Free agency officially began at 5 p.m. Eastern Monday afternoon. The market is open. The free-for-all can commence. The offseason can proceed, full speed ahead.
In recent offseasons, the Nationals have emerged as reliable contenders for big name free agents, regardless of their perceived needs. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo is willing to stockpile, and the Lerner family at times has been willing to pay for elite talent.
But the Nationals enter this offseason having crossed the luxury tax threshold for the first time in their history, and paid a 20 percent tax on their overages. After Matt Wieters exercised his option worth $10.5 million for 2018, their payroll seems likely to cross that luxury tax threshold again in 2018 — before the addition of any major free agents.
The tax alone does not necessarily preclude the Nationals from spending big. The potential loss of Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy (among others) to free agency after this season means they will likely have to spend next winter, and would therefore be inspired to frugality now. Besides, they have little room in their lineup for another star-type, even if Murphy’s knee injury keeps him out of activity beyond Opening Day.
If the Nationals are to spend this offseason, they seem likely to do so on pitching. Gio Gonzalez is a free agent after next season, and Max Scherzer showed his first signs of fragility in 2017. They have a history of stockpiling starters, marked by acquisitions such as Scherzer and Doug Fister, who slid into an already strong rotation such as the one the Nationals will have to start next season.
In the bullpen, Oliver Perez, Joe Blanton, Brandon Kintzler and Matt Albers are all free agents, and while the Nationals might re-sign some of them, they likely will have to hunt elsewhere to bolster their relief corps. With Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle already slotted into set-up and closer positions, the Nationals will not be scrambling for relief help. But they can always use it.
So with that, a quick, early, and largely speculative look at some of the free agent names that could intrigue the Nationals.
The Nationals have little need for one of these, with their only visible void coming at second base if Murphy’s health remains a concern. Rizzo said he and the Nationals are “optimistic” that Murphy will be ready for Opening Day. If that is true, the Nationals probably won’t be major players for any of the big-name position-playing types — though they always seem to make some kind of inquiries on stars such as J.D. Martinez, the prize of the free agent outfield class. They have also pursued Jose Bautista in the past, though he might still hunt a starting job and find it elsewhere.
BENCH/PART TIME ROLES
With Howie Kendrick, Stephen Drew, Adam Lind, and Jose Lobaton headed for free agency, the Nationals likely will need to chase veteran help for their bench. Though Martinez’s strategies have yet to be seen, the Nationals generally have given members of their bench substantial work, and built that bench around former everyday players. They likely do not need a defensive backup outfielder, given their current logjam of Adam Eaton, Bryce Harper, Michael A. Taylor and Victor Robles. But they do need power bats off the bench, and a few can be had — though some of the names listed below could still find starting work elsewhere or fit better with a designated hitter job.
IF Erick Aybar
IF Zack Cozart
IF Stephen Drew
IF Eduardo Nunez
IF Jhonny Peralta
IF Chase Utley
IF Jose Reyes
IF Danny Valencia
IF/OF Howie Kendrick
IF Adam Lind
IF/OF John Jaso
IF Mike Napoli
OF Jayson Werth
OF Michael Saunders
OF Curtis Granderson
OF Jarrod Dyson
OF Andre Ethier
OF Carlos Gonzalez (who Rizzo signed out of Venezuela)
OF Seth Smith
OF Ichiro Suzuki
OF Melky Cabrera
OF Rajai Davis
OF Matt Holliday
OF Carlos Beltran
While Wieters’s decision to return means the Nationals’ starting catcher will return, the rest of their catching situation is murky. Lobaton can depart to free agency. Pedro Severino has been on the playoff roster before, but is unproven. Wieters had a down year that could inspire the Nationals to add another proven option to split time. A range of free agent options:
Wilin Rosario (last played in Korea)
This year’s free agent starting pitching class does not look particularly deep. After Yu Darvish, its consensus prize, this year’s class is thin. The Nationals do not seem likely to pay for Darvish. If they do not, other options (ranging from middle-of-the-rotation types to take-a-flyer back end types) include the following:
With lefties and righties alike coming off their bullpen books, the Nationals should pay for at least a couple proven relievers this offseason. Their options include the:
Wade Davis (who received a qualifying offer)