SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Baseball’s general managers’ meetings wrapped up on a pleasant Arizona morning. The heads of teams wandered by as fountains gurgled and a light breeze blew through the Omni resort, a setting incongruent with high-pressure negotiations. Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo did not come here for conversations like those.
“There’s interest in our guys, and we have interest in other teams’ guys,” Rizzo said. “But these meetings are more about building foundations and seeing if there’s any kind of matches.”
Rizzo said these meetings were more about exploring options than locking down deals. Because of their flexible roster, the Nationals should have a variety of trade options.
Reports indicate that the Tigers, White Sox, Brewers and Pirates are willing to unload stars and that plenty of other teams could be candidates for smaller deals.
Earlier this week, Rizzo declared his willingness to trade shortstop Danny Espinosa. He has a cheap left-hander in Gio Gonzalez. He has plenty of upper- and mid-level prospects who continue to garner interest from other teams. Given that arsenal, what kind of deals might the Nationals pursue?
Of course, it’s early. The offseason began a week ago, free agency began a few days ago, and the intricacies of the new collective bargaining agreement are not yet clear. But Rizzo likely will hunt for an outfielder, back-end bullpen help and perhaps a catcher. He said he wants to “upgrade” the offense but does not feel a pressing need to add right-handed power, though his lineup would not have much of it if Wilson Ramos is gone.
Rizzo seems more likely to filter his targets by their contracts, preferring to trade for players with more than one year remaining on their contracts. When he offloaded Drew Storen last winter, for example, he did so for two years of control over Ben Revere. When he dealt Yunel Escobar last winter, he did so for young reliever Trevor Gott, who had not yet reached arbitration. While he would not rule out trading for a player entering the final year of his contract, Rizzo said he “would rather not.”
So which players fit the Nationals’ needs, keeping in mind Rizzo’s emphasis on contact over power and preference for defensive versatility?
Perhaps the most high-profile fit would be Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder and former National League MVP Andrew McCutchen, who is owed $14 million next season with a club option for $14.5 million in 2018.
The Nationals discussed McCutchen with Pirates GM Neal Huntington during their Mark Melancon talks at the July trade deadline, but those conversations were brief and never got far, according to a person familiar with the situation. Fox Sports first reported those talks Wednesday.
Huntington would not comment on specifics Thursday but did say the organization “has been pretty open” to considering deals for players with expiring contracts.
Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun also was reportedly for sale at the deadline, though he is more expensive than McCutchen, but no one has confirmed any interest on the Nationals’ part.
If the White Sox are selling, speedy outfielder Adam Eaton, a solid center field defender under control through 2021, would be a cheaper fit. Yankees veteran Brett Gardner has three years of control left. The Marlins and Rockies have enticing outfielders who could fit.
If Rizzo acquires an outfielder, Trea Turner likely will move back to shortstop, leaving Espinosa with no natural position.
The Nationals can never be ruled out of the pitching market, either. They talked to the Padres about some of their relievers at the trade deadline, according to a person familiar with the situation. They also checked in on Wade Davis at the deadline, and the Royals may make the right-hander available again.
Rizzo always has prized starting pitching and has shown a willingness to stockpile elite starters when he sees the opportunity. The White Sox seem willing to deal left-hander Chris Sale, who has a relatively tolerable contract. The Nationals have been unwilling to part with top prospects but probably could put together an attractive package.
Meanwhile, Rizzo might find a market for Gonzalez, who is owed $12 million for the 2017 season with a similar vesting option for 2018. Though he is affordable and reliable, Gonzalez is consistently inconsistent — which makes parting with his friendly contract a more reasonable proposition.
“I would not describe [Gio] as expendable at all,” Rizzo said.
The Nationals also could shop Revere, whose brutal 2016 season made the $6 million-plus he will get in arbitration feel like an overpay. But if Revere can regain his form as a .300 hitter, he could represent value.
Rizzo’s history suggests that he will pursue younger players the team can control for at least two seasons. His history indicates that he and his staff are willing to be patient and creative. And his history suggests that he almost certainly will make a deal or two this winter. Right now, he has plenty of options.