5 pressing questions facing Nats in offseason

October 1st, 2018

DENVER -- The Nationals believe 2018 was an anomaly, a minor blip for what has otherwise been one of the most successful regular-season teams in MLB over the past seven seasons. They will watch the postseason from home for the first time since 2015 after finishing the season with 82 wins, their fewest since 2011, and a second-place finish in the National League East.

Yet, Washington does not feel it needs a complete overhaul to get back track, even though the 2019 team could look a lot different than the one that started '18.

"We feel really good about the organization as a whole," general manager Mike Rizzo said. 'We like the core group of players we have under control on the roster. We like the talented players we have in our Minor Leagues. We like the process we go through to make decisions and get things done. I consider this year an anomaly. I think we're going to reboot next year, make some adjustments and compete for the National League East again."

In order to vie for the division title in 2019, the Nationals need to address some issues this winter. Here are five key questions facing Washington in the offseason:

1. Will the Nats find a way to re-sign ?

Harper's impending free agency has loomed over the entire season and has been a topic of speculation for years. Harper has spoken affectionately about his time in Washington, and Rizzo reiterated Sunday morning that Harper is a part of the team's plans. The question remains as to whether the two sides can work out a deal. If Harper returns, the Nationals are clearly capable of contention again and reports of their closing window are exaggerated. Without him, even with two stud rookie outfielders in Juan Soto and , the Nats will need to make major upgrades to replace Harper's production.

2. How will the pursuit of Harper affect the rest of the offseason?

The commitment required to sign a player such as Harper, both in terms of salary and contract length, makes it the kind of decision everyone in the organization will have a hand in. Those pursuits tend to take focus away from the rest of the offseason, but Rizzo said he did not think Harper's status will have an impact on the rest of Washington's winter plans.

"I think we'll take a lot of parallel tracks on what we're doing in the offseason," Rizzo said.

The reality, however, is that if Harper re-signs, the Nationals suddenly have a logjam in the outfield that could free up one of the others for a trade in order to address other needs. And while the Nats should have plenty of payroll flexibility heading into 2019, if Harper does not return, they could use that money elsewhere.

3. What are they going to do at catcher?

Washington has received the worst production in baseball at catcher over the past two seasons, by far the team's most glaring hole and one it must certainly address this winter. Matt Wieters is also set to become a free agent, but the Nats also need a competent backup. Washington has been connected with Miami's J.T. Realmuto at several points during the past year and that link will almost certainly return this winter. If Harper re-signs, it could free up the Nats to use some of their prospects, mainly Robles, as a trade chip to fill that void.

4. How will the Nats address their need at starting pitcher?

Pitching has been the Nationals' backbone during their run of success in the regular season, yet Washington has two vacant spots in its rotation for next year. Their young starters -- Joe Ross, and -- will get a chance to compete for a rotation spot, but they all pitched with mixed results this season. To ensure its rotation is a strength again Washington will need to add at least one starting pitcher to complement Max Scherzer and at the top of the rotation.

5. Was 2018 really a blip, or a sign of things to come?

The Nationals' core is not getting any younger. Scherzer, Strasburg and are each older than 30, and the team does not have many high-end, Major League-ready pitching prospects waiting in the Minors. is also older than 30 and had another injury-plagued season, and will be a free agent after 2019. While the Nats still have a few strong young players -- , Robles and Soto -- there were weaknesses exposed by this season that might become worse if not addressed this winter.