Once the World Series celebration cooled down and the Nationals put their shirts back on, reality popped into view. Since Strasburg and Rendon are not on the current roster and may not be moving forward, the Nationals are staring down a long list of priorities with the market officially open and the general managers’ meetings beginning Monday. They have two holes in their rotation, a few in the bullpen, one at catcher, two at first base, one at second and another at third. And if that weren’t enough, they need to piece together a bench. There’s a tendency to wish that a title-winning team can bring back the same group to take another crack. But it’s way more likely that Washington experiences sharp turnover this winter.
The Nationals’ 40-man roster is at 30 players. The free agents from their World Series roster are Strasburg, Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Howie Kendrick, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Daniel Hudson, Yan Gomes, Brian Dozier, Matt Adams, Gerardo Parra and Fernando Rodney. Most of those names carry a lot of significance.
Strasburg was the MVP of the World Series. Rendon is a finalist for the National League MVP award. Zimmerman has been with the Nationals since 2005, the year the team arrived in Washington. Kendrick was MVP of the National League Championship Series. Cabrera started at second throughout the pennant race. Dozier did for the rest of the season. Gomes shared duties behind the plate with Kurt Suzuki. Hudson recorded the final out of Game 7. Parra tightened the clubhouse — and the city — with the children’s song “Baby Shark” and a bunch of other team-building traditions.
So, yeah. It’s going to be a bit different come 2020.
The priorities, at least from the start, will be retaining Strasburg and Rendon. Strasburg, 31, is expected to draw a ton of interest following a career year. He led the NL with 18 wins and 209 innings. The Nationals are interested in bringing him back. Strasburg, according to those close to him, would like to return to Washington if the numbers work out. His agent, Scott Boras, probably will use Max Scherzer’s current contract — seven years, $210 million, signed at 30 years old — as a starting point. Strasburg opted out of the final four years and $100 million of an extension he signed in 2016.
Rendon’s situation is a bit murkier. He and Washington spent the year trading offers, beginning in February, and none kept him from testing the market. The Nationals’ most recent proposal was for seven years and between $210 million and $215 million. The deferrals were to be paid out in the seven years following the expiration of the contract. Boras, who represents Rendon, too, made a counter offer that the Nationals did not accept. That underscored Rendon’s interest in remaining with Washington. It also showed that the sides are still on different pages.
If the Nationals keep Strasburg or Rendon or both, they would have limited financial flexibility to build the rest of their roster. Both will command north of $30 million per season. The competitive balance tax is set for $208 million for next season, with teams expanding to 26 players, and the Nationals have room to spend with Strasburg ($25 million luxury tax hit in 2019), Rendon ($18.8 million), Zimmerman ($23.3 million) and Dozier ($9 million) no longer on the books. Zimmerman and the Nationals have repeatedly expressed interest in keeping the 35-year-old in Washington, probably on a cheap one-year deal. But the rest is up for unending interpretation.
Two of General Manager Mike Rizzo’s major tendencies should show up soon: He believes in building a contender around the starting rotation, a philosophy that paid huge dividends when Strasburg, Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez led the Nationals to the title. And Rizzo prefers to build his bullpen in-season, when he can assess the year-to-year volatility of relievers and make moves at the trade deadline. Last season was one big cautionary tale for bullpen construction. Rizzo signed Trevor Rosenthal and Tony Sipp, and he traded for Kyle Barraclough. None of the three made it into August with the club.
Instead, in a desperate effort to patch holes before the pennant race, he traded for Hudson, Hunter Strickland and Roenis Elías on July 31. Hudson clicked. Elías was hurt for most of the stretch run. Strickland struggled in the playoffs. The takeaway is that Rizzo should check in on top relievers — think Will Smith or Will Harris, among others — but is unlikely to go all-in before the regular season begins. It would be logical to bring back Hudson, 32, if his price tag doesn’t get too high. After that, the Nationals should key on a setup man and a situational lefty, then see who in their system may be ready to transition from starting to relieving full time.
How they balance nostalgia with practicality and how that seeps into their blueprint will ultimately decide how the team looks for Opening Day in late March. Zimmerman has to be paired with another first baseman, as he was with Kendrick and Adams this past season, and Kurt Suzuki probably needs another veteran to split the workload at catcher. The Nationals have top prospect Carter Kieboom to potentially fill a need at second or third. Kendrick will be pursued by American League teams in need of a designated hitter. Cabrera is a good fit to return as a utility infielder and switch hitter off the bench. It’s hard to figure Parra into the plans.
A magical World Series run has been replaced by a pile of question marks. And it should take a while for the Nationals to sort through it.