The Washington Nationals will almost certainly pursue starting pitching depth this winter, a conclusion drawn from the fact that their general manager, Mike Rizzo, said as much at the general managers’ meetings last week.
“I do foresee going after some depth in the starting rotation,” said Rizzo, who also said he didn’t plan for that depth to come in the form of a front-line starter. The Nationals have Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg to fill the front of their rotation, and both of them are under long-term contracts. Strasburg’s contract includes opt-outs after the 2019 and 2020 seasons, but he expressed the desire to stay in D.C. when he signed the deal, and the Nationals should be optimistic that sentiment will continue.
But Gio Gonzalez will be a free agent after next season. Tanner Roark will be a free agent after the 2019 season. Joe Ross should be recovered from Tommy John surgery in time for the 2019 season, and Erick Fedde may well have established himself by then. Scherzer, loathe as he or anyone with the Nationals will be to admit it, is getting older and showed signs of waning durability this year. The Nationals’ rotation will lack the depth on which it has built this run of four division titles in six seasons — the depth Rizzo believes is the key to sustained success.
So while the Nationals can bolster a well-built rotation this offseason, they could decide to choose low-cost depth over a long-term solution. Speculation swirls about how the Nationals will handle the vaunted 2018-2019 free agent class when it comes to position players like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and others. But for the Nationals, that class could prove more important as a source of long-term pitching depth.
The Nationals will have major contracts coming off the books before the 2018 season. Harper, Gonzalez, Daniel Murphy, Ryan Madson, Shawn Kelley and others will become free agents, clearing more than $50 million in payroll. While the Nationals could, and perhaps will, reinvest some of that money in pursuit of Harper or another elite position player, they also have their eye on the free agent pitching available in that vaunted class.
Clayton Kershaw is the biggest potential free agent available, though he would have to opt out of his deal to do so. Chris Sale, whom the Nationals pursued last winter, has a club option with the Red Sox. Dallas Keuchel will be a 31-year-old free agent. Patrick Corbin, Drew Pomeranz and other mid-rotation types will also be available. The pitching class of 2018-19 is not mind-blowing, but it does contain more depth than this year’s class, whose top-line options include Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta, neither of whom are in the Nationals’ initial offseason plans.
The Nationals could also use their savings to pursue a pitcher via trade next winter, much like they did with Gonzalez and Doug Fister. They will have more money to spare than they do right now, coming off their first season above the competitive balance tax threshold. Helpful starters like Gerrit Cole or Earvin Santana could be available in a deal this offseason, but the Nationals seem unlikely to reach for either. Though they will almost certainly pursue starting help of some kind, they are likely positioning themselves for a bigger acquisition after the 2018 season, when they will have more payroll and roster flexibility to do so.