WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — When Washington Nationals pitchers and catchers report to the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Wednesday to begin the most important season in team history, they will find a completely overhauled coaching staff but familiar teammates.
After dismissing Dusty Baker and hiring Dave Martinez as manager, the Nationals didn’t make any earth-shattering moves this offseason. They didn’t need to. As currently constructed, the team is projected by most prognosticators — computer and human — to claim a third consecutive National League East crown and earn another shot at breaking through in October before facing a winter of uncertainty.
The Nationals lost Matt Albers after a resurgent year but re-signed Brandon Kintzler to partner with Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle at the back end of the bullpen. They retained Howie Kendrick to shore up the bench and provide insurance if all-star Daniel Murphy’s surgically repaired knee isn’t ready for the start of the season. They added Matt Adams to replace Adam Lind as their left-handed power bench option and signed Miguel Montero to a minor league deal to compete for the backup catcher spot.
Their biggest addition is probably having Adam Eaton return from his anterior cruciate ligament tear to replace Jayson Werth in left field. It will be on Martinez, a first-year manager, and his staff to guide the talented ensemble to unprecedented heights.
But, as last year demonstrated, General Manager Mike Rizzo’s pursuit of improvement doesn’t conclude with report day. The unprecedented glut of free agents still seeking employment presents possibilities to upgrade the roster — namely in the rotation and behind the plate.
Three notable free agent starting pitchers remain on the market: Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb. But only Arrieta has been constantly linked to the Nationals this winter. The reasoning is twofold: Arrieta is a proven quality starting pitcher with significant postseason experience who could fill out Washington’s rotation, and his agent is Scott Boras. The dots connect themselves.
The Nationals have been in contact with Boras about Arrieta — they were one of the teams to receive a thick binder from Boras outlining the case to sign the pitcher at the beginning of the offseason. Ownership has a relationship with Boras. A chunk of Washington’s players are Boras clients, and there’s a history of Washington swooping in to sign a few when there weren’t any glaring holes to fill. It happened last year when Matt Wieters was signed a few days into spring training.
This time, the competitive balance tax presents an additional obstacle. According to Cot’s Contracts, the Nationals are already $4.6 million over the $197 million tax threshold set for the 2018 season and stand to pay a 30 percent penalty after eclipsing the threshold in 2017. Therefore, signing Arrieta, who turns 32 next month and showed signs of decline last season two years after winning the NL Cy Young Award, would cost an extra 30 percent. That’s on top of Washington surrendering their second- and fifth-highest picks in the upcoming draft and $1 million in international bonus pool money for signing a player who was given a qualifying offer because they crossed the threshold last season.
The other notable possibility — acquiring catcher J.T. Realmuto from the Miami Marlins to serve as an upgrade over Wieters, one of baseball’s least productive players last season — carries a different kind of lofty price tag. While Realmuto is under team control on franchise-friendly terms for the next three years — he will make $2.9 million this season after losing his arbitration case to the Marlins earlier this month — Miami wants Victor Robles or Juan Soto, Washington’s top two prospects, as the centerpiece in a trade package. The Nationals have refused to relinquish either outfielder.
Realmuto, who turns 27 next month, reportedly demanded a trade in December as the Marlins dealt their best players, but he told reporters last weekend he will report to spring training and is ready to play in Miami. The Houston Astros are also reportedly keen on Realmuto, but perhaps he will stay in South Florida.
In the meantime, the Nationals made less explosive transactional moves on Tuesday, announcing 21 non-roster invitees to spring training. Seventeen were players signed to minor league deals with invitations to spring training. The other four are minor leaguers invited to participate in big league camp. They will join the 40 players on Washington’s 40-man roster to bring the total for spring training to 61.
Of the 21 non-roster invitees, 12 are pitchers and nine are position players. The list includes left-hander Bryan Harper, Bryce’s brother; right-hander Jaron Long, hitting coach Kevin Long’s son; and right-hander Edwin Jackson, a journeyman who will compete for the fifth spot in the rotation with A.J. Cole and Erick Fedde. That’s if the Nationals don’t fill out their top-flight starting rotation with another premier arm. The possibility remains.
NATIONALS NON-ROSTER INVITEES
RHP Brady Dragmire
RHP David Goforth
RHP Edwin Jackson
RHP Jaron Long
RHP Roman Mendez
RHP Chris Smith
RHP Cesar Vargas
RHP Jimmy Cordero (minor leaguer)
LHP Tim Collins
LHP Ismael Guillon
LHP Bryan Harper
LHP Tommy Milone
POSITION PLAYERS (9)
C Miguel Montero
C Jhonatan Solano
C Taylor Gushue (minor leaguer)
C Spencer Kieboom (minor leaguer)
IF Reid Brignac
IF Chris Dominguez
IF Osvaldo Abreu (minor leaguer)
OF Ryan Raburn
OF Moises Sierra