Bullpen makeover atop Nats' to-do list
Washington heads into Winter Meetings also seeking second baseman, lefty bat
WASHINGTON -- A year ago at this time, the Nationals appeared to have the best team in baseball. They had a rotation that featured Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez. A month later, the Nationals made the rotation even more lethal by acquiring Max Scherzer. World Series, here they come, right? Wrong.
The Nationals were unable to make the postseason and finished second behind the National League champion Mets. It didn't help that Washington's bullpen let the team down during the second half of the season and 17 players went on the disabled list for long periods of time.
The Nationals hope to fix some of those problems at the Winter Meetings. MLB.com and MLB Network will have wall-to-wall coverage of the 2015 Winter Meetings from the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., with the Network launching 35 hours of live Winter Meetings coverage on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET. Fans can also catch live streaming of all news conferences and manager availability on MLB.com, as well as the announcement of the Hall of Fame Pre-Integration Era Committee inductees on Monday at 11 a.m. ET and the Rule 5 Draft on Thursday at 10 a.m. ET.
Here is a quick glance at the Nationals' situation heading into this year's Winter Meetings:
Bullpen: It needs a serious makeover. The Nationals need everything from a closer to setup men to middle relievers. During the second half of the 2015 season, they had a tough time getting to closer Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth inning because setup men, such as Casey Janssen and Drew Storen, were getting roughed up.
The Nationals made strides on Friday to improve the bullpen by reportedly signing Oliver Perez to a two-year deal. Perez and Felipe Rivero are the only lefties in the Washington bullpen.
The Nationals are interested in Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, but general manager Mike Rizzo knows that he has to give up plenty to get the lefty. You can bet Cincinnati would want Nationals prospects, such as right-hander Lucas Giolito and outfielder Victor Robles, to be part of the deal.
With Craig Stammen gone, the Nationals are looking for a player who can be a long reliever and pitch in the late innings like Stammen did.
Second base: Washington has interest in Ben Zobrist, but keep in mind that he will be 35 this coming May. Will it be worth giving him at least a four-year deal? The answer is yes. He can play seven positions, all but pitcher and catcher. With the bat, he has a high on-base percentage. He can drive in runs if given the opportunity. If Zobrist doesn't come to the Nationals, it will be interesting to see who will play second base. Danny Espinosa could get another chance at playing every day at the position.
Left-handed bat: Rizzo indicated he could be looking for a fourth outfielder. Matt den Dekker will be given a chance to win the job. Free agent Gerardo Parra could be a good fit; he is a left-handed hitter with a great glove. He could platoon with Michael Taylor in center field. Parra has a history with Rizzo, who signed the outfielder to his first professional contract (with the D-backs in 2004).
Who could be traded if necessary
Storen: He was arguably having his best season of his career until the Nationals traded for Papelbon to become the closer. After Papelbon joined the team, Storen had a 6.75 ERA and broke his thumb after he allowed a game-winning homer to Yoenis Cespedes in a September matchup with the Mets. A change of scenery may do Storen some good.
Papelbon: He was supposed to make the bullpen even better, but he didn't get many save opportunities and then was suspended the final four games of the seasons for a run-in with Bryce Harper. Rizzo would be considered a genius if he can acquire something good for Papelbon.
3B Yunel Escobar: He could be a man without a position for the Nationals. The team will have Anthony Rendon back at third base. While Escobar had a great year with the bat, he was below average with the glove.
Espinosa: He had a productive season coming off the bench and still was a solid defender. It was a year where he played all four infield positions and left field. He could become the Zobrist of the National League if he wants it.
OF/1B Tyler Moore: When he plays often, Moore can provide power. He was almost of no value when coming off the bench. He is up for arbitration for the first time.
The Nationals' top 10 prospects as ranked by MLB.com are Giolito, shortstop Trea Turner, right-hander Reynaldo Lopez, infielder Wilmer Difo, right-hander Erick Fedde, right-hander A.J. Cole, Robles, catcher Jackson Reetz, catcher Pedro Severino and right-hander Austin Voth.
Of the 10, Turner, Difo, Cole and Severino have tasted life in the big leagues, and Giolito could participate in his first big league Spring Training in 2016 and be part of the rotation. Then again, he could be used as a trade chip in order to get a player like Chapman. Turner is expected to be the starting shortstop, replacing Ian Desmond. The Nationals believe Robles will be a five-tool player by the time he reaches the big leagues in a couple of years.
Rule 5 Draft
The Nationals' 40-man roster is at 37 players, which allows them to make picks in the Rule 5 Draft. Last year, the Nationals didn't participate in the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Draft. They had a chance to participate in Triple-A and Double-A phases of the Draft, but they passed.
Big contracts they might unload
None. Escobar has a team-friendly contract. He will make $7 million in 2016 and has a team option for the same amount in 2017.
The Nationals don't like to talk about payroll, but according to Cot's Baseball Contracts, Washington spent around $160 million in 2014. The Nats will be postseason contenders again as long as they can fix their bullpen. It might be tough to do.