Maybe the Nats — and General Manager Mike Rizzo — are acting out of self-delusion, still shellshocked after plummeting from winning the World Series in 2019 to tying for last in the National League East at 26-34 in 2020. Or maybe we are witnessing genuine baseball insight — a radical response to a warped season and a deep-value strategy in which the Nats spotted a market inefficiency.
If you want paradox, ponder this: The Nats did not sign or aggressively pursue any of the top 25 free agents of the offseason, according to MLB.com’s rankings. They didn’t trade for a shiny 2020 star, either. Yet they think they are contenders.
Like many, my estimate of the Nats’ offseason is that they get a “B” and look like an 85- to 89-win team that is top-heavy with five major stars but still has too many holes or big questions.
However, I suspect “B” is the least likely final grade for the Nats. The reality of 2021 will be much better or much worse. This will be a risky, bargains-must-pay-off year with a high ceiling but a scary floor.
The same thesis — ignore last year — applies to new sluggers Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber, as well as left-hander Jon Lester, backup catcher Alex Avila and even took-a-year-off Ryan Zimmerman. They were all on the flops-of-2020 junk pile. Even Gerardo Parra, the “Baby Shark” of 2019 and back from Japan, has a spring training invite.
Only new closer Brad Hand was just as excellent as usual in 2020, leading the American League in saves. But even Hand had many doubters; he passed through waivers with a mere $10 million salary due for 2021 after his fastball dropped a click in 2020.
The core of the Nats’ offseason depends on the futures of Bell and Schwarber, both entering their age-28 seasons. If they rebound, they are potential contract extension candidates for the Nats, especially with the designated hitter probably coming to the NL in 2022.
A year ago, you would have paid a ransom for either. Bell was coming off 37 homers, 116 RBI and a .936 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, numbers not terribly far behind Anthony Rendon’s 34 homers, 126 RBI and 1.010 OPS in 2019.
In 2019, Schwarber had 38 homers, 92 RBI and an .871 OPS in 155 games. Bryce Harper’s 162-game career average is 33 homers, 95 RBI and a .900 OPS.
Bell, even with his switch-hitting value, is no Rendon, and Schwarber, though he has 500-foot power, is no Harper. But you can see why Rizzo once more has bird feathers sticking out of the sides of his mouth.
Fans (and reporters) tend to remember — and overly value — recent results and small sample sizes. Last year, Bell and Schwarber each saw his OPS fall off the cliff. Bell’s plummeted to .669 and Schwarber’s to .701. They both hit into bad luck. But for middle-of-the-order bats, awful is awful. If that is who they are now — or even close to that bad — the Nats are dead.
But baseball stats and modern models for anticipating future production are marvelous in the way they refuse to know which players are being analyzed. Numbers just get crunched, with age and the history of all similar players included.
Let’s think like a computer: Forget 2019 and 2020. Just project 2021 off the whole careers of Bell and Schwarber, then lump them with sensible expectations for Trea Turner and Juan Soto. I did, and I’m stunned.
The average of the five major projection models has Schwarber with 33 homers, 85 RBI and an OPS over .850 in 2021, though he will play only 126 games because he’s often platooned against lefties. For Bell, expect 29 homers, 93 RBI and an .840 OPS in 138 games.
Add 24 homers, 105 runs, an .840 OPS and 36 steals from Turner, plus a humongous 39 homers, 117 RBI and a .300 average from Soto. Then toss in 18 homers each from second baseman Starlin Castro and center fielder Victor Robles, with an OPS around .750 — decent — for each.
Suddenly, doesn’t this “Ignore 2020” concept — and the Nats’ offseason — seem more pleasant? Even pitch-framing, defense-first backup catcher Avila, who hit .184 last year, seems like a nice fit if you look at his 2019 and career OPS, built on lots of walks and some home runs, too. But like most other Nats moves, at 34, he has a big “???” over his head.
Even the durable Lester, who projects for 25 starts with an 8-9 record and an ERA over 5.00, may have a surprise left in him. His elegant career, through age 36, strongly resembles that of Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Tim Hudson and Justin Verlander, who still had useful years left. Granted, more of his career-similar hurlers did not. Doesn’t a man who has pitched his entire 193-win career — other than 11 starts for Oakland — with his home games at cozy Fenway Park or Wrigley Field deserve a “normal park” break at journey’s end?
The Nats are still $17 million under the luxury tax ceiling. Signing 36-year-old third baseman Justin Turner, who has hit .302 over the past seven years with the Los Angeles Dodgers, is possible but unlikely.
Buying a short-term oldster — and blocking the development of homegrown infielders such as Carter Kieboom and Luis García — is not the Nats’ usual way. They know that not all quality prospects pan out, but they seldom give up quickly. Michael A. Taylor was in the organization for 11 years!
You can’t “buy” every position with free agents every year. You must grow your own stars, too, or lose your own, such as Soto, because the cash is gone.
Yes, it’s that time of year again, even if we’re still homebound, cold and coronavirus-watching. The Nats again have put together a fascinating team. Sometimes it doesn’t work. But usually it has.
The Nats think small-sample 2020 didn’t happen or at least that it didn’t accurately document a drastic falloff from their championship year. That is a key reason their every offseason move referenced 2019 or the player’s whole career. The Nats judge all players over long periods and with patient confidence. If the numbers predict a rebound and the scouts’ eyes don’t see fundamental deterioration, they act.
Maybe this season that will prove delusional. Oddsmakers rank the Nats 14th of 30 teams to win the World Series, stuck near clubs such as Cincinnati and the Cubs that have given up on 2021, dumping key players and slashing salary.
The Nats strongly disagree — with everybody. But then they usually do.