LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — On Monday afternoon, standing on a patch of grass under some palm trees among a throng of loitering reporters and baseball decision-makers, Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo insisted his roster doesn’t need more than some tweaking this offseason. His goal every winter is to build a team he believes is capable of winning 90 games. He believes these Nationals are close to, if not already at, that target.
But Rizzo also said that a year ago. Then he nearly traded for Chris Sale, which would’ve created the scariest troika of starting pitchers in recent history, before he settled on acquiring Adam Eaton, an under-the-radar star, from the Chicago White Sox. Tweaking may be all that’s necessary, but history shows tweaking is not Rizzo’s go-to winter pastime.
Eleven months later — after Eaton tore his anterior cruciate ligament, after Michael A. Taylor finally capitalized when given a chance to play every day, after Brian Goodwin emerged as a legitimate big-league player, and after Victor Robles continued his rapid ascendance — the Nationals have a logjam in the outfield, one that Rizzo could pick from if he has the itch to go beyond tweaks again. As currently constituted, the Nationals’ starting outfield would be Eaton in left field, Taylor in center field and Bryce Harper in right field, Rizzo confirmed Monday. But that’s if a game were played in mid-November. Opening Day is in four-and-a-half months.
“There’s a lot of things that can happen,” Rizzo said.
One of those potential things is, obviously, a trade. In addition to Goodwin, Robles and the starting outfielders, the Nationals have Andrew Stevenson and Rafael Bautista on the doorstep, and Daniel Johnson and Juan Soto, two of their top 10 prospects, further down in the farm system. Washington is, by far, deepest in the outfield.
“We like the outfield options that we have and they’re all good, talented players and a lot of them are young and cost-controlled, which is important to us,” Rizzo said. “We feel that it’s an area of depth for us but a lot of them are young and farther away. So we think we’re in a good position.”
One way to potentially add, say, a front line, cost-controlled starting pitcher when you’re already approaching the competitive tax threshold is to make an outfielder the centerpiece of a trade package. Why would the Nationals want such an asset after their starters finished with the fourth-best ERA in baseball? Well, Rizzo has a history of bolstering — or trying to — his starting rotation when least expected. He nearly landed Sale last year after Washington finished second in baseball in starters’ ERA. He acquired Doug Fister in December 2013 after Washington finished seventh in starters’ ERA and signed Max Scherzer to a $210 million contract a year later after Washington finished first in starters’ ERA. There was never a glaring need. The Nationals pounced anyway.
This time, the Nationals have a hole in the rotation following Joe Ross’s Tommy John surgery in mid-July. The Nationals could fill it internally with A.J. Cole or Erick Fedde. Or they could go low-budget for a back-end starter type. Or they could hedge against regression from their foursome of Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark by adding a top-of-the-rotation talent.
Robles, a 20-year-old five-tool phenom, won’t be the one moved if the Nationals decide to go in that direction. He is carved in the Nationals’ future. He has shined at every level and impressed enough in his first major-league stint to make the postseason roster. The question is how soon will he become an everyday staple in the big leagues. The latest is Opening Day 2019. The earliest is Opening Day 2018. The answer could be somewhere in the middle.
“We see the talent level that he has,” Rizzo said. “We’re going to do what’s better for his long-term development. For us, he’s going to play every day somewhere. Be it at the big-league level or Triple-A level. He’s got to get repetitions and I think that’s the most important thing for him.”
The outfield buildup has led to the assumption that Jayson Werth’s days as a National are likely over. The organization recognized the near inevitability when it unveiled a tribute video during the Nationals’ regular season finale. Rizzo, however, wouldn’t shut down the possibility of a reunion with Werth, who turns 39 next May.
“We haven’t really discussed that or gone down that road yet but I wouldn’t close the door on it,” Rizzo said. “I’ll leave it at that. … [It’d] have to fit into what we want to do but I wouldn’t close the door on it.”
For it to “fit,” Werth would probably have to agree to come back for a significant pay cut as a bench piece, the Nationals would have to come to the conclusion that Werth’s clubhouse presence would offset any deficiencies inescapably brought on by age, and the logjam in the outfield would have to be thinned. For that to happen, the Nationals will likely need to make a trade. History suggests that possibility isn’t far-fetched.
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