Offseason decisions: The Washington Nationals search for stars

The Washington Nationals fell just short of a .500 season in 2011, finishing 80-81. An aggressive offseason could put the Nationals within spitting distance of a playoff berth.

Got money?

Before we get into the meat of the Washington Nationals offseason decisions, I need to explain an assumption I make that I have seen mocked in various places. That is, for the right players, the Nationals could substantially increase their payroll in 2012.

The key to that statement is “the right players.” The right player is a guy whose presence adds significant value to the franchise. He brings the club closer to the 90-win threshold where the playoffs are a real possibility, which of course attracts fans. He also probably sells tickets just by virtue of being signed. Albert Pujols is an example, although probably not the right one for the Nationals.

There are some reasons to believe the Nationals could reasonably spend a lot of money this offseason. According to ESPN, the Nationals averaged 24,877 fans per home game for a total of 1.94 million tickets sold. The Nationals Website lists the total capacity of Nationals Stadium at 41,222 fans. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that if the Nationals could sell out every game, they would bring in over 1.32 million more fans.

Let’s say each of those fans spends a conservative $35 for the ballpark experience (parking near the stadium costs $40 alone). That equates to roughly $46 million in additional ballpark revenue. In the real world, ticket prices would escalate quickly and revenues would be considerably higher.

Additionally, Ted Lerner is said to be the richest majority owner in baseball. Fans sometimes have the unusual expectation that owners pay players out of pocket. Baseball is a business and typically franchises are run so that they remain profitable. In the case of the Nationals though, they live in a market that is strong enough to support a large payroll but currently has tepid interest in the ballclub. Lerner could take some of his personal fortune and invest it into 2012 contracts with the expectation that adding great players would allow them to behave like a large market franchise.

Bottom line: it’s time for the Nationals to think big.

Thinking big

The most pressing need for the club is in the outfield. As the roster is currently aligned, the defensively inept Mike Morse will man left field, Roger Bernadina inherits center field, and Jayson Werth remains in right. Ideally, the Nationals would like to acquire a center fielder who would be an upgrade over Bernadina. They would also like to find a way to push Morse back to first base. Worst case scenario, they could also experiment with Werth in center field. Bryce Harper is also lurking, so you can be sure the Nationals won’t be blocking him.

The current plan is to trade for center field help. Denard Span and B.J. Upton appear to be the best center fielders on the trading block. Both are role players rather than stars, but either represents a substantial improvement to Bernadina.

An interesting alternative to a trade might be coveted Cuban outfielder Yeonis Cespedes. The 26-year-old could become an instant franchise fixture for whoever wins his services. He makes a lot of sense for the Nationals, since they have a hole at the position, a need for young potential superstars, and plenty of payroll with which to lure him. The current expectation is that Cespedes will sign a contract that exceeds Aroldis Chapman’s, six-year, $30.25 million contract. I think a better barometer might be Jose Bautista’s five-year, $65 million pact. Given the clubs interested in Cespedes—which include the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies Cubs, and Marlins—bidding should get fierce.

The D. C. franchise could also look to improve at first base by pursuing Pujols or Prince Fielder. Either move would be popular with the fan base, but doesn’t make much sense for the Nationals. Adam LaRoche currently occupies the position. He isn’t blocking a major acquisition, but the Nationals have a cost effective alternative in Morse, who really shouldn’t be playing the outfield.

The Nationals would do well to focus their attention on Reds first baseman Joey Votto. The Reds aren’t looking to trade now, but they will be hunting for suitors in the near future. The Nationals have a stout farm system and can afford the type of contract extension necessary to hang on to Votto.

The Nationals could also toy with the idea of signing Jose Reyes. Incumbent shortstop Ian Desmond appears to be nothing more than a role player. With Danny Espinosa capable of playing shortstop and prospect Anthony Rendon expected to make short work of the minors at his new home—second base—Desmond’s time with the Nationals already appears short. However, because Reyes is so injury prone, the safer route is to continue developing Rendon and make do with Desmond in the interim.

The rotation is where things get interesting. The Nationals would love to add an ace to the top of their rotation. Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and an additional ace would make a formidable trio. They have the firepower to make a trade; the challenge might be in finding an interested trading partner. The Rays might consider trading James Shields or even David Price in the right offer. Few other teams appear to have expendable, top-shelf pitching. The Nationals are also looking atC.J. Wilson and Roy Oswalt on the free agent market.

The bullpen appears to be an area that doesn’t need any work, but there are rumors that the Nationals are interested in a few closers like Ryan Madson. Current closer Drew Storen isn’t universally considered a first division stopper, so the Nationals might be looking to upgrade the position while making Storen available on the trade market.


{exp:list_maker}The Nationals could consider opening up the payroll since they have a lot of growth potential and an owner who can afford to make investments without immediate payoffs.
A center fielder is a big need. Cespedes is tempting, although Upton or Span will be easier to acquire.
First base is potentially open, but the Nationals would be better served planning for down the road when Votto hits the trade market.
Adding an ace (or even two) would substantially improve the team.
A closer could be acquired in order to make Storen expendable, but it isn’t a pressing need.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

You can follow me on twitter @BaseballATeam
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
10 years ago

You know what I hate about hot stove season?  The dumb ideas put out there.  “The Rays might consider trading…even David Price in the right offer.”  C’mon.  The only player in the Nationals system that’s going to get you David Price is Bryce Harper.  Think that’s happening?

Brad Johnson
10 years ago

I’ve made the argument elsewhere that Price is worth too much to be trade-able right now. If the Rays decide they should trade Price anyway, they’re not going to get full value from our perspective as saber-fans. I think the Dan Haren trade (the one where AZ acquired him, not the other one) might be a good template to look at.

What the Nats can offer is a package of 5 or so players who are very likely to be average MLB players. Names like Desmond, Peacock, Solis, Storen and/or Norris. If we extend out to the trade deadline, the Nationals can also include their impressive haul from the 2011 draft in negotiations.

10 years ago

I think Rizzo values his minor leaguers as much if not more than anyone, so I doubt a big deal will get done. The Twins probably will back off trading Span, since he’s really not that expensive if he’s over his concussion, and they might lose Cuddyer. I don’t know why Tampa would be more wiling to trade Upton now, despite the higher salary than last year, since they badly need offense. If Morse were on the block, Desmond had shown a little more, or Norris was closer to the majors, the Nats could help them, but I think the match was just as good last year, and it didn’t happen. As it stands right now, Desmond is the leadoff hitter, and Upton’s many K’s and low OBP would not fit that category very well.

D Leaberry
10 years ago

There’s very little chance of Reyes coming to the Nats.  Reyes is injury prone while Desmond, the man Reyes would replace, is well regarded by the team(including Manager Johnson), durable and a clubhouse leader.  Votto is not coming to Washington due to 1) the Nats are overloaded at first-base with LaRoche, Morse and minor leaguers Marrero and Moore and 2) the Nats would have to give up too much youth to get Votto.  Fielder won’t be coming to Washington either unless Rizzo is willing to 1) bench LaRoche and his $ 8 million contract and 2) have two sub-standard fielders in Morse in left and Fielder at first.  All indications are that GM Rizzo wants to build around pitching, fielding and all-around athletic ballplayers. The Rizzo plan would seem to be to suffer with Morse in left in 2012 and move him to his more natural position at first in 2013 while playing Harper in left if he is ready in 2013. Harper won’t be forced into the majors, however.

Rizzo likes what he has molded in Washington.  He looks likely to tweek it this winter by adding one top line starter(vital due to the 160 inning limit Strasburg will be placed under) and an outfielder, probably but not necessarily a centerfielder.  There is about a 50/50 chance that Bernandina and Ankiel will share centerfield in 2012 unless free agent Coco Crisp can be convinced to play on the East Coast where he has expressed a loathing to play.

Brad Johnson
10 years ago

That’s a great plan if Rizzo is trying to win 81 games. An aggressive approach can put them in the playoff picture for the first time since moving to a real stadium. The costs won’t necessarily hurt the team at all since most of the players involved have 2 win ceilings.

Brad Johnson
10 years ago

And I agree about Reyes, but felt he was worth mentioning since we were talking about thinking big which could mean trading MLB caliber players.

D Leaberry
10 years ago

The Nats had a whole lot of things go wrong last season and still won 80 games.  Ryan Zimmerman missed forty games injured.  Effectively, LaRoche missed the season due to injury.  Werth didn’t hit worth his pay schedule. Strasburg didn’t pitch until September.  Jordan Zimmerman didn’t pitch the last month due to his 160 innings limit. 

Signing a top-line starter, getting a full season from Jordan Zimmerman and 160 innings from Strasburg and getting normal seasons for Ryan Zimmerman and LaRoche should push the Nats to 84-94 wins.  If Peacock, Detwiler or Milone come through, so much the better.

With the stock market in retreat, the Lerners may not want to part with too much of their money.