In 2011, the Washington Nationals finished 80-81 (there was no need for them to make up one of their rained out games), which put them in 3rd place in the NL East, though that still meant they were 21.5 games behind the best team in the National League in Philadelphia. This was actually almost the best season they’ve had since moving to Washington from Montreal (the ’05 team was 81-81), and was one of the better seasons the franchise has had in its 43-year history (less than 1/3 of their seasons have finished with a winning record). Most everyone knows about their young talent that is coming up through their farm system, but if they really want to compete for a spot in the playoffs, it’s going to take some wise expenditures in addition to their talented youth. Unfortunately, over the last 5 years they’ve averaged just over $55 million in payroll – near the bottom of the league every year. I find that grossly underwhelming.
The Nationals are in Washington, D.C. – the #9 television media market in the nation. Yes, some of that goes toward Baltimore and the Orioles, but they themselves are #26 in the nation, which means Washington isn’t sacrificing so much that they should have a payroll comparable to Kansas City. They absolutely should be closer to the Twins or White Sox – $90-100 million. The good news for Nationals fans is that they seem to be getting more comfortable with spending the money necessary to put a competitive team on the field. Which was exemplified most recently by the signing of Jayson Werth to a 7-year/$126 million deal last off-season (a deal that will pay him $21 million when he’s 38 years old, and is already showing signs that he has surpassed his prime). But, they probably need to be a little wiser about how they spend their money, rather than just throwing absurd numbers at veteran free agents they like – after all, they don’t have the resources of the Yankees.
But, with the number of high-quality young players already on their team, in addition to the ones that will be coming up in the next 2-3 years, they can afford to pay big money for a free agent here or there that they believe will send them over the top. Let’s start with the pitching staff, where I believe the fewest changes should be made (the Nationals were 7th in baseball in team ERA). Livan Hernandez is a free agent, and should be let go. You have too many young pitchers that look like they will be ready to go very soon. Not the least of which is Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg came back from his Tommy John surgery, and performed well while pitching in just 5 games at the end of the year (1.50 ERA, 0.70 WHIP in 24 innings). Chien-Ming Wang is on the payroll for one more year, and I’m okay with him sticking around near the end of the rotation, while they give a couple of their guys in the farm system one more season to develop (guys like A.J. Cole and Sammy Solis). Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler both pitched very well in 2011, especially at their young age. Zimmerman was actually their most effective starter – even though he only had an 8-11 record, he had an impressive 3.18 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 4.0 K/BB ratio. The final starter position, in my opinion, should go to Brad Peacock. He’s a rookie, who only pitched in 3 games last year, but in his 2 starts he went 2-0, allowing no runs on just 3 hits over 10.2 innings. I know that’s a small sample, but he was their #2 prospect for a reason (and, he was 15-3 with a 2.39 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in 23 starts in the minors before being called up).
As for the bullpen, they mainly just need to decide which guys will stay on the team, and which ones to send down to the minors. All-Star Tyler Clippard, and closer Drew Storen are obviously going to stick around for years to come, as they’re only 26 and 23, respectively. Sean Burnett is on the payroll for one more season, and he performed well enough to keep around, especially as a left-handed option. Tom Gorzelanny should be offered arbitration, or a new contract, whichever it takes to keep him around for a few more seasons, as he’s a good left-handed arm in the bullpen that can eat up innings. John Lannan and Cole Kimball should round out the bullpen nicely as LH and RH relief option, respectively. Kimball will be a rookie still, though he pitched 14 innings of relief late in the year, and he performed very well with a 1.93 ERA. Overall, this is a nice, young and cheap pitching staff that will cost less than $25 million to put together, and will have an average age of 26 in 2012.
While pitching seems to be looking good for the Nationals, the batting was certainly their downfall in 2011. Granted, a portion of that was due to injury (Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman) and lackluster performance (Werth). But, if they want to make a push for the playoffs in 2012, they’ll certainly have to do better than 24th in runs scored (624), 23rd in OPS (.691), and 27th in batting average (.242). One of the bright spots for Washington in 2011 was Mike Morse, who split time between filling in for LaRoche at 1B, and LF, while batting .303 with 31 HR, 95 RBI, and a .910 OPS. Morse is eligible for arbitration, and Washington should certainly offer whatever is necessary to keep him around. If Morse can perform at anywhere close to that level in 2012, and if Zimmerman and LaRoche can return to their pre-injury form, and Werth can get his act back on track, the 3-6 spots in this lineup will be tough for any pitching staff to deal with. Wilson Ramos looks to be their everyday catcher, and Danny Espinosa played well at 2B, and they make a decent #7 & #8 batter in the lineup respectively. The place where I see the greatest potential for adding to this lineup is at the top. Ankiel plays a decent CF, but his bat is more of a liability than an asset, so I’m not sure you want him as an everyday starter. Ian Desmond is a nice, young SS, who played well in 2011, and led the team with 25 stolen bases. But, he’s not exactly the spark you want at the top of the lineup.
So, with the money the Nationals have available to spend, it makes total sense to me for them to go after Jose Reyes. Offer him 8-years/$150 million, and you have an excellent switch-hitting lead-off man who will steal lots of bases, and who just finished leading the league in batting average, while putting together a .384 OBP. In CF, the options aren’t quite as great, but a good option for Washington would be Coco Crisp. He’s been a little injury-prone the last couple years (which is why you could get him for around $5-6 million/year), but when he’s healthy, he’s an excellent switch-hitting threat to get on base and do damage from there. Just think of the kind of lineup you could put together with Reyes and Crisp batting #1 & #2 (both switch-hitters, with a combined 88 stolen bases last year), followed by all that power from Morse to LaRoche to Zimmerman to Werth. And, if Crisp gets injured, you have Roger Bernadina backing him up, who played well in CF last year as a back-up, and is capable of playing anywhere in the outfield.
Speaking of the bench, with the acquisition of Reyes, Ian Desmond would become an excellent option off the bench. Jesus Flores would be your back-up catcher, and Brian Bixler is a solid option to play almost anywhere in the field. Chris Marrero is a rookie that looks ready to make the jump to the big leagues. He’s the #4 1B prospect in baseball, and he hit .300 with an .825 OPS in 127 games at AAA last season. Plus, LaRoche only has one more guaranteed year left on his contract, and it would be good to get Marrero some experience in 2012 in case he needs to take over in 2013. And, lastly, I believe the Nationals are a good fit for Mark DeRosa. They’re a very young team, in need of someone with postseason experience, and someone who can be a leader in the clubhouse, even if he isn’t starting every game. And, that’s exactly who DeRosa is. He can play nearly any position, and is a quality leader. He would round this team out nicely, and they wouldn’t have to spend any more than $4-5 million to get him.
All told, the 2012 payroll would be right around $90 million with these suggested moves. The great part about this is that you have so much young talent coming up that you don’t have to sign a lot of big-time free agents. But, by adding a few like Reyes, Crisp, and DeRosa, you’ve solidified your current team without mortgaging the future. This Nationals team could be very good in 2012.