If the Nats don’t hit on those free agents, they are also rated as the second-most likely team to sign all-star center fielder George Springer and the third choice to get the prize of the offseason: catcher J.T. Realmuto.
There are bleaker views. The experts at MLB.com are the dreariest I’ve found: They think Washington will only sign all-star reliever Brad Hand and all-star catcher James McCann.
My own guess, falling between these extremes, is that the Nats sign left fielder Michael Brantley — who has hit .311 with an .852 OPS the past seven seasons — as well as switch-hitting first baseman Carlos Santana, who hit 34 homers in 2019 but will be a bargain because of his hard-luck .199 average this past season. With those two, plus progress from young Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom, the Nats’ lineup next year might roughly equal the punch of the World Series-winning team.
Because neither Brantley nor Santana, now 33 and 34, respectively, will require huge or long-term deals, the Nats also will be able to sign former Washington relievers Mark Melancon and Blake Treinen and bring back Sean Doolittle at a discount price to complete a deep bullpen that includes Daniel Hudson, Will Harris and Tanner Rainey.
The Nats, who have subtracted almost $50 million in contracts since the end of this past season, will also be able to afford Mike Fiers (33-15, 3.85 ERA the past three seasons) to replace Aníbal Sánchez, and maybe take a one-year flier on Corey Kluber, the two-time Cy Young Award winner who has pitched in only eight games over the past two seasons because of injuries.
Right now, you’re all screaming, “Preposterous!”
And you are correct. The Nats’ permutations this winter are endless. No one could guess them now.
But this is a club in radical transition. It kept its superstars and best young players. But Adam Eaton, Sánchez, Doolittle, Kurt Suzuki, Howie Kendrick, Eric Thames, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Michael A. Taylor all got a warm goodbye hug, plus a “check back with us later” if our plans or your plans don’t work out by Groundhog Day. Ryan Zimmerman is now off the books, too.
How much can the Nats spend, if they choose, in the last season they know they will have their Big Three rotation under team control? A lot. The previous four years, their payroll ranged from $204 million to $196 million last season before the shortened schedule cut everyone’s pay by 63 percent.
Right now, their contract obligations for 2021 total about $150 million, according to Cot’s Contracts, dropping to about $66 million in 2022 when (sob) Max Scherzer’s deal, among others, ends.
All the deals mentioned above are in the Nats’ reach, especially in an offseason in which free agents may get muted offers; some will even want one-year deals to bet on themselves and try again in a “normal” post-pandemic world.
MLB doesn’t know when those Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will immunize enough tens of millions to welcome back fans to baseball stadiums, or how fast crowds will ramp up to normal. As a result, even Realmuto, MLB’s top catcher and just 29 years old, may get only $115 million for five years.
This is not an offseason with monstrously expensive superstars such as Harper, Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole and Manny Machado. But it is a year with huge piles of good-to-very-good players who are matches for the Nats’ needs.
If the Nats don’t get any of the top four free agents — Realmuto, Trevor Bauer, Springer or DJ LeMahieu — there will be plenty left on the table.
It is a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle for Nats General Manager Mike Rizzo, which means he must be in MLB-maniac heaven.
Just consider the insane market for fourth and fifth starting pitchers, just what the Nats need behind Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Strasburg. Big pitching dollars will go to Bauer and Masahiro Tanaka, as well as to closer Liam Hendriks. But it will be a buyer’s market for veteran starters, some of them former aces.
In addition to Fiers, there’s Jake Arrieta, Jake Odorizzi, James Paxton, Rick Porcello, Jeff Samardzija, J.A. Happ, Julio Teheran, Chris Archer and 10 others. The Nats can hope for the best from Austin Voth, Erick Fedde and Joe Ross while still adding one or two oldsters whose elbows and shoulders may respond to light-lifting loads. Contenders have been stealing end-of-career 10-5 seasons from such fellows for decades. But can you pick those who still have a good year in them?
As a result, the Nats are one of MLB’s most quickly forgotten and disregarded champions, now ranked by some as only the 14th-best team heading into 2021.
That’s ridiculous. After contract extensions for Rizzo and Manager Dave Martinez, this is a stable organization with five stars — Juan Soto, Trea Turner and the Big Three pitchers — who can match anybody. For every youngster who struggled this past season, such as Kieboom, there were others who emerged, such as potential future closer Rainey (0.738 walks and hits per inning pitched) and Luis García, who hit .276 as the youngest player in MLB.
That said, this team needs big help while its window is open. One mid-order bat is a must, no excuses, in the post-Rendon era. There are five on the market; six if you count Bryant. Get one. A fourth starter and a back-end (but not closer-cost) reliever are also mandatory. There are a dozen of each.
But landing those three fellows — Messrs. A, B and C — plus inviting back a Doolittle here, an Eaton and Kendrick there, isn’t enough.
The Nats have been good at winter surprises. By late January, as millions of us rejoice while waiting to get a needle jabbed in our arms, Nationals Park should be the home of two new thumping bats and at least two new arms that are genuine upgrades.
The players that are needed are available. In a buyer’s market — and a soft market at the positions of greatest need for the Nats — the team has the resources.
And here you thought you had nothing to help you get through what may be a very dark winter.
Everybody’s got a job to do. That includes the Nats.