Who will suit up in a Nationals uniform in 2021? That is a question that will be asked throughout this winter as Washington looks to bolster a roster hit by injuries in ‘20 and impacted by free agency moving forward. In this Inbox, let’s take a look at some hot topics in the early stages of the offseason.
Yomiuri Giants right-hander Tomoyuki Sugano could be posted for Major League teams this winter. It’s not yet certain that he’ll be made available, but if he was, do you think general manager Mike Rizzo would be interested in pursuing a Japanese export to strengthen the starting rotation?
-- @ericjdesigns, via Twitter
The Nationals have to address at least one spot in their starting rotation -- possibly two. No. 4 starter Aníbal Sánchez is a free agent, and Austin Voth struggled in his first season as the full-time No. 5 starter. Washington could look within the organization -- Joe Ross, who was poised to earn the fifth starter job before electing not to play in 2020, and Erick Fedde, who stepped in for an injured Stephen Strasburg, are on the books for ‘21 -- or it could explore options in the free-agent/trade market.
If Sugano is available from Nippon Professional Baseball, he is likely to garner attention from clubs around Major League Baseball. While it remains to be seen if the Nationals will be one of the suitors, let’s take a look at some key stats that make Sugano a pitcher of interest: The 31-year-old right-hander is 13-2 with a 2.05 ERA this season for the Giants. He has recorded 121 strikeouts to 23 walks over 127 1/3 innings, and he has three shutouts and a 0.895 WHIP. He won the Sawamura Award recognizing NPB’s top pitcher back to back in 2017-18.
On the business side, MLB.com’s Jon Paul Morosi explained what a contract between Sugano and an MLB club would entail: In addition to acceding to Sugano’s wishes to pitch against MLB competition, the Giants have a business interest in allowing him to leave: They would receive a release fee equal to 20 percent of his first $25 million in guaranteed salary, 17.5 percent of the next $25 million and 15 percent of any amount beyond $50 million.
Is it more likely that the Nats make a trade for a big bat or try to sign one in free agency?
-- @beefdaddy4, via Twitter
Maintaining flexibility for Juan Soto and Trea Turner is important as the Nationals add to their roster. It’s too early to say how much heavy hitters will garner in the free-agent market, and those first signings will set the tone around the league.
One route the Nats could take is inking a big bat to a shorter-term deal to keep salary space open in the future. The team also has a farm system deep with pitching prospects that could be enticing in trade scenarios, if the return would be beneficial enough to part ways with its young talents.
Another factor impacting roster building in the National League is the universal designated hitter rule. If that is a league-wide rule again next season, the Nats could utilize a pure slugger in that spot. If the DH is only in the AL, that player’s fielding will weigh more heavily.
What should the backup plan be to not overwork Tanner Rainey if Daniel Hudson and Will Harris don’t bounce back?
-- @rseitzmcleese, via Instagram
The Nationals’ bullpen was overtaxed in 2020 after Fedde moved into the rotation and key relievers such as Sean Doolittle battled injuries. By the end of the year, 10 Nats pitchers were on the IL for the final game of the season.
The Nationals are eyeing Tanner Rainey as a potential closer of the future, so his innings could increase in 2021. This season, he pitched 20 1/3 frames in 20 games, with a 2.66 ERA and a 0.738 WHIP. Those innings added up, though, and Rainey ended the year on the IL out of caution with a right forearm flexor strain. That’s not to say the 27-year-old would need to be limited in the future. With a full offseason to prepare for a bigger late-inning role, he could train accordingly.
Injuries forced the Nationals to frequently finagle their bullpen in 2020. With a winter to plan, the team could lock players into specific roles within the pitching staff, ensuring there is depth to avoid overworking its relievers again.