The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NL East just became an arms race. The Nationals better bust out the big guns.

Josh Donaldson immediately makes the Braves a more dangerous team. (Alyssa Pointer/Associated Press)

Life just got a lot tougher for the Washington Nationals in the National League East. And it’s going to stay tough for years. Let’s hope Washington enjoyed 2012 to 2017, when the Nats won four division titles by a combined 49 games. Those days are gone. Now the Nats will be in a brawl every year, with the biggest haymakers coming in the offseason.

On Monday, Atlanta signed a free agent who, for the past six years, has been as good or better than Bryce Harper at every aspect of baseball: 2015 American League MVP Josh Donaldson. The third baseman, 33 next month, missed 159 games with injuries in the past two years. But when healthy in 2017-18, he still hit 41 homers with 101 RBI and a .900 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 602 at-bats.

The Braves arrived early in 2018. Now they’re swinging for the fences.

Since 2013, Harper’s WAR (wins above replacement) is 26.3. Donaldson’s is 35.6, the second best in all of MLB, trailing only Mike Trout. Go ahead and gulp.

The owner of the Philadelphia Phillies says publicly that his team will spend like crazy this winter, perhaps even “foolishly,” in free agency. That’s why the Phillies are favorites to get Manny Machado or Harper. Both? No, but they will try.

The Nats’ owners better warm up the Lerner checkbook. And the front office needs every iota of its dealmaking imagination. A mediocre offseason in the free agent and trade markets isn’t going to cut it for the Nats. The Braves and Phillies, both young and rising, are pushing their chips to the center of the table — all-in.

The Nats have no sensible choice but to compete right now. They’re spending $55 million per year on two pitchers, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, who will be in Washington through 2021. That would make any club dangerous in the postseason if both are healthy and rolling. That is, if the Nats can get back to October. It would be nuts to pay so much for two “go-for-it” pitchers and then not . . . go for it.

It’s nice that the Nats signed catcher Kurt Suzuki last week, subtracting him from Atlanta in the process. But the Nats’ current reality became clear Monday when, in addition to the Donaldson bonanza — $23 million for one year — the Braves quickly replaced Suzuki with lefty-hitting catcher Brian McCann to platoon with Tyler Flowers. What’s shaping up here is a mini-version of the AL East, where every move by the New York Yankees is countered by a Boston Red Sox deal. Having glamorous foes boosts ticket sales, but you’ve got to keep pace to profit from it.

Because Donaldson has spent his career in Oakland and Toronto, and because his recent shoulder and calf-strain injuries have moved him away from the center of free agent discussions, he may not be fully appreciated by casual fans. Starting with the 2013 season, Donaldson has played in 794 games, Harper 788, hence a perfect comparison. Donaldson has more homers (172 to 162) and RBI (514 to 462) with a slash line (.280/.375/.519) that is almost a duplicate of Harper’s (.281/.396/.519). Donaldson is also a better fielder at third than Harper is in right field and is more of a team-centric, fiery leader than Harper, who is often Bryce-branding-centric.

Since 2013, FanGraphs rates Trout as the best player in MLB. Donaldson is second. Harper is 13th.

Even if Donaldson resembles the merely good .801 OPS version of himself from last year, his arrival in Atlanta should focus the Nats’ attention. The Braves got a dream deal because Donaldson wanted to bet on himself, take a one-year pillow contract, then be a free agent next winter. He is “banking” that he will have a season like those that allowed him to finish first, fourth, fourth, eighth and 22nd in AL MVP voting.

The Nats always enter the offseason with a Plan A, B, C, and if they need it, Z. And they look for value. Well, throw out everything except Plan A and B, because the table-scraps options aren’t good enough in the NL East anymore.

Before the Donaldson deal, the Nats had to add at least one solid starting pitcher, a good reliever and one additional free agent — either a second baseman or a lefty-hitting catcher to pair with Suzuki. Now that’s probably not enough.

To battle the Braves, and maybe the Phillies, they need to aim higher in all of those areas. They need a top starting pitcher — Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel or World Series hero Nathan Eovaldi. Or trade for Zack Greinke, who still has $104.5 million due for the last three years of his Arizona contract; the more of Greinke’s salary the Nats accept, the less they’d have to give up in trade. Then the Nats need another solid starter, like 35-year-olds Charlie Morton or J.A. Happ.

In the bullpen, the Nats now need a top reliever — Craig Kimbrel, Zach Britton, David Robertson, Jeurys Familia, Andrew Miller or Adam Ottavino.

Or the Nats could just wait around all winter, let a lot of the gentlemen mentioned above sign elsewhere, and see if they end up with Harper.

See, you laughed. Of course the Nats are not going to wait for Harper. They can’t. Their competition is, or soon will be, improving too fast. And this free agent class is just too loaded with talent — and bargains — to bypass.

The Nats may need to revisit the issue of second base, where General Manager Mike Rizzo said recently that a platoon of Howie Kendrick and Wilmer Difo is adequate with prospect Carter Kieboom, 21, in the pipeline. Yet this is where true grand-theft value may be found. The second base market is glutted with vets whose age makes them risky. Out of Jed Lowrie, Brian Dozier, Ian Kinsler, Josh Harrison, Daniel Murphy, D.J. LeMahieu and others, the Nats may get a shot to grab an upgrade for only one or two years. If so, then Kendrick, coming back from a torn Achilles’, might help often-injured Ryan Zimmerman take care of first base.

Fans will be stunned at the team transformation this winter. The mega-talent at the top in free agency means bargains will be available after Groundhog Day. The analytics, which love positional versatility, despise one-dimensional first basemen; the Tampa Bay Rays recently put 30-homer C.J. Cron on waivers, where the Minnesota Twins claimed him. So don’t be surprised if ex-Nat Matt Adams (or Lucas Duda) comes to Washington cheaply. If the Nats want starter Jeremy Hellickson or reliever Greg Holland to return, that won’t cost much, either.

Even if the Nats have a productive winter and, with better health and better luck in run distribution (they were eight wins “unlucky” in 2018), get back to the 90-plus win level, their existence is still going to be rugged.

For fans who love tight pennant races and tough opponents who are worth coming to Nationals Park to watch, these may be mighty exciting times for six months each year. But for those who just want to make the playoffs, or who are charged with constructing the Nats’ roster, say hello to high anxiety, headaches and the occasional adult beverage.

The oldest sports bromide: When the going gets tough, the tough get going. That may be corny. But we’re about to find out if the Nats can pass that test.

Read more:

The Nationals’ next tough call: Whether to tender a contract to Sammy Solis

Nationals sign former all-star Henderson Alvarez to minor league deal

Are the Nationals good with Spencer Kieboom or Pedro Severino at backup catcher?

What does Mike Rizzo’s trade history tell us about this Nationals offseason?

What does the Nationals’ outfield look like without Bryce Harper? Good and cheap.