The Washington Nationals didn’t have the crazy offseason most expected. Despite the lack of winter moves, did the Nats do enough to return to the playoffs?
When the offseason began, the Washington Nationals appeared poised to do something big. The team had a core of star players, stockpile of well-regarded pitching prospects and flexible payroll. Club President Mike Rizzo, armed with a strong history of team-friendly trades and successful free agent signings, was expected to make headlines this winter.
As the months progressed, rumors surrounding names like Andrew McCutchen, Chris Sale, Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman and Mark Melancon spread across social media like wildfire. Once the dust finally settled, however, Washington hadn’t made quite the splash most had expected.
The Nationals did find their center fielder, but not of the former-MVP variety. On Dec. 7, the Nats acquired five-year veteran Adam Eaton in a trade with the Chicago White Sox. While a very fine player, Eaton did come at a steep price. Rizzo was forced to part ways with the organization’s top two pitching prospects in Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez as well as one of Washington’s first round picks in the 2016 amateur draft, right-hander Dane Dunning.
Nearly three months later, the only other significant move the Nationals have made was signing former Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters to a two-year deal. While Wieters was one of the top catchers on the free agent market this offseason, his .724 OPS over the past four seasons leaves some question marks surrounding his expected offensive production moving forward.
Trading for Eaton allowed the Nats to push budding superstar Trea Turner to his natural position of shortstop and trade the strikeout-prone Danny Espinosa to the Los Angeles Angeles. Wieters is certainly a safer bet than Derek Norris or Jose Lobaton behind the plate. Washington is returning one of the most talented rosters in the majors to the fold, one that won 95 games and its third NL East title in five years last season.
Nats fans have been here before. Each time the Nats have won the division, they’ve failed to make it back to the postseason the following year. With Bryce Harper just two years from free agency, Max Scherzer pitching like a Hall of Famer but already 32 and Daniel Murphy emerging as an MVP candidate, the team is clearly in win-now mode. Yet based on its winter moves, the Nats don’t look like they’re in any rush.
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Before jumping to any conclusions about Rizzo’s desire to compete for a championship, keep in mind that he pursued nearly every top free agent and trade target available. The Boston Red Sox offered Chicago a package for Sale he simply couldn’t match. He couldn’t come to terms with the Pittsburgh Pirates on a fair price for McCutchen after his off-year and top closers Jansen, Chapman and Melancon decided to sign elsewhere.
Keeping that in mind, the relatively quiet offseason has left many of the Nats’ faithful looking for more. As it stands right now, the back end of the bullpen is completely up for grabs — a trait not very common among World Series contenders. The Gio Gonzalez decline is real and no one’s really sure how many innings Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross will be able to provide. This is a very talented roster, but it doesn’t quite stack up with teams like the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians on paper.
While the Nats know better than anyone that entering the season as World Series favorites is a far cry from actually punching your ticket, the Cubs did just fine with the role last year. This is a team that’s probably both talented and experienced enough to make it back to the postseason. No one’s counting it out just yet, but it wouldn’t be too surprising to see its lack of offseason success come back to bite them in October.