Inbox: Would Nats exceed luxury tax for Harper?

Beat reporter Jamal Collier answers questions from D.C. fans

December 18th, 2018

WASHINGTON -- Even though the Nationals have been among the most active teams in the Majors this winter, there is still more work to do. The biggest move they made at the Winter Meetings, trading to the Reds, actually added another item to their to-do list.
Here's what's on the agenda before Washington heads to West Palm Beach for Spring Training: add one or two starting pitchers, an upgrade at second base, maybe some bullpen arms or another bench bat. And well, if you hadn't heard, the window to bring back is still open.
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So, it's time for a Nationals Inbox to answer some of the questions on your mind during the holiday season.

I'm not going to get into hypotheticals, because it's impossible to know the answer to that question without being inside Mark Lerner's head. What I will say is I would not let that hold me up. As well-received and historic the 10-year, $300 million offer the Nationals reportedly made Harper at the end of the season was, they also had to know there was almost no chance he would accept it. It's one reason I believe the two sides will at least re-engage at some point, otherwise the Nats could have closed the proverbial door on Harper already. As far as the luxury tax, yes the Nationals would prefer to remain under that threshold after exceeding it the past two seasons. However, according to Forbes, the grand total the Nationals owe for exceeding the luxury tax in 2018…$2,386,097. I would not let that hold me up from signing Harper.

Here's what I understand about the decision to trade Roark. Yes, he has consistently thrown 180 innings in each of the past three seasons, which is valuable, but he has also posted an ERA over 4.00 for two straight seasons and three of the past four. There's a difference between innings and good innings, and Steamer projects Roark to post a 4.56 ERA next season and 4.49 FIP. With the salary raise he was scheduled to receive via arbitration, the Nats bet they find another free-agent starter with more upside, and perhaps less expensive. I don't disagree with this bet. It's difficult to part with a player such as Roark, who had become a stalwart of this rotation and team and who adjusted his role to help the club, but I also believe his performance is closer to what he has shown the past two seasons, right around league average with a 97 ERA+. Even in his best season in 2016, his FIP showed he was due for some regression. This trade will ultimately be judged by whom the Nats acquire to replace Roark, but I think trading him was a reasonable move.

I think the Nats are going to look to free agency here. There are some enticing names available in the trade market: Cleveland's aces in or ; of the Giants or of the Blue Jays are all reportedly available. The Nats have not seemed interested in trading any of their top prospects this winter, however, which they might have to do so to acquire one of these players. Japanese lefty Yusei Kikuchi is also available, but the Nats have not signed a major free agent from Japan during Mike Rizzo's tenure as general manager.
Free-agent rumors
So, I would expect free agency to provide the solution. The Nationals made a push to sign right-hander last week, per a source, before he signed with the Rangers. They have also expressed interest in , and Mike Fiers. I think one of these pitchers could replace Roark in the rotation.

Hot Stove Tracker
The Nationals understand starting-pitching depth is important, and last season was a painful reminder. The lack of it is probably one of the biggest reasons they missed the postseason. So, while I think they believe Joe Ross is a capable fifth starter, the Nationals might like to have some other options at Spring Training to also compete for that job. They plan to have Ross begin the year as a starter, but I could see them using him out of the bullpen if they find two more veteran starters to fill out their rotation. is a little easier to fit in because he will have options next season, so if he does not win a rotation job they could send him to Triple-A.

I wrote last week about the Nats shifting their focus to second base, and it looks like they agree. They have been active in the market for a second baseman, reaching out to DJ LeMahieu on multiple occasions and also , Josh Harrison and at some point this offseason. I think LeMahieu will be too expensive in the end and signing him would likely require a multi-year deal when Carter Kieboom, the club's No. 2 ranked prospect, could be ready by late next season. I'm high on Gonzalez, as are the Nats, along with a lot of teams, so he won't come cheap. After re-signing Matt Adams, I think the Nats will focus on a player who plays primarily second base and use in a more versatile role off the bench.

still has another year left on his contract, so those talks won't begin until next year when the Nats are faced with his $18 million team option for 2020. A lot can change in a year, but there does not seem to be any reason to think the two sides won't work out a deal to let him play the final few seasons of his career in Washington, although it might come at a bit of a lower salary. Zimmerman, who has played his entire 14-year career in D.C., said he wants to stay, and Rizzo said he wants him to retire in D.C. I don't have any issue with that sentiment driving the deal. Now, it will depend how much it will take to sign Zimmerman and what his role might be if his performance dips, but when healthy, Zimmerman was an All-Star one year ago and has proven he can still be a productive hitter.