There were many answers inside Nationals Park on Friday afternoon, from those spoken by General Manager Mike Rizzo, to the quiet presence of all-star catcher Yan Gomes, to Patrick Corbin, the reason dozens gathered at the ballpark on the doorstep of winter, where they watched the left-handed pitcher button up his Washington Nationals uniform for the first time.
But aside the excitement of Corbin’s signing lurked two questions prompted by the pace the Nationals are operating at this offseason: What is there left to do? And is there still room for Bryce Harper in the team’s blueprint?
Rizzo continued to separate the star outfielder from the Nationals' other moves, saying “Harp is a big part of our family, and we’ve love to have him back.” But principal owner Mark Lerner sent a different message, suggesting in a Friday radio interview that Harper’s return is unlikely.
“I don’t really expect him to come back at this point. I think they’ve decided to move on,” Lerner said in an interview with 106.7 The Fan. “There’s just too much money out there that he’d be leaving on the table. That’s just not [agent Scott] Boras’s M.O., to leave money on the table.”
“This was a special six years,” Lerner continued, referencing Harper’s transformation from a homegrown talent into a franchise cornerstone. “And he’ll still be iconic in the city, when he comes in playing for another team. We’ll do right by him and have a real ceremony. You can’t be mad at him, and I don’t think he’d be mad at us if we can’t go any further.”
The Nationals have not let Harper’s unresolved free agency delay their roster construction for 2019. They have actually done the opposite. In chronological order, this offseason already includes a trade for reliever Kyle Barraclough, the signing of former all-star closer Trevor Rosenthal, the signing of veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki, the trade for Gomes, and then this week’s signing of Corbin to a six-year, $140 million contract, with Washington outbidding the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies for the pitcher. Those moves all came before baseball’s annual winter meetings, which will be in Las Vegas next week, and signaled just how committed the Nationals are to competing regardless of Harper’s decision.
Harper turned down a 10-year, $300 million offer the Nationals extended in late September, and Lerner said in the radio interview Friday: “We told them, ‘This is the best we can do.’” Lerner added that, given what the Nationals have spent in the last month or so, it may be hard to bring back Harper even if he and Boras showed interest in the initial offer. And if the Harper sweepstakes are tilting away from Washington, there is a chance the Nationals explore the market beyond their remaining needs.
Their bench still needs a left-handed first baseman who can provide power as a pinch-hitter and spell veteran Ryan Zimmerman. They could also pursue another arm in the bullpen. The starting rotation is strong at the top — with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Corbin — but a few more options could stir up competition for the final spot and sharpen what will be the team’s most enticing strength should Harper move on.
“You know, we feel good about the team we have in place right now,” Rizzo said with Corbin sitting to his right. “The roster is constructed in a good, coherent manner. We have a lot of strengths and a lot of flexibility that we didn’t have last year. We’ve got players with options. That’s important for us. But you never say you’re done. If there’s a deal or a free agent that makes sense to us, that helps us become better, we’ve always been aggressive. We’ve always had the resources to do those type of things. I don’t consider us done at all."
More rotation depth is the easiest need to pinpoint, especially after the Nationals sent starter Jefry Rodriguez to the Cleveland Indians for Gomes. If the season started now, the Nationals rotation would include Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, Tanner Roark and one of Joe Ross or Erick Fedde in the final spot. But Ross and Fedde are both coming off injury-shortened seasons. Ross returned from his 14-month recovery from Tommy John surgery in September, and his three starts made it hard to gauge how reliable he’ll be moving forward. Fedde landed on the 60-day disabled list with shoulder inflammation and, once back on the mound for the final stretch of the season, had trouble throwing deep into games.
The Nationals have already added former all-star right-hander Henderson Alvarez on a minor-league deal, and could look to bring on other low-cost veterans to push Ross and Fedde in the back end of the rotation. It is also likely they’ll need more than five starters to get through the season, as nine different pitchers made three or more starts for them last year.
“We feel good about it. We feel good about where we’re at,” Rizzo said when asked if he believes the Nationals currently have their 2019 rotation within the organization. “We’ve got our big three. We’ve got Tanner. We’ve got Fedde and Ross and then several depth guys beyond them. We feel as good as anybody can feel about their starting pitching. But we don’t eliminate” adding more options.
If Harper does not return, the Nationals may be more likely to go after a second baseman who could help account for his production. Rizzo confirmed Friday that he had been in contact with the representation of D.J. LeMahieu, one of the best free agent second basemen, but couched that by saying the Nationals have reached out to around 40 available players. They have also expressed confidence in some combination of Howie Kendrick and Wilmer Difo at that position, and might not want to give a player like LeMahieu a multiyear deal given that top prospect Carter Kieboom, a shortstop by trade, has started to work at second base.
Corbin’s introduction was over by 1 p.m. on Friday, and the news conference room emptied once he was ushered to more interviews. What was left were two monitors blaring the day’s second-most important message once Lerner’s radio comments surfaced: “WELCOME TO D.C. PATRICK CORBIN!”
Gomes, Scherzer, Strasburg and Zimmerman, who all came to the ballpark to welcome their new teammate, had split for the rest of the offseason. Rizzo’s trip to Vegas drew closer. It was all a reminder of how fast the Nationals' winter is moving, and how quickly they still must pivot to whatever’s next.
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