NEW YORK — The hiring of Bud Black, when it is announced after the World Series, will be rightly viewed as a step forward for the Washington Nationals. This is how such moves are viewed in Washington, whether the new guy is Manny Acta or Adam Oates, Jim Zorn or Jay Gruden, Matt Williams or Mike Shanahan. Regardless of his resume, the new guy represents hope and change, and given the acrid taste that still lingers from a season that closed less than a month ago, that is indeed important.
But if Black’s hiring defines this offseason for the Nationals, then something has gone awry. This is a team that, by the declaration of General Manager Mike Rizzo, believes it can and will contend for a division championship every year. Over the final month of the 2015 season, that didn’t truly happen. Will they bring back that same group – no, really, a lesser version of that same group – with a new manager and say, “Go get the Mets!”?
Examining Black’s record, his personality, his strategy, his communication skills – those will all be important in coming weeks, and they’ll all be cast against the ousted Williams, who could not master enough of those elements in his first true managerial gig to make it work. The Nationals players who remain need a new voice. Trust needs to be rebuilt. This is a step.
But what’s more important will be: What player(s) do they go get?
We know what’s coming off the books from last year, more than $50 million in the contracts of free agents Jordan Zimmermann ($16.5 million), Doug Fister ($11.4 million), Ian Desmond ($11 million), Denard Span ($9 million) and Matt Thornton ($3.5 million). There will be increases through arbitration for players such as Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen (if he’s not traded) and Danny Espinosa, plus the $11 million owed to closer/combatant Jonathan Papelbon. But the payroll, as it stands now, will be lower.
There is an internal argument that the Nationals don’t need to do much to compete. The departing members of the rotation, Zimmermann and Fister, would be replaced by Joe Ross, coming off a strong debut, and Tanner Roark, the 15-game winner from 2014 who never settled in as a reliever last season before he was shoved back into the rotation. With top prospect Lucas Giolito on the way – certainly not to start the season, but perhaps to end it – there are teams that would be fine with a rotation of Max Scherzer, Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Ross and Roark.
The outfield would be, most days, Jayson Werth in left, Michael A. Taylor in center (with his first 554 major league plate appearances behind him) and Bryce Harper in right. Clint Robinson remains as a left-handed bat off the bench, and they could sign another left-handed bat – Gerardo Parra, for instance, about whom they inquired last July – as insurance against Werth’s health.
The infield recovers from the loss of franchise cornerstone Desmond by moving Anthony Rendon back to third, where the Nationals feel he fits best, hoping Ryan Zimmerman gives them 140 games at first, and figuring out a middle infield of Espinosa and Yunel Escobar until prospect Trea Turner is ready to play every day. Wilson Ramos and Jose Lobaton come back to do the catching, get Craig Stammen and Aaron Barrett back to help the bullpen (which, admittedly, would need more fixing) and – voila! – there’s a major league team.
The internal idea is that baseball operations should spend roughly $175 million annually, but it doesn’t all have to be on payroll. On years when major league payroll cycles down – next year’s current roster would fall somewhere in the $110-$120 million range – the club would spend on scouting and player development upgrades, on new analytic tools, etc. The two teams that will face each other in Game 3 of the World Series Friday night here opened this season with payrolls of just $113.6 million (Kansas City, ranking 16th) and $101.4 million (the Mets, ranking 21st). Each added payroll in midseason trades (something Nationals’ ownership has refused to do), but buying a title seems unwise in an era or revenue-sharing and parity.
“There’s no efficient way to spend $300 million on payroll,” said one executive from a postseason team.
So there’s your argument for handing Black a slightly tweaked version of the current roster. This is, to be clear, what could happen. It’s not what should happen.
Rolling out that roster would essentially be saying, “Matt Williams was so bad as a manager that we can take a stripped-down version of last year’s roster and compete for a division title.” If the team countered by saying this is a rebuilding year – and no one there has uttered the phrase – then why keep Strasburg, Ramos and Storen, who will all be free agents after 2016?
No, Black’s hiring should merely begin an interesting offseason. Some questions:
- Is Ramos the solution at catcher? He is coming off a season in which he played more than 100 games for the first time since 2011, and the result was a .229 average and .616 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, both the lowest of his career. The OPS ranked 15th of the 16 catchers with at least 400 plate appearances. Ramos was named Thursday as a finalist for a Gold Glove, recognition certainly stemming from his ability to throw out runners (44 percent), because anyone who has ever watched him try to receive a throw from the outfield would best avert his or her eyes.
- What would Escobar bring in trade? His average (.314) was his highest since he was a rookie in 2007. His OPS (.790) was his highest since 2009. He hit third much of the year, is affordable at $7 million for 2016 with another $7 million club option beyond that. Couldn’t he be a piece that helps rebuild the bullpen?
- Is Taylor’s offensive upside good enough to run him out to center every day? And if so, where should he hit? For all the promise the 24-year-old showed (remember, he’s older than Harper), he hit .229, and of the 55 major league outfielders with at least 500 plate appearances, his .640 OPS ranked 54th. No big deal if he brings his glove and could get on base enough to hit leadoff. But his 30.9 percent strikeout was the highest in the National League brings up another question: If Taylor can’t lead off, who will? (Werth, maybe? Hmmm.)
The point is, even if the Nationals could stand still and hand Black a team, and even if the Mets have to go find offense and the National League East is generally down, there are real issues here. There are game-changing potential center fielders on the market in Yoenis Cespedes, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton (who, it’s worth remembering, Rizzo drafted when he was in Arizona).
The case for or against any of those players – or any of the free agent pitchers, or any specific trades – can be made after Black puts on his jersey and smiles for the cameras, sometime after the World Series is over. But what we know now, before October ends, is the new manager shouldn’t be the Nationals’ only splash this winter.