The Washington Nationals are doing exactly the right thing this winter: not much.
Last week, they signed Brandon Kintzler to a two-year deal so they could keep their seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning bullpen firm of Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle intact.
On Thursday, they signed free agent first baseman Matt Adams, 29, to a one-year contract to replace Adam Lind, 34, as their left-handed power bat off the bench. The two are as close in career slash line, and 2017 production, as Adams is to Adam. But Matt is five years younger. Also, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Adams, who hit 20 homers and slugged .522 last year, has an astronomical 1.173 career on-base-plus-slugging percentage at Nats Park.
These moves are classic tweaks by a team that “knows when to hold ’em.”
I’m not advising holiday indifference. In the past seven years in December and January the Nats have signed or traded for a dozen key men: Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Rafael Soriano, Dan Haren, Denard Span, Trea Turner, Joe Ross, Max Scherzer, Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton.
The spirit of the season frequently activates owner Ted Lerner, and his buddy-and-adviser agent Scott Boras, or General Manager Mike Rizzo. Sometimes, while Rizzo works on one thing, the GM even knows what the other two are cooking up.
If the Nats want to make a big offer to one of the Cubs’ fancy free agents — starter Jake Arrieta or closer Wade Davis, both Boras clients — be my guest. New Nats Manager Dave Martinez, the Cubs’ bench coach last season, can say how much he thinks they are worth, and how much their loss would hurt Chicago.
Also, if the Nats find a way to trade prospects (not named Victor Robles or Erick Fedde) to the Marlins for gifted catcher J.T. Realmuto or else sign veteran free agent Alex Avila, who has a strong arm and a consistent lefty bat, that’s okay, too.
And whatever they do, the Nats need at least one more decent righty reliever.
But the central wisdom of this Nats winter is they don’t have to do anything. Not now.
The memory of the final 9-8 loss in the Division Series is still so raw that it’s natural for those who are most invested in the Nats to think that change is a must. The Lerners, in their post-loss anguish, already let go of manager Dusty Baker.
That may be Martinez’s good fortune. He inherits a team that, if it does little more this winter, is already holding a 97-win full house. And Martinez adds the one thing Baker lacked: enthusiasm for modern analytics. Now, the best ideas about lineup construction and in-game strategy that the Nats’ front office generate will be embraced, not deflected, at the clubhouse door.
Of course, the Astros, Dodgers, Yankees, Indians or Cubs may have four of a kind. Or even a straight flush. I’ve never seen so many teams with pat hands. But the Nats are one of them, at least for next season, and anyone who appreciates baseball wants to see them play out the cards they’re holding.
The Nats are sitting on a likely 100-win season even if they sleep until spring training. They won 97 last season despite a putrid bullpen that torched games for four months. Now that Kintzler has rejoined Doolittle and Madson, isn’t that worth three more wins next year? At least.
Last year, the Nats’ opening-day lineup was hurt so often that they averaged just 107 games per man. The world champion Astros averaged 132. With normal health, rather than 98 games for Turner, 111 for Bryce Harper, 70 for Werth and just 23 for Eaton, how many more would the Nats win?
Also, the National League East, with no one within 21 games of the Nats, may be even worse next season. Miami is having a fire sale with 4 percent team owner Derek Jeter as head arsonist. Atlanta is going backward. The Phillies and Mets should be better — because how much worse could they be?
The next time that the Nats need to be diligent is probably at the Aug. 1 trade deadline. This is an enormous luxury conferred every year on well-constructed rosters. You can wait, watch and see what you really need, and who might be desperate enough to give it to you cheaply for the pennant and playoff push. The Astros and Dodgers met in the World Series with Justin Verlander and Yu Darvish, who arrived at the beginning and end of August, as top starters.
Why try to make expensive, risky decisions now, trying to guess which pitchers will still have their arms attached to their bodies by the all-star break, when you can just wait and find out — and then poach what you need?
The reason the Nats can do very little this winter, or at least do nothing foolish, is because so much went right last season. Ironically, almost everything that seemed bad at the time has worked out well for the future.
If the bullpen hadn’t burned down in the first half of the season, there’d be no Kintzler-Madson-Doolittle contentment now. Also, every injury let youngsters play — and how they played!
After replacing Eaton in late April, Michael A. Taylor hit 21 homers with 61 RBI in fewer than 400 at bats (including the playoffs); he batted .282 and had an .848 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. If he’d played 150 games, FanGraphs says he’d have been the third-best defensive player in MLB after shortstop Andrelton Simmons and Nats third baseman Anthony Rendon.
Taylor now has a future — in center field in D.C. — solving a key position.
After replacing Turner at shortstop, Wilmer Difo hit .303 over the last three months and proved he was a “plus” defensive shortstop. The Nats now view him as, at least, a switch-hitting utility man with speed and a top glove or else a starting middle infielder, under team control through 2022, after Murphy leaves.
After Werth and, later, Harper were hurt, Brian Goodwin and 20-year-old rookie Robles, the youngest player in the majors, got valuable exposure. Goodwin had 21 doubles and 13 homers in less than half a season, better than his minor league projections. Found money.
Robles was so impressive, hitting .300 at multiple minor league stops, and causing gasps with his speed running out triples in Nats Park, that he’s now the No. 3 prospect in the sport. The Nats already knew, but now their fans do, too: Robles will be a standout. The only question, the same that applies to Turner now that he has proved he can handle defense at shortstop, is, “How big a star?”
Finally, but far from least important, Ryan Zimmerman hit .303 with 36 homers and 108 RBI. He even rested 18 games so that he’d be fresh in September when he slugged .671. Seems impossible, but it happened. New facts change old evaluations. A year ago, Zim looked like Vernon Wells at the same age: about washed up. Now, entering his age 33 season, he looks more like Scott Rolen or Aramis Ramirez. Maybe even a second-act star like Reggie Smith.
Suddenly, the bullpen is fixed. The outfield, with a healthy Eaton as an ideal replacement for the departed Werth, looks set for years, even if Harper leaves a year from now. If Harper signs a big deal to stay, the Nats have valuable pieces they can trade. Difo stabilizes the whole infield, and Zimmerman, with Adams to give him breathers, locks down first base. Stephen Strasburg’s brilliance in October makes him an ideal tandem with Scherzer for future playoffs.
Now, or later, the Nats would like to add another starter to their rotation. They’d also prefer a better catching tandem than Matt Wieters, whose bat speed is dwindling, and either Pedro Severino or Raudy Read as his backup. But, no rush.
Now. Or later. In time for Christmas or deep in the summer. Few teams have that luxury. We’ll find out if the Nationals can handle such options wisely.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.
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