The Washington Nationals came into the 2018 season as the prohibitive favorites to win the National League East and were among the favorites to make it to the World Series out of the NL. Obviously, that did not happen as the team started off slow and battle inconsistency all season long en route to a 82-80 season and missing the playoffs altogether. The team’s struggles resulted in them trading off Gio Gonzalez and Daniel Murphy who were destined for free agency and those losses combined with the impending (potential) departure of Bryce Harper has the Nationals in a state of turmoil going into the offseason.
2018 record: 82-80 (2nd in the NL East)
Key Free Agents: Bryce Harper, Matt Wieters, Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland
2019 Salary (not including arbitration): $78,805,562
2019 Outlook: The Nationals have always shown a willingness to spend to feel their needs, but they find themselves with more holes than usual and their ownership’s pockets are not limitless. The biggest loss is Harper who will command one of the biggest contracts in MLB history on the free agent market. It is not a foregone conclusion that Harper will end up leaving Washington as it is already being reported that Bryce could easily return to the Nationals if the free agent market for his services doesn’t materialize the way he wants. The bullpen struggled at times and their big trade deadline move to shore that up, Kelvin Herrera, is headed for free agency as well. Max Scherzer is still one of the best pitchers in baseball and Stephen Strasburg has an electric arm when he isn’t dealing with nagging injuries, but the rest of the rotation is inconsistent at best.
Despite the reasons for pessimism, the Nationals still have two high-end arms in their rotation in Scherzer and Strasburg. Juan Soto looks like he could be a star for a long time and the team still has Anthony Rendon manning the hot corner. Trea Turner and Victor Robles have been inconsistent at the plate so far in the majors, but both are incredibly talented and could soften the potential loss of Harper if they can put it all together in 2019. The organization still has some talent in the minor leagues as well, although they are not nearly as flush as they once were. It seems likely that they will make their flashiest moves in free agency with big trades being less likely given the lack of depth in the minors.
In short, the Nationals find themselves in a division with the Braves and Phillies who are both on the rise and are going to be active buyers this offseason and the Mets who still have an intimidating rotation for the moment and are talking about competing in 2019. With several of their better players either out the door or will be in the next couple of seasons, expect the Nationals to be active in their pursuit of improving their roster with an eye on a playoff run in 2019.
Potential Trade Targets: One area of need for the team is catcher and they would love to get their hands on J.T. Realmuto from the Marlins. However, so would roughly half the league and it is possible if not likely that they would get outbid for his services. Washington will certainly kick the tires on Salvador Perez from the Royals as well given that the team is (or at least should be) rebuilding and Perez is under control for three more seasons with a very reasonable contract. Checking in with the Indians about Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco is going to happen, but the Nationals would likely have to part with Robles or another young, MLB-ready guy to make such a deal happen.
Potential Free Agent Targets: This is where the Nationals are likely to make some hay as they have some payroll space and a track record of being willing to spend. They will most certainly be in play for Patrick Corbin, Nathan Eovaldi, and Dallas Keuchel with Keuchel already being predicted to head to Washington by some. With Realmuto being a tough trade target given their assets and how much competition exists, the Nationals could very easily opt to sign Yasmani Grandal as he is the top catcher on the free agent market. Marwin Gonzalez is an interesting name for the Nationals as well as a utility option that would allow them to play match-ups and give their infield some much needed depth with DJ LeMahieu and Brian Dozier options here as well. There are no shortage of bullpen arms to choose from and they are likely to check in on some of the top ones like Adam Ottavino and Jeurys Familia.
The elephant in the room, though, is the future of Bryce Harper. The Nationals exceeded the luxury tax this past season and failed to make the playoffs. With a more flexible payroll going into this offseason, the question becomes whether they think that signing Bryce to big time dollars is the best use of their payroll given the improvements they need to make. If we see the Nationals active on the free agent market early on, it may mean that a return to Washington is much less likely. However, if we see the market develop slowly like it did last offseason (which does not seem likely right not), the Nationals could hold and see if they can get Harper back on a more reasonable (but still quite rich) contract and then make moves from there.