The dust has had a day to settle, though the Nationals will have to wait 12 months to brush it aside, since what happened to their franchise Thursday night will linger over them with the rest of the October memories until they can somehow toss them into the wind. In the meantime, the process of doing better next year has already begun. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo began preliminarily outlining the team’s offseason strategy Friday morning, hours after the loss. That strategy does not need to include an overhaul. It does, however, require that Rizzo and Co. address a few major questions.
Here, find a brief look at the five biggest questions they must answer. We will look at each question in depth this week.
WILL DUSTY BAKER RETURN NEXT SEASON?
All signs have always pointed to a reunion between Baker and the Nationals — except for the fact that he is not currently under contract with them. Rizzo has said all along, publicly and privately, that he expects a deal to get done. Baker has said, publicly and privately, that he wants to be back. Assuming the chaotic last week of the season didn’t change any hearts or minds, a deal seems likely. Baker has won 97 and 96 games in his first two seasons as Nationals’ manager. Will he get a chance to manage a third?
WILL THEY PURSUE JAYSON WERTH?
The emotional leader of the Nationals’ clubhouse, Bryce Harper’s closest confidant, and the most experienced position player on these division-winning rosters is now a free agent. Though he started when healthy this season, Werth likely would not find a starting role once Adam Eaton returns from his ACL injury next season, as the Nationals’ outfield will probably consist of Harper, Eaton and Michael A. Taylor. Victor Robles seems ready to make his big league push. In other words, they probably do not need Werth, who likely fits best as a designated hitter anyway.
But Werth has never closed the door on a return, and should he struggle to find a fit in the American League, perhaps the Nationals would find a spot on the bench for him in D.C. The Nationals have one last try with this core group before Harper, potentially Daniel Murphy and others see their contracts expire. Werth’s window has probably closed.
DO THE NATIONALS NEED TO UPGRADE BEHIND THE PLATE?
Matt Wieters has a player option for 2018 worth $10.5 million. He hit .225 with 10 home runs and one unfortunate, but memorable, inning of defensive debacle in Game 5. Those numbers will probably not fetch $10.5 million in the free agent market, and the Nationals would provide a place he could rebuild his value for another deal. But while his average and OPS were lower than his career norms, can the Nationals bank on a bounceback?
Meanwhile, affable backup catcher Jose Lobaton is a free agent this winter. The Nationals can bring him back or hunt for a free agent backup that could shoulder some playing time if Wieters returns and struggles again. Or, they could look internally, where Pedro Severino has proven himself capable of handling the defensive duties of a big league catcher, and could probably provide as much offense as Wieters and Lobaton did this season.
WHAT WILL THEIR BENCH LOOK LIKE NEXT SEASON?
Adam Lind has an option worth $5 million, which would be a big raise after he made $1 million this season. But he might try to find a more regular or higher-paying job elsewhere, assuming the market is kinder after he hit .303 with an .875 OPS in 300 plate appearances.
Howie Kendrick is also a free agent. So is Stephen Drew. So is Lobaton. The Nationals will have to decide whether to continue their recent pattern of signing playoff-tested veterans for bench roles or to look internally for contributors. As they learned during their injury-riddled 2017 season, those bench players often fill bigger roles than anticipated.
DO THEY NEED TO ADD A STARTING PITCHER?
Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark are under contract for next season. Joe Ross is out after midseason Tommy John surgery. Erick Fedde did not establish himself as a reliable fifth starter, but he will probably get the chance to do so in spring training. The Nationals have the foundation of a rotation, but Rizzo has rarely felt comfortable with that alone.
As with signing Scherzer, he tends to anticipate the departure of starters a year in advance. Gonzalez is a free agent after 2018. Ross’s health is a question. Scherzer experienced a slew of small injuries for the first time in his Nationals tenure. Few big league-ready starting prospects are working their way through the Nationals’ system. While this will not be the deepest free agent class or trade market for starting pitchers, the Nationals might need to wade in anyway.
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