Nats have moves to make for 2016 season
Leadoff hitter, center fielder, infield and bullpen still undecided
WASHINGTON -- Early in the 2015 season, the Nationals were already anointed the team to beat in baseball after they added right-handed Max Scherzer to an already dominant pitching staff. As it turned out, Washington didn't make the postseason partially due to injuries and a shaky bullpen.
During December, the Nationals improved their bullpen by trading for Trevor Gott and signing Shawn Kelley and Yusmeiro Petit, but there is still work to be done.
But the 2016 season is still a ways off, and the Nats still have some questions. With that in mind, here are the five most important issues facing the team:
1. Who will lead off for Washington?
If the season started today, Jayson Werth would be the logical choice. Last year, he hit .318 with a .388 on-base percentage in the top spot. But look for general manager Mike Rizzo to search hard for a table-setter. Free-agent outfielder Gerardo Parra is still out there. Rockies center fielder Charlie Blackmon was reported to be available. Rizzo recently said that he is still in contact with free agent Denard Span, but the outfielder is still recovering from hip surgery and will work out for teams in January.
During Span's absence last season, the Nationals used four leadoff hitters -- Werth, Michael Taylor, Yunel Escobar and Anthony Rendon. It wouldn't come as a surprise if the Nats dangled left-hander Gio Gonzalez as trade bait to get that leadoff hitter. He has another year on his contract, plus an option left. Gonzalez is scheduled to make $12 million in 2016.
2. Are the Nationals looking for a starting pitcher?
The answer is yes, and the club was recently linked to lefties Wei-Yin Chen and Scott Kazmir. The latter inked a deal with the Dodgers, but the are Nats willing to give a long-term deal to Chen or another starter? One gets the impression the Nationals are not willing to do that, according to sources. Keep in mind that top prospect Lucas Giolito will be in Major League Spring Training, so he could be one guy who could replace Jordan Zimmermann. Tanner Roark and Joe Ross also have a chance to be part of the rotation.
3. Is there still work to do when it comes to bolstering the bullpen?
Rizzo did a great job during the Winter Meetings, landing Gott, Kelley and Petit, but the team is still trying to trade relievers Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon. Storen needs a change of scenery after losing his role as a closer three times during his career with the Nationals. Papelbon will be hard to trade because he has a limited no-trade clause, but that won't stop Rizzo from trying.
4. Who will replace Ian Desmond at shortstop?
Stephen Drew has agreed to a deal with the Nats, according to sources, and the veteran could battle Danny Espinosa for the starting job, while Trea Turner will get more seasoning at Triple-A Syracuse. A shortstop by trade, Espinosa has played most of his career at second base. It doesn't matter where he plays, though. Espinosa will play Gold Glove-caliber defense. When given a chance last year, Espinosa showed that he was no longer an easy out at the plate.
5. Who will play center field?
The question is tough to answer, because one gets the impression that the team sees Taylor as a fourth outfielder after it tried to acquire Jason Heyward during the Winter Meetings. The Nationals are looking for a left-handed bat to protect Bryce Harper. They have talked to the Rockies about slugger Carlos Gonzalez, who hasn't played center field in several years. The Nats believe that Harper is best suited for right field. They could also trade for Blackmon to play center.