The Nationals don’t need to acquire another major leaguer before Opening Day. They re-signed Brandon Kintzler to pitch the seventh inning. They signed Matt Adams and Howie Kendrick to fill their bench. They have options for the fifth spot in their starting rotation. They are National League East favorites with their current projected roster, and acquiring help during the season is always an option.
But the Nationals have a history of pouncing late when they deem the price right. Just last year, when the offseason wasn’t nearly as dormant, the Nationals signed three players — Adam Lind, Joe Blanton and Matt Wieters — in mid-February. All three were on the Opening Day roster. They were upgrades, not obvious needs. Washington had Clint Robinson as its backup first baseman before Lind arrived. Derek Norris had been acquired to start at catcher just a couple months earlier before Wieters joined. Blanton was an additional piece for the bullpen.
This year is a little different because the Nationals’ projected payroll is already roughly $3 million over the competitive balance tax threshold of $197 million. Every dollar spent over that $197 million mark comes with a 30 percent tax, which is the penalty for exceeding the CBT for a second straight season. Last season, Washington paid a 20 percent tax, which amounted to less than $1 million.
With that in mind, there are three obvious areas where the Nationals could use reinforcements: Catcher, bullpen, and the rotation. According to a person with knowledge of the team’s thinking, the Nationals remain interested in Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto and are closely monitoring the reliever market in hopes that they can grab a right-hander at a bargain rate. Adding a bona fide starting pitcher also figures to be in their contingency plan.
The 26-year-old Realmuto, apparently unhappy with the Marlins’ latest fire sale, reportedly requested a trade in December. He won’t come cheap. Realmuto is already one of baseball’s top catchers and is under control for the next three years. He would supplant Wieters, who was one of the least productive catchers in baseball last season.
On Thursday, the Marlins shipped center fielder Christian Yelich to the Brewers for four prospects, including their top one, outfielder Lewis Brinson. Yelich, also 26, is considered one of the elite all-around center fielders in baseball and is on a below-market contract through the 2022 season. Realmuto probably won’t yield as big of a haul, but the Marlins are asking for a hefty package, as they should.
On the other side, the Nationals refuse to consider Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Victor Robles or Juan Soto in any trade discussions, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. The Marlins are reportedly asking for Robles, a center fielder who was recently ranked as the No. 5 prospect in baseball. That has seemingly produced a stalemate between the parties.
If the Nationals can’t land Realmuto, they could turn to Alex Avila, a free agent, at catcher. Avila posted an .834 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 112 games with the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs last season, and has said he wouldn’t mind a backup role. He turns 31 on Monday.
As for the bullpen, the Nationals are not very high on Greg Holland, the top reliever remaining on the market, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. The 32-year-old right-hander returned from Tommy John surgery after not pitching in 2016 to compile 41 saves and earn the NL Comeback Player of the Year award with the Colorado Rockies last season.
Maybe the answer is bringing back Matt Albers. The two sides had discussions during the Winter Meetings before the Nationals agreed on a deal with Kintzler. The decision seemed to end the possibility of the 35-year-old Albers returning to Washington, where he posted a 1.62 ERA in 63 appearances last season. Albers wanted a two-year deal. But perhaps the market’s stagnation softens Albers’s demands and opens the possibility of a reunion.
Meanwhile, the starting pitching free agent market remains cluttered. Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn are among the hurlers still available. Again, the Nationals are in position to swoop in for an upgrade at a discount if they are willing to pay the 30 percent tax penalty that would accompany any additional payroll. It’s a new wrinkle in the calculus, but the Nationals have added to their roster late in the offseason before and may do it again.