The Nationals' Aggressive Path Back To Contention

The Nationals in all likelihood will be taking a conservative approach back to contention, allowing their young top prospects time to develop while supplementing their roster with Free Agent additions here and there. But if they wanted to speed things up, what could that look like?
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The Nationals have done well to rebuild their farm system over the past couple of years, mainly due to trading away their superstar outfielder Juan Soto and selecting high in the draft. Nevertheless, the farm system and the future looks better than it has in some time due to those efforts. But just for fun, what if the Nationals did not feel like waiting around to see IF their top prospects pan out? What if they wanted to BUY their way back to contention?

The Rangers were a 100 loss team and still opted to spend nearly a billion dollars (not an exaggeration) in Free Agency on players like Marcus Semien and Corey Seager, who was their World Series MVP. It is not a fool-proof strategy, but history has shown that you really cannot win a World Series unless you are aggressive with your spending.

So what would that look like for the Nationals? Well you first need to establish who are the key pieces in place right now. Let's start with the lineup:

- Keibert Ruiz
- CJ Abrams
- Lane Thomas

This really puts it in perspective, but I think this is realistic. I don't even think Lane Thomas is someone the Nats can truly count on moving forward, but for this exercise we cannot hope to replace an entire lineup in one offseason. The Nationals have clear holes at First Base and Third Base, with a seemingly unsure stance on Second Base and Center and Left Field.

So who could they sign to fill those needs?

First Base - Rhys Hoskins (1 Year, $20M)
Second Base - Whit Merrifield (2 Years, $15M)
Third Base - Justin Turner (1 Year, $12M)
Outfield - Cody Bellinger (10 Years, $250M)

First and foremost, Rhys Hoskins makes sense for the Nationals even if they weren't trying to fix everything in one offseason. Hoskins wants to prove he's healthy and restore his value and the Nationals have a need at First Base and the desire to get better offensively. Merrifield and Turner are on the older side but still have juice left and can provide a sorely needed boost to the lineup. They also won't block any of the younger players like Brady House or Trey Lipscomb in the infield since they won't require long term deals.

Cody Bellinger is the key here. I'm sure some will be spooked by his dreadful performances in the tail end of his tenure with the Dodgers, but it is important to remember that Bellinger was hurt. Based on his performance last season in Chicago, it is safe to say he is past that shoulder injury. Bellinger posted an .881 OPS with 26 Home Runs and 97 RBIs in 130 games last season. He is a former MVP hitting the market at 28 years old - the Nationals should absolutely make a move. Both MLB Trade Rumors and Spotrac have Bellinger's next deal at about $22M per year. I gave him $25M AAV here since the Nationals are still rebuilding so they would have to sweeten the deal to outbid current contenders. Even at $25M AAV, that is still a good deal for the Nationals. Not to mention that Bellinger can also play First Base, so when players like Dylan Crews and James Wood reach the Majors, Bellinger will not be blocking them and can slide over to First when Rhys Hoskins departs in Free Agency.

Now that we have addressed the lineup, it is time to turn our attention towards pitching. According to Spotrac, the Nationals have roughly $114M in spending power this season. We just used $65M on position players, which gives us about $50M or so to play with before we hit the luxury tax - and I am going to use it all.

While I would love to sign Shohei Ohtani, the Nationals just have too many areas of need to devote so much to one player. And unless we have other Japanese players on the roster, we are unlikely to win the bid for Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who would be my number one Starting Pitcher target. However, thankfully there is a quite good fallback option:

Starting Pitcher - Blake Snell (7 Years, $200M)
Starting Pitcher - Lucas Giolito (1 Year, $12M)
Starting Pitcher - Brandon Woodruff (1 Year, $8M)

I understand the discourse on Blake Snell but here's the bottom line: a two time Cy Young Award winner has hit the market at age 30 with several prime years to go. The Nationals desperately need an ace and Snell is a bonafide ace. The best thing you can do for guys like Josiah Gray and MacKenzie Gore is to take the pressure off of them by slotting them lower in the rotation. Players like Gio Gonzalez, Doug Fister and Tanner Roark excelled in DC because they had Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg leading the way. The same applies here.

You take a flyer on Giolito hoping he can be more like his first half of 2023 rather than the second half. And Woodruff is a no-brainer gamble in my opinion if you truly are going all in. He will be out until July or August, but when healthy he is one of the best pitchers in the game. Admittedly, I have no idea what kind of contract he will get, but 1 year for $8M seems about right.

That puts the Nationals right at the $237M luxury tax threshold. If it were me, I would still go out and get Josh Hader as well. A native to the DMV, Hader might jump at the chance to pitch for his hometown team. And similar to Gray and Gore, the best thing you can do for the bullpen is to go get an "ace" and take the pressure off Kyle Finnegan and Hunter Harvey, and still forming a great trio for innings 7-8-9. To get Hader, you'd like need to give him $18M per year. At that number, the payroll would sit at $255M, which would have been fourth in baseball last season behind the Mets, Yankees and Padres while just ahead of the Rangers and Phillies. Long story short, you would not be the outlier. You also might be able to save some money when you reach a retirement settlement with Stephen Strasburg, although he still deserves every penny if you ask me.

So here is what the roster would look like:

C - Keibert Ruiz
1B - Rhys Hoskins
2B - Whit Merrifield
3B - Justin Turner
SS - CJ Abrams
LF - Stone Garrett
CF - Cody Bellinger
RF - Lane Thomas
DH - Joey Meneses
Be - Riley Adams/Drew Millas
Be - Victor Robles
Be - Jacob Young/Luis Garcia
Be - Ildemaro Vargas

SP - Blake Snell
SP - Lucas Giolito
SP - Josiah Gray
SP - MacKenzie Gore
SP - Patrick Corbin (Until Woodruff returns)
RP - Trevor Williams
RP - Mason Thompson
RP - Jose A. Ferrer
RP - Jordan Weems
RP - Tanner Rainey
RP - Hunter Harvey
RP - Kyle Finnegan
CL - Josh Hader

Like I said, it is not fool-proof, but this roster would go a long way towards getting the Nationals back in contention. This isn't even including the trade market, where the team could pick up a power bat or high quality arm. It would also not block any of the key contributors of the future, like Dylan Crews, James Wood or Brady House. If you ask me, it is the perfect situation.