It’s been awhile since we last took your questions in a Nationals mailbag. The season is over. Jorge Castillo left us for Los Angeles. Jesse Dougherty joined us from within The Post’s ranks. Bryce Harper became a free agent. The free-spending Boston Red Sox became World Series champions. The Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies became free-spending monsters. In other words, the time was ripe for another edition of the Nationals mailbag. Below, Jesse and Chelsea answer a few of your questions. We didn’t have time for all of them. But we will try to make more time for questions in the very near future.
How long does Harper hold up [the] team? What would be your guess on “move on” date, regardless of if he is still uncommitted?
Chelsea Janes: I don’t think he is holding up the team at all right now, as surprising as that may seem. Nothing about how the Nationals have conducted their offseason so far suggests any reluctance to act. Although they have yet to spend on a high-priced free agent, they did meet with representatives of lefty Patrick Corbin, who seems likely to be the highest-paid starter on this year’s market. People around the industry say the Nationals are reaching out on just about all the top free agent pitchers, seemingly as aggressive as ever. Yet until they spend big on someone like Corbin, we won’t know for sure that they are operating without any financial constraints imposed by the $300 million they offered to Harper.
But people familiar with the Nationals plans have indicated that their offer to Harper expired when free agency began. While they can make another offer — or even re-offer the same deal — the front office seemed to build in its own decision date. In other words, if you take this offer now, it’s yours. If you don’t, we’ll move on, and see where things stand later this offseason. Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, seemed to have a similar understanding of that offer and its expiration date.
Because the sides remain on good terms, and because the Nationals made a genuine, historic, good-faith offer, nothing is precluding the sides from talking again. But I would bet on Harper heading elsewhere, and I think the Nationals are planning for that. They simply have to plan for that.
Still, don’t forget that the Lerners have some of the deepest pockets in the majors, even though they can be reluctant to empty them sometimes. They built the Nationals into one of just two teams that crossed the competitive balance tax threshold last season. They will spend when they want to spend. So, if Harper and his team were to come back later this offseason with a counteroffer, and the Lerner family decided they wanted him back . . . well, perhaps the Nationals' other offseason spending wouldn’t be part of that calculation. For now, however, the Nationals seem to be moving on without him.
If the Nats don’t re-sign Harper, will they be content with a starting outfield of Eaton, Soto, and Robles, or will they be in the market for Pollock/Brantley/etc.? Basically, is Harper the only free agent OF they’d sign?
— Jon Becker (@JonBecker)
Janes: I asked a version of this question to a member of the Nationals' front office: Could you see a scenario in which you sign a free agent outfielder other than Harper? He considered that for a minute, then shook his head no, the kind of answer that doesn’t seem quite sure enough to run with but is nevertheless instructive. As of now, I do not get the sense the Nationals are chasing any free agent outfielders. Their faith in Soto and Eaton is strong, and they believe that between Victor Robles and Michael A. Taylor, they will have center field covered in the short-term and long-term. Were Eaton’s contract expiring, or were Soto or Robles less highly regarded, I think the Nationals would have to plan to bolster their outfield long-term. But they planned for Harper’s departure by trading for Eaton two years ago. To me, that was the big outfield acquisition to counteract Harper leaving.
Still, I have learned never to rule anything out with this team. If Kurt Suzuki is their biggest acquisition behind the plate (say, they decide Spencer Kieboom is an adequate backup, or they sign a cheap veteran), then their production will improve there, but not enough to make up for Harper’s production in the middle of the order. General Manager Mike Rizzo indicated a few weeks ago that he didn’t see much need to upgrade at second base, not with Howie Kendrick and Wilmer Difo ready to fill in there and Carter Kieboom a few steps away. But if the big bat isn’t coming from behind the plate, and it’s not coming from second base, where does that production come from? Sure, Soto looks like the next Harper. But the Nationals didn’t win with both Soto and Harper in the middle of their order. Can they really rely on Soto to provide enough left-handed firepower to carry them through next season?
If not, perhaps an outfielder makes sense. But as of now, with so many pieces yet to shuffle, the Nationals do not seem inclined to explore that free agent market just yet. Surprises could come from the usual places — former Rizzo draftees or signees (see: Carlos Gonzalez), Boras clients and the like. A bench piece seems the most likely fit. But a top-line outfielder would require top-line money, and I don’t see them allocating their resources to it.
Assuming Bryce is gone, what do you expect the top priority to be for the Nats in terms of spending? Is Corbin a realistic get, and if not, is there any chance Rizzo uses the trade market for another top-end pitcher?
— Josh Berkowitz (@Official_JBurke)
Jesse Dougherty: I definitely expect their top priority to be a marquee starter, Corbin is a realistic get and, either way, don’t count Rizzo out of the trade market when it comes to acquire pitching. Chelsea reported Wednesday that the Nationals have reached out to the representatives of Corbin, lefty Dallas Keuchel and righty Nathan Eovaldi (the three biggest-name starters on the free agent market). She also reported that Corbin met with the Nationals earlier this week, on an East coast tour that also included stops with the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees. High interest from the Phillies and Yankees does cut into the Nationals' chances to land Corbin — given the Phillies' stated goal of spending a lot of money this offseason and the Yankees' tradition of doing so — but it does not elimination them from the stakes.
And if the free agent market does not yield the arm the Nationals are seeking, Arizona Diamondbacks starter Zack Greinke could be one target via trade. Greinke is owed $104.5 million on the last three years of his contract, but the Nationals could lessen their return if they take on a good chunk of that salary. There are also a handful of teams willing to sell off established major league arms who would not demand such a big investment. Rizzo has made it clear that Soto and Robles are all but untouchable at this point, but the Nationals could piece together intriguing multi-prospect packages if Rizzo thinks Corbin, Keuchel or Eovaldi are too expensive.
How many more bullpen pieces do you expect the Nats to add? Perhaps a lefty-specialist and/or another high-leverage type reliever?
— Blake Finney (@FinneyBlake)
Dougherty: The bullpen seems to have six of its seven parts in Sean Doolittle, Koda Glover, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Matt Grace and Justin Miller. That doesn’t mean there won’t be competition for a few of those spots in spring training — with Miller likely having the loosest grip on his — but by that count the Nationals have one slot to fill before the 2019 season begins.
That could be handled internally, and it appears righty Wander Suero would have the inside track, given Sammy Solis’s recent struggles and contract situation. But if the Nationals look to make another trade or free agent signing, their needs are another lefty to pair with Grace, potentially another high-leverage reliever to ease Rosenthal’s workload after he did not pitch in 2018, and then a long man who can throw multiple low-leverage frames (a spot Miller could also fill if he makes the team). This is all further complicated by Solis’s inability to establish himself as a reliable lefty for the Nationals, so I think the Nationals will add one more piece to the bullpen this winter. What they’ll do with that spot, and how much they’re willing to spend after already acquiring Rosenthal and Barraclough in the last two months, is not as clear.
I thought the MASN dispute was supposed to be resolved a few weeks ago. What’s happening?
— Many of you.
Janes: I honestly don’t know. I’ve been trying to figure that out for some time now, but haven’t heard anything from the usual suspects who know these things, or from the league or the team. I think part of the trouble might be the legal ramifications of the decision, but I’ll continue to hunt answers on this. I’ll let you know when I have them.
Interested on whether any of these free agent pitchers will be back with the Nats in 2019 — Kelvin Herrera, Jeremy Hellickson, Greg Holland or Tommy Milone?
— Dion Rudnicki (@dprudnicki)
Dougherty: I would not expect a reunion between Herrera and the Nationals in 2019, though last I heard his recovery from surgery (after tearing the Lisfranc ligament in his left foot) is on track. Hellickson, Milone and Holland finished the season on good terms with the Nationals, so it is possible they return on cheap one-year deals to give the Nationals depth in their rotation and/or bullpen. The 33-year-old Holland is arguably the most intriguing free agent of the three, as he came to the Nationals in August with a 7.92 ERA and pitched his way into a high-leverage role (finishing with a 0.84 ERA in 21.1 innings with Washington). That means he could be scooped up by another team looking to make a low-risk, high-reward move for their bullpen. Hellickson or Milone should be more readily available should the Nationals want to bring them back.
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