The Washington Nationals were set for big changes this offseason.
After being pegged to be among the best teams in the league, the Nationals stumbled to an 83-79 record. Their struggles were personified in late-September when Jonathan Papelbon choked out teammate and franchise star Bryce Harper in the dugout, and inept ex-manager Matt Williams not only didn’t immediately punish the reliever but put him back out on the mound just in time to allow five runs and blow the game. The season was a disaster of epic proportions.
Williams was a goner, and the Nationals seemed destined to gain some of that magic back which propelled them to 96 wins in 2014. So far, Washington has done barely anything to suggest a repeat isn’t in the cards.
Washington missed out nearly every free agent they targeted. Bud Black was reported to be the team’s next skipper until contractual issues scuttled the deal. The Nationals went with a fall-back option, which was Dusty Baker, who immediately started his tenure in obtuse fashion by calling into question the Aroldis Chapman domestic violence reports, despite not reading them himself.
Manager aside, general manager Mike Rizzo hasn’t had any luck on the free agent market. The club has been rejected by Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, Darren O’Day, Wei-Yin Chen, Justin Upton, and Mike Leake, just to name a few. Rizzo’s adventures on the trade market haven’t been much better, as he missed on acquiring Brandon Phillips due to contract extension demands (which probably worked out in Washington’s favor, to be honest).
The moves he has completed have drawn a lukewarm reception. Washington signed Daniel Murphy to a three-year, $37.85 million deal. That’s not outrageous money factoring in Murphy’s contract demands before the season, but at the price of a draft pick for a player who clearly won’t repeat his seven home run playoff performance (his career high is 13), it’s not going to put the club over the top. Rizzo also inked Stephen Drew, who hit .201 last season, to a one-year, $3 million deal.
Washington also swung a deal for center fielder Ben Revere, who will presumably replace Denard Span, trading reliever Drew Storen in a one-for-one deal. Revere brings speed to the top of the order, but you’d have to think Storen could pry more from a different team given his dominance over the last few seasons. Replacing Storen in front of the beleaguered Papelbon will likely be Shawn Kelley, who the Nationals handed a three-year, $15 million contract. The 31-year-old enjoyed a career season with the Padres, but his track record doesn’t inspire confidence. Yusmeiro Petit, who the Nationals also signed to one-year deal, will join him in the bullpen as a new face. Petit’s enjoyed a career turnaround since joining the Giants posting four straight sub-4.00 ERA’s, but it’s hard to excited about an average reliever/spot starter.
The Nationals enter 2016 with a very similarly skilled group to 2015. The pitching staff is dominant, as Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Gio Gonzalez are all ace-worthy, but losing Jordan Zimmerman in free agency and not replacing him with a marquee name is a huge blow. Bryce Harper is among the best outfielders in the game, but he’s not solely going to be enough for the team to return to glory.
Two highly paid declining veterans, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth are still pegged to play every day, and the infield of Zimmerman, Murphy, Danny Espinosa (at least until prospect Trea Turner gets the call), and Anthony Rendon is laden with injury concerns. The bullpen is in OK shape, yet relying on Jonathan Papelbon is dangerous in 2016. It’s unfair to peg certain players as locker room cancers without being in the locker room, but Papelbon is as sure of a bet to be a loose cannon as there is.
This all doesn’t bode well for the Nationals.
The Nationals still have talented players, but haven’t improved all that much this offseason. They’ve made moves out of necessity as opposed to improving the club. Can they make a playoff push? Sure, their division is absolute garbage, anything is possible. However, it also wouldn’t be surprising if they kept lulling their way around the .500 mark. This is a team who could use a big trade, but their options are becoming limited.