The Nats Off-Season Priorities

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1. Find a Manager

There are moves that can be made without a new manager in place, but this is the most important thing the Nationals have to do this off-season. Not having the leader of the team will make all the other moves more difficult. Players want to know who they are playing for and the manager is going to have a lot of input into what free agents the Nationals go after for the bench and bullpen, which happen to be their two biggest needs personnel-wise. It is also important to get the new manager in place early so that he has an entire off-season to communicate with the players already in the majors and to familiarize himself with the system and the minor leaguers that could help during the season.

2. Lock up Ian Desmond 

This move doesn't necessarily depend on having a manager in place, but it could. If the Nationals wait too long in hiring the manager and Desmond doesn't know who he is going to be playing for it could slow negotiations to a point where it is close enough to arbitration that Desmond tables discussions until the following off-season. It is unlikely that that would happen. Every indication from Desmond is that he enjoys playing in Washington. He has embraced the community, interacts with fans, and is a leader on the field. He wants to stay here and the Nationals should want him to stay here. As far as what the contract will look like consider that Jimmy Rollins has comparable career numbers and is making $11 million a year at a more advanced age. With that in mind, something around six years for $70 million sounds fair for both sides.

3. Jose Abreu 

It has almost become a yearly event for a feared Cuban slugger to be a free agent. In 2011 it was Cespedes and in 2012, Puig. Now it is Abreu's turn and from all reports out of Cuba he is a better hitter than either of the other two. He also happens to be a first baseman. It is a very weak first base market this off-season to the point that if LaRoche were a free agent he would be the most desired name. The Nationals have LaRoche in house but he is coming off a disappointing season and the Nationals have no minor league depth at the position. Tyler Moore has been exposed as an everyday player, Chris Marrero has never developed the power for the position, and Matt Skole spent almost the entire season on the DL. The Nats have no first baseman of the future and it isn't until after the 2015 season when Chris Davis becomes a free agent that there is any help from that avenue. The Nats should be very motivated to sign Abreu but the weakness of the first base market will make a lot of other teams just as motivated. Abreu will go to the team that offers the most money, and this time the Nationals need to ensure it is them.

4. The Bench 

No aspect of the Nationals hurt the 2013 squad more than the bench and yet I have listed it fourth. The reason for that is twofold. This is a move that can't be made until the manager is in place and Desmond and Abreu would be starters. Those are always more important than back-ups. The bench is what caused most people to be wrong on the Nationals. Not enough scrutiny was given to a group composed of two second year players that had success in small sample sizes in 2012, a fourth outfielder that had never been an on base machine but had a .400 OBP in 2012, an aging left handed corner player one year removed from playing in Japan, and a back-up catcher that struggled as a starter in Oakland for most of 2012. The entire bench performed so well in 2012 that it would have seemed weird to have gotten rid of all of them for 2013, and that wasn't so much the problem. The bigger problem was that the bench wasn't switched out early enough when they struggled. The other reason I have the bench fourth is because in large part this is a January move. Sign a bunch of MiLB guys, select the best coming out of Spring Training, store the rest at AAA, and switch them out as the season goes along to ride the hot hand. Maybe sign one or two proven veterans to major league deals like Ruiz as the back-up catcher or DeJesus as the fourth outfielder, but keep a couple spots available to rotate in a hot hand from AAA.

5. The Bullpen 

The composition of the bullpen wasn't great from the start of the season. A lot is going to be made about the need for a left hander. With Boone Logan and Oliver Perez available in free agency they should be targets, but if they end up elsewhere then adding a left hander becomes signing a lefty for the sake of signing a lefty and that is a mistake. Talent always wins and that was the problem with the Nats bullpen to start the season. Zach Duke, Henry Rodriguez, and Ryan Mattheus simply weren't talented enough. Combine that with Storen's struggles and Soriano's occasional hiccups and the weakness and lack of depth in the pen are quickly exposed. Davey Johnson wanted two long relievers to start the season and Mike Rizzo wasn't ready to give up on Henry Rodriguez. In essence this gave the Nationals a four man pen and when Mattheus and Storen struggled it was a two man pen. Ian Krol and Fernando Abad helped for a short time, but had their troubles as well. Abad could be a part of the 2014 bullpen but he isn't a left handed specialist, nor was he used as one. In 2013 he had 101 plate appearances against right handers with a .619 OPS against and 65 plate appearances against left handers with a .790 OPS against. He may be a left handed pitcher but he doesn't get left handers out. Ian Krol is more of a lefty specialist with a .593 OPS against versus left handers and a .957 OPS against right handers. The issue with Krol was that he faced right handers more than he did left handers. His numbers indicate that he could be the LOOGY in the bullpen next season, but even if he is the Nationals are going to need a couple more bodies out there to lock down the sixth and seventh innings as needed.

6. Fourth Starter 

When Spring Training starts Detwiler, Jordan, Roark, and Ohlendorf are going to be fighting for one or two rotation spots. Wouldn't it be better if they were fighting for one rotation spot, the long relief role, and the losers going to AAA as depth? The answer to that is: of course. That means that while the starting free agent class isn't that impressive the Nationals could luck out by not needing someone impressive. They don't have to get into a bidding war for AJ Burnett or Matt Garza or take a risk on Roy Halladay or Tim Lincecum. They can concentrate on lower cost safer options. Someone like Bronson Arroyo who has pitched 200 innings in eight of the last nine seasons and in the one he didn't pitch 200 he pitched 199, or someone like Ricky Nolasco whose 4.37 career ERA is not going to impress anyone but has made over 30 starts in five of the last six seasons. The Nats could even bring back Dan Haren for less money and hope that either he can reach a mid-4.00 ERA in a more consistent manner or that the second half of 2013 was an indication of what he'll do in 2014. The Nats don't need to spend big money for this spot, but they also don't need a big performer. They need innings and consistency. Someone that will keep the team in most of the games they pitch and hopefully end the season .500 while the Nationals end up winning 66% of the games the big three pitch.

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