used to be counted on for flashes of immense power along with a low OBP. But his past year and a half with the Mets have shown a more selective hitter which has not only helped his walk rate, it’s helped his line drive rate. The problem right now, though, is he is clearly the best free agent on the market. Buying Cespedes means overpaying, and probably giving him a pretty long term deal. While I don’t think that’s a terrible thing, for the Nats, who would have to move Harper to center AND deal with being tied up giving Cespedes money when Harper is a free agent, it is a difficult choice. Then again, he might well give them the best chance to win in 2017, and that should be their priority. He might not top their wish list, but he wouldn’t be a bad option for them.

Carlos Gonzalez

The real CarGo still has some pretty great numbers, and never really had the dropoff the aforementioned CarGo, other than an injury-riddled 2014 where he had less than 300 PAs. But he is, of course, Coors Field-aided, with a measly .750 OPS away from home. I tend to discount the dropoff a bit because many players don’t hit as well away, no matter the ballpark. But it is worrisome to think he might be not much better than a .300 OPS guy with decent power. If he could be had a bargain trade cost, the $20 M he is owed in 2017 is expensive, but it goes away after 2017 so that isn’t a concern. He isn’t high on my list, and he will disappoint most people once he is outside of Denver no matter what he does, but disappointing doesn’t mean he’ll be bad.

Ryan Braun

I include Braun on the list mostly because he has a massive contract that the Brewers would probably be happy to unload at this point. And it’s not because he’s bad, it’s just because it’s probably a big waste for a team that’s rebuilding. The positives with Braun are obvious: despite being 32 he still was one of the best offensive players in the league last year, finishing 11th in the NL in wRC+ and 10th in wOBA. He would be a significant addition offensively to the Nats, and would make the lineup look significantly better.

There are quite a few negatives, too. He isn’t a good defensive outfielder, and while you’d prefer him in LF, he’s passable in RF. That means Bryce will have to play CF with only Taylor and Goodwin to spell him. Braun’s issues with steroids don’t exactly belong in the plus category, either. Because of them, he might not command as many prospects in a trade as someone who doesn’t have his history. But he will still cost prospects, and he will cost money, too. He is signed through 2020, his age 36 season. He might still be a productive hitter at that time, but it’s worth remembering that in 2019 the Nats would be paying two Ryans: $19 M to a 35 year old Braun and $18 to a 34 year old Zimmerman. That may just be too much to commit to with Braun, but it would make for a run scoringly fun 2017.

Nobody

There is, of course, the possibility of doing nothing. There is upside in Espinosa, Taylor and Goodwin. They don’t need all of them to reach their potential, just one. Taylor is only 25, but he regressed last season, so it is hard to count on him improving enough. He does have the range to be a good center fielder. Espinosa showed that he still has the ability to get hot and be great for a limited amount of time, and is a solid defender. If his upside is something like 2015, then that might be alright, although it’s still probably not enough.

Goodwin has barely played in the majors, but he’s probably the most likely to be an average regular than the other two. He’s not great at any one aspect of the game, but he’s solid at almost everything. He was once considered a good prospect, but really struggled to put everything together until a strong winter league showing last year and a very good year at AAA Syracuse. He’s got flaws for sure, and is still very untested at the Major League level, but he could be a solid player.

Goodwin, a lefty, is pretty vulnerable to left-handed pitching and that brings up the possibility of a CF platoon. Taylor, on the other hand, is been better at getting on base and hitting for power against lefties than righties (although his strikeout rate his higher). Goodwin as a potential starter with a Goodwin/Taylor platoon possibility could be an option for the Nats.

Getting Going

The Nats had a good team last year, and offense wasn’t a major issue. Besides winning 95 games, they finished 4th in the NL in runs scored. They also were far from shut down offensively in the NLCS. But there is an opportunity for improvement, and they should take advantage. I think McCutchen might be the best fit for them, despite the downside risk, but Fowler could also work out very well. They have other priorities, including catcher and the bullpen, but adding another outfielder would be a big step to helping them return to the playoffs in 2017.

 

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