As Major League Baseball (MLB) free agency begins, many teams will wait for the first domino to fall before putting their offseason plans into full gear. The loaded 2022 MLB free-agent class will provide the potential for some substantial offseason moves, but as the San Francisco Giants showed last offseason, breaking the bank isn’t the only way to turn your team around.
For the Washington Nationals, targeting budget-free agents, much like San Francisco, might be the way to go. After trading Max Scherzer and Trea Turner at the 2021 trade deadline, it was clear that the team’s intentions were to rebuild and re-tool for the future.
The Nationals have many holes to fill and some outstanding uncertainties regarding their current roster, this includes the futures of Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom, how the rotation will be addressed, and how the bullpen will be replenished after a dreadful 2021 campaign.
Should the Nationals follow the blueprint of the San Francisco Giants after their 107-win season, here are some budget-free agent candidates that could potentially accelerate the timetable of the Nats’ rebuild.
Yusei Kikuchi, SP
The former Seattle Mariners’ starter had high promise after signing with the franchise in 2019, as the former ace of Nippon Professional Baseball’s (NPB) Saitama Seibu Lions was a back-to-back NPB All-Star in 2017 and 2018 before joining the Mariners rotation.
Kikuchi’s stint with the Mariners has been rather underwhelming, though his 2021 campaign started much differently. In the first half of 2021, Kikuchi touted a 3.48 ERA with a 6-4 record as a starter. This strong first half for Kikuchi was good enough to land him an AL All-Star nod and was also a large part of the Mariner’s first-half success. The perennial underwhelming Mariners sat five games over .500 at the break and within striking distance of a playoff berth.
The Mariners’ success as a team continued in the second half of the 2021 season, but Kikuchi fell off the face of the earth in terms of performance. Kikuchi finished his second half with a 5.98 ERA and a record of 1-5. This was enough to get him moved to the bullpen in the final stretch of the Mariners’ season as they attempted to sneak into an AL Wild Card berth.
Kikuchi’s poor second half led to the Mariners declining his $13 million club option, ultimately leading to Kikuchi opting into free agency.
The Nationals need some help in the back end of their rotation, and though they have in-house options such as Paolo Espino, Trevor Rogers and Erick Fedde, it’d be wise for the Nationals to test their luck in free agency for a better option. In a rotation with Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Josiah Gray and Joe Ross, Kikuchi would not be tasked with the heavy lifting that he was in Seattle where he was a front end to middle of the rotation starter.
At 30-years-old, Kikuchi would improve a back end of the National’s rotation that was essentially a revolving door in 2021. If the Nationals want to sure up their rotation in free agency, Kikuchi provides a cheap, low-risk, high-reward option for the Nats.
Carlos Martinez, RP/SP
The former St. Louis Cardinal was once one of the league’s brightest young pitchers, having earned two NL All-Star nods and three seasons of 12-plus wins at just 25-years of age. But after inconsistencies and injuries, the Cardinals decided to decline Martinez’s club option heading into this offseason.
Martinez’s role with the Cardinals was ever-changing, but this is directly related to his inconsistencies as a starter. After primarily being a starter from 2015 through 2017, the Cardinals moved Martinez to the bullpen the following season. After posting a 3.11 ERA in 2018, Martinez earned the right to close games for St. Louis in 2019. Martinez appeared in 48 games that season, earning saves in 24 of them.
However, in 2020 Martinez moved back to the Cardinals starting rotation, beginning a two year stretch of injuries and unreliability. In 2020, Martinez started 5 games, finishing with an 0-3 record and an ERA of 9.90. Things didn’t get much better in 2021, as Martinez started 16 games, finishing with a 6.23 ERA. In 2021, Martinez spent much of the season battling an injury to a ligament in his right thumb, and this injury would eventually end his season prematurely, as well as his tenure in St. Louis.
With back-to-back disappointing seasons as a starter, Martinez would be an interesting addition to a Nationals’ bullpen that struggled mightily in 2021. The Nationals’ bullpen finished 29th in the league with a combined ERA of 5.08, so improving the bullpen, specifically, the back end of the bullpen would go a long way. Should Martinez look to move back into the bullpen after coming off his injury, the Nationals should take a flier on his potential.
Eduardo Escobar, 3B/SS
One of the biggest questions for the Nationals this offseason will be how they address their infield needs. Though he struggled to start the 2021 season, Josh Bell earned the right to remain the Nationals’ starting first basemen in 2022 after a bounce-back second half. However, with Luis Garcia’s inexperience and Carter Kieboom’s inability to breakthrough, there are far more questions than answers in the infield. Mike Rizzo & Co. decided to retain Alcides Escobar after a solid 2021, but the 34-year-old is not the long-term answer at shortstop. It is likely that we’ll be seeing a platoon of these three middle infielders in some capacity, but should the Nationals want to compete in 2022, they must look elsewhere to improve the infield.
The 2022 free-agent class is loaded with premier talent, especially at shortstop with names like Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and Trevor Story available. Though I am firmly in the belief that the Nats’ should go all-in on Correa, there are other budget infield options around the diamond that will improve the Nationals’ infield.
One of the more underrated and versatile players in the league, Eduardo Escobar, would be a great value pick-up for the Nationals’ infield. Escobar has played third base, shortstop, and second base in his major league career, so his presence would go a long way around young players like Garcia who is versatile in his own right.
Escobar was one of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ most consistent hitters in 2021 before being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers at the trade deadline. Between his stints in Arizona and Milwaukee, Escobar finished with 28 home runs, 90 RBI, and a batting average of .253, which was good enough to earn him an NL All-Star nod. When Escobar moved from Arizona to Milwaukee, his batting average and on-base percentage (OBP) improved a great amount during the Brewer’s final stretch into their playoff run.
Throughout his career, Escobar has proven that he can provide a middle of the lineup bat with all-star potential. With the 21-year-old Garcia still developing as a big leaguer and Kieboom’s continued inconsistent play, Escobar would be an improvement over both in 2022.
Andrew McCutchen, LF
As the 2016 season began, then Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen was coming off of a five-year stretch in which the Pittsburgh star made five NL All-Star appearances, four Top-5 NL MVP finishes, won four Silver Slugger awards, a Gold Glove award and the 2013 NL MVP. This was quite the run for McCutchen, but after back-to-back lackluster seasons, the rebuilding Pirates traded McCutchen to San Francisco in the following offseason.
Since then, McCutchen hasn’t returned to his MVP caliber play that was seen in Pittsburgh, but he has remained a solid player with high upside. Almost everyone McCutchen has played with has nothing but nice things to say about him, and his veteran presence would be appreciated in almost any major league clubhouse.
When trade rumors surrounding McCutchen began five or so years ago, one of the teams consistently in on the Pirates’ star was the Nationals. Per ESPN, the Nationals were close to acquiring McCutchen in the 2016 offseason, and the rumored package included Victor Robles, Joe Ross, and Reynaldo Lopez. At the time, Robles was the Nationals’ coveted prospect, and the trade ultimately fell through because of the Nats’ unwillingness to part ways with the then-budding star.
Fast forward five years and a lot has changed. Joe Ross and Victor Robles are World Series Champions, and Reynaldo Lopez was a part of the blockbuster trade that landed Adam Eaton in Washington and Lucas Giolito in Chicago.
However, while the landscape of baseball has changed, McCutchen has remained a solid player even at age 35, even after a down 2021 season. Last season, McCutchen sported the second-lowest OBP of his career. This was partially due to hitting a career-worst .222 with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2021.
Heading into 2022, the only sure thing in the Nationals’ outfield is Juan Soto, so Rizzo & Co. will have some work to do this offseason. Lane Thomas played well in 2021 after the trade deadline fire sale, but his role for 2022 is rather unknown. Part of that unknown is because of the uncertainty regarding Victor Robles’ future. His poor performance at the plate since assuming his role as a starter was a large reason why Robles was sent down to Triple-A after being outplayed by Thomas, but should Robles perform at just league average at the plate, his defense will surely get him into the lineup.
That still leaves left field wide open for the taking, and the Nationals could look to McCutchen as a bounce-back candidate to fill that position. McCutchen would be a great addition to the Nationals’ outfield and with a young team in place, McCutchen’s presence in the clubhouse would be invaluable.