The Washington Nationals Off-Season Course
A couple days ago Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post laid out his plan for the Nationals and it involved mostly doing nothing. Since then it has spawned a bit of a debate. Adam Kilgore responded about the other side of standing pat and the risks involved in taking that approach as opposed to bringing back LaRoche and handing out a contract to Sanchez or Lohse.
My take on the issue is that the Nationals are in an interesting situation, but it is not a situation uncommon to major league baseball franchises. Very rarely does it line-up that a team has a player leave and a prospect ready immediately. Drafting for baseball is more of a best player available game than any other sport because of the time involved in developing prospects, and while teams might lean towards a position they have coming open in the future they can't fully plan for it.
The Nationals now have both Rendon and Goodwin who could be ready as soon as the middle of 2013 and as late as 2015, but the best guess is that by 2014 at least one of them will be ready. If the Nationals bring back LaRoche Rendon will end up blocked. Morse does become a free agent after the 2013 season which does open up an outfield spot for Goodwin or Rendon if the Nationals decide to move him to left.
This off-season is interesting for the Nationals because there are many ways they can go. The Nationals are a team with a lot of options and none of them are bad. The Nationals will be a contender if they do nothing. A fifth starter isn't that important of a position and getting Morse's defense out of the outfield almost makes up for the loss of LaRoche's bat. The one thing that Goodwin and Rendon have in common is that they are position players. The Nationals don't need an outfielder or a first baseman but there are low cost stop gap options. The Nationals could sign Youkilis to replace LaRoche and either keep Morse in the outfield or trade him and go with a Bernadina/Moore platoon. That isn't a big move and Youkilis shouldn't get the type of contract that will block Rendon.
The area were the Nationals have more flexibility is pitching. Pitching was the Nationals strength in 2012, but it has openings because the Nationals need four starters and currently have four. They could use someone from the minors in that role, but most of the highly thought of prospects are still a ways away. The type of move the Nationals make will largely be based on their thoughts on how close Alex Meyer is to the majors, how Sammy Solis comes back from Tommy John's, if Matt Purke can ever become the pitcher he was expected to be, and if Nate Karns 2012 season was for real.
Even if the Nats believe one or more of these prospects will be ready in 2014 they still need to bridge the gap to then, and there is always the fact that pitchers get hurt. Many think that the Nationals will be unwilling to go to the $150 mil it will take to get Greinke, but they are in a position where they are at the beginning of a winning cycle and have the payroll flexibility to make the move work. The Nationals cannot make a move this off-season assuming that they will re-sign Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Desmond, and if they do they can structure the contract in such a way that their salaries escalate as Werth and Zimmerman come off the books.
There are other options beside Greinke and those options are not Lohse and Sanchez. While Greinke is a top ten pitcher in baseball and it is rare that one of those hits free agency Lohse and Sanchez are not even top 30 pitchers. Both or more mid rotation types and it is rumored that Sanchez is seeking $100 million. Sanchez would be overpaid at $45 mill over 4 years let along $100 mil over six or seven. If the Nationals aren't interested in or fail to land Greinke they shouldn't get into the middle market. They should look to guys like Haren, Dempster, Marcum, or even Edwin Jackson himself who will come at a much more reasonable price.
The final option for improving the pitching staff involves fixing the Nationals most glaring need of the past few seasons. Forever the Nationals have been looking for a centerfielder that can lead-off. With Michael Bourn and Pagan on the market the Nationals could sign a centerfielder that can lead-off, re-sign LaRoche to a three or four year deal, trade Morse for prospects, and trade the blocked Goodwin and Rendon to Tampa Bay for James Shields or David Price. Losing prospects of that caliber is going to hurt, but the Nationals will be set for three or four years with the current prospects developing and drafts to come.
The Nationals are a team with many options. Standing pat could work, but the Phillies will not be as injured in 2013 and the Braves will get entire seasons from Simmons and Medlen while Heyward and Freeman continue to improve. Standing pat puts the Nationals into a three team race to repeat as NL East champs while making moves, even small ones, gives the Nationals a little breathing room and keeps them ahead of the pack instead of falling back into it.