In D.C., mentioning the Nationals on the street right now would be a crime, with the 5-6 Redskins poised to make a mediocre run into forgettable history. (The Capitals? What Capitals? The Wizards? Is that some new fringe card game like Pokemon? ). But months from now, when the hot summer sun is beating down and the ballpark is alive once again, with fans, music and baseball, this week will be an important one to look back on – in fact, it may be the biggest factor in those summer months. So go ahead, talk about the team. Just don’t be worried when you get some crazy looks. Because, believe it or not, despite the temperature and the date, the Nationals are at a critical junction, possibly more critical than any they’ll face all season, and it’s unclear to everyone, maybe even including the General Manager Mike Rizzo, where they’ll go from here.
The Lerners, who sit up in ownership, have serious decisions to make about how they’ll use their money – whether it’ll be taking on an already bloated contract, trading a fan favorite (yes, your favorite player, be worried) or adding a free agent. Mike Rizzo has some serious decisions to make as well, regarding the cutting and trading of Papelbon and Storen, respectively, adding to the bullpen, and adding offensive pop as well as figuring out who it’s okay to part with. And in all likelihood, if the Nats feel like making a huge splash, it’s going to happen this week, at the Winter Meetings in Nashville.
If there was ever a moment for front office staff to feel like players on the first day of Spring Training, full of belief and hope that they can really go all the way this year, it would be at the Winter Meetings. The Winter Meetings, which for reasons unknown, are run by Minor League Baseball, have no boundaries. For one time, and only one time during the year, everything and everyone seems to be on the table. Rumors fly rampant and only the most elite of the stars are left out of them. Free-agents meet with teams (paging Ben Zobrist…) For the Nationals, they’ve been linked to everyone from O’Day to Chapman, Zobrist to Rollins and everyone in between, including Jonathan Lucroy. Players on the table have ranged from Strasburg to Ramos as well as Espinosa and Escobar. Papelbon and Storen, two players ironically linked, have come up in every conversation. It’s a given that some moves will be made. However, the question of what the right moves are still looms.
Ben Zobrist, the 35 year old infielder and corner outfielder, who’s fresh off of a World Series victory with the Royals, is a free-agent this season, and his name has mainly popped up with the Nationals, Giants, and the Mets, the team he beat in the World Series. If Zobrist signed in D.C., (a deal that most predict to be in the range of 4 years, $60m), the Nationals would have an overflow of middle infielders, a valuable commodity. Yunel Escobar, coming off of a career year and with one to two years left on his contract, depending on the $7m team option, is an asset most teams would be happy to have. With Washington’s bullpen mainly unbuilt, Escobar could easily be a piece that brings back a high quality reliever. According to Bill Ladson of MLB.com, the Nats have expressed interest in the Yankees’ Andrew Miller, who picked up 36 saves last season. According to Ladson, the Yankees are looking for middle infielders and starting pitching; A deal with Escobar as the centerpiece of a package involving prospects could be a sensible fit for both sides.
If the Nationals stay put in the infield, there’s no harm. With Trea Turner waiting in the wings, Escobar, Espinosa and Rendon can provide a great setup, which can only be improved by Turner. However, no matter what happens, the bullpen shows that it needs a severe overhaul – and overhauls start with removing players, not adding them. By the end of the season, there was only one truly reliable reliever, LHP Felipe Rivero. But that might’ve been a side effect of the events of the summer of 2015, when Rizzo made what many consider to be the biggest mistake of his tenure in D.C., adding veteran closer Jonathan Papelbon, which created a few negative effects, including the dramatic decline of Drew Storen, team chemistry. The Phillies also regrettably did not put a choking hazard label on Papelbon’s box when they sent him to D.C. (Papelbon actually filed a grievance claim for his unpaid suspension after choking Harper, but that’s another story). The Nationals are trying to unload Papelbon alongside his counterpart who suffered upon his demotion from closer to setup man, Drew Storen (who could be a free agent as early as 2017), but to no avail. Storen and Papelbon may have to be a condition to a trade, an add-on to a lopsided deal. But according to Chris Johnson of the Mid Atlantic Sports Network, Rizzo doesn’t feel the need to drop Papelbon. “Pap’s a part of the team. He’s a great pitcher. We’re glad he’s on the club and can’t wait to see him closing out games again.” This obviously may reference to Rizzo being unable to shake the testy reliever and his behemoth $11 million dollar salary, but it also may allude to Rizzo’s real opinion. “We don’t have to move anybody if we don’t want to”, said the General Manager. This might mean that Storen and Papelbon could remain in the places they finished last season in, an idea that Rizzo would have to be insane or under the influence to believe it could work out. Obviously, there’s usually little truth to comments made to the press at the Winter Meetings, especially from Mike Rizzo, who is known to make misleading comments. But, the mere thought of things remaining the way they are is a nightmarish thought for Nats fans.
In a slightly apocalyptic prediction of the Winter Meetings, the Nationals wouldn’t trade any players away and wouldn’t sign any major free agents of the Zobrist caliber. That leaves them one thing to do: buy, buy, buy. Free agent righty Yusmero Petit could be a good fit for D.C., as could RHP Darren O’Day if his hypothetical deal with the Orioles doesn’t work out. Tyler Clippard also could possibly come back to D.C. after spending all but one year of his career wearing a Curly W.
The possibilities, at this point, are endless. What will actually happen will in all likelihood be a middle ground. The Nats probably won’t sign O’Day and Zobrist, nor will they trade Storen, Papelbon and Escobar. Rizzo is known to do a good job building teams in the winter, but with the biggest challenge he may have ever faced since the Nationals have come to relevance, it’s tough to know what will actually happen.