Almost nobody, outside of Washington, takes the Nationals at their word when they say they expect to remain a serious contender for many years and that their franchise architecture is built for sustainable excellence.
And when they think the time is right to strike, they don’t wait. They move.
So when the Nats act suddenly, as they did Tuesday by reaching an agreement with Patrick Corbin, the best free agent pitcher of this offseason, on what Yahoo Sports reports is a six-year, $140 million deal, the sport smacks its collective forehead with shock because it did not see the Nationals coming. When will the baseball world learn?
How good was the 29-year-old southpaw last season? Corbin had 246 strikeouts, more than Stephen Strasburg ever has. Last year, the four best pitchers in MLB, according to FanGraphs’ calculation of wins above replacement, were Jacob deGrom (8.8), Max Scherzer (7.2), Justin Verlander (6.8) and Corbin (6.3).
Whether Corbin can duplicate those lofty numbers, the gist is that no team in MLB has a better top-of-the-rotation punch than Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin.
Corbin was “supposed” to sign with his beloved-since-boyhood New York Yankees. For many weeks, that has been the only virtual certainty of the offseason: The Yankees desperately need the lefty Corbin, he loves them — done deal. Then, on Tuesday, the two-time all-star, who finished fifth in NL Cy Young Award voting this year, was reportedly on the verge of signing with the checkbook-waving Philadelphia Phillies.
That is, until The Washington Post’s Chelsea Janes reported first that . . . he’s already a Nat.
The Nats offered a sixth year on their deal, just as they once offered a seventh year to Jayson Werth because they thought he was absolutely their key piece at that time. This offseason, it was the pitching staff that absolutely needed a top-of-the-rotation upgrade, particularly a left-handed one with Gio Gonzalez now a free agent.
Smart teams know the difference between what they want — such as Bryce Harper somehow returning to D.C., unlikely as it now seems — and what they absolutely need: a rock-solid rotation, always the Nats’ central strength.
Few felt the run-silent presence of billionaire owner Ted Lerner and General Manager Mike Rizzo. The Nats, as usual, said exactly what they planned to do this offseason, though wording it vaguely. Fix the rotation with a top starter and perhaps another starter. Get a “front-line catcher” who could catch 120 games. And improve the bullpen.
The winter meetings haven’t even arrived, and the Nats have that starter in Corbin, the top prize available. They added Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes, who, over the past two years, are ranked the seventh- and 10th-best catchers in MLB as measured by WAR. Because the Nats’ catching has been so bad the past two years, with a negative WAR, few teams will improve any position as much as the Nats, who may have added three or four wins (on paper), have here. Also, free agent Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough help the bullpen.
The Nats probably will target another starting pitcher — perhaps Charlie Morton, who has family in Delaware. The Nats say they are satisfied at second base, but there’s such a glut of good free agents at that position that they might grab one. The market is also awash in desirable relievers of all types. A left-handed-hitting first baseman to platoon with Ryan Zimmerman is also desirable and available.
What about “money left for Bryce?” You’ll see speculation, perhaps driven by agent Scott Boras, that the Nats are still in the hunt for Harper. But that arithmetic requires great imagination. Roughly $53 million in salary falls off the Nats’ payroll with Matt Wieters, Gonzalez, Daniel Murphy, Matt Adams, Sean Kelley, Brandon Kintzler and Ryan Madson. If Harper re-signed, then Adam Eaton (due $8.4 million in 2019) presumably would be traded. On the other side of the ledger, “just” $41 million have been added for Corbin, Gomes, Rosenthal and Suzuki.
But there are arbitration-eligible Nats who will get raises. And there are still free agents who are available that would improve the Nats for a total cost that’s a fraction of the cost-per-year of Harper. You can dream. But, folks, that’s all it probably is.
The Nats saw this offseason coming from many miles away — with Harper, Murphy, Gonzalez, Wieters, Madson and others departing as free agents.
So, tell me, were the Nats prepared to act when the moment came or not?
They are now set to battle in the NL East for years to come. And they better be prepared, because that weak division is suddenly looking beastly.
The division champion Atlanta Braves just signed injury-prone third baseman Josh Donaldson, who’s spectacular when healthy, to a one-year, $23 million deal. They’re better. And they’re not finished.
The New York Mets traded for second baseman Robinson Cano, who is headed toward 3,000 hits, and brilliant 24-year-old closer Edwin Diaz, who saved 57 games in 2018 and fanned 15.2 men per nine innings. They’re better. And they’re not finished.
The Phillies just traded for swift, .300-hitting, all-star shortstop Jean Segura, which means they don’t absolutely have to sign monster free agent Manny Machado, though they still might. They’re taking a run at Harper for sure. The Phillies are better, even though slugging first baseman Carlos Santana was dealt away. After all their we’ll-outspend-anybody bragging, the Phillies better not be finished.
Despite this, for the moment, the Nats are winning the offseason. And they aren’t finished, either.
Just two weeks ago, the Nats’ future was entirely up in the air. After a dismal 82-80 season, which some called the biggest flop of the baseball year, the Nats had major needs. And fans who fretted were wise.
Now, the Nats have Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin signed through 2021, ’23 and ’24. Pitchers’ arms are a constant worry. Nothing is assured. But this is exactly how you build a dominant rotation like the ones that led the Nats to division titles in 2012, ’14, ’16 and ’17. No option, such as lefty free agent Dallas Keuchel, was as good.
Gomes and Suzuki stabilize the catching void for two years, at least. Top prospect Carter Kieboom finished the Arizona Fall League with a .295 average and projects as a quality infielder, perhaps switching from shortstop to second base for a 2019 or 2020 arrival. Juan Soto and Victor Robles project as starting outfielders next year.
This past weekend, Anthony Rendon said he sure liked the idea of eventually working out a long-term deal with the Nats before he’s a free agent after next season. That will require lots of work. However, like Strasburg but unlike Harper, Rendon is giving off the early signals that often lead to staying put, not leaving town.
Happy holidays, from the Nats. Don’t say you didn’t get any gifts worthy of the season. The most important one just arrived — early.