WASHINGTON -- Despite the heartbreak of another early exit in the postseason, the Nationals are built to make another playoff run in 2017 and beyond. They will not lose many key free agents and major changes seem unlikely for a team that won 95 games en route to its third
WASHINGTON -- Despite the heartbreak of another early exit in the postseason, the Nationals are built to make another playoff run in 2017 and beyond. They will not lose many key free agents and major changes seem unlikely for a team that won 95 games en route to its third National League East title in the past five seasons.
Now comes the task of finding what it takes to make that next step.
The most pressing items on the offseason to-do list are how the Nationals plan to replace their catcher and closer, what position will Trea Turner play next season and whether two of their everyday players can keep up the pace next year.
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With little glaring holes on their roster, Washington could decide to improve around the margins, tweaking its roster a bit to prepare to make another run at an elusive World Series championship. But general manager Mike Rizzo is always been open to making a deal, and his past creativity in finding ways to improve the team could make this upcoming offseason interesting.
Arbitration-eligible: OF Bryce Harper, C Jose Lobaton, INF Anthony Rendon, OF Ben Revere, INF Danny Espinosa, INF Nate Freiman, SP Tanner Roark, RP Aaron Laffey
Free agents: RP Mark Melancon, C Wilson Ramos, INF Stephen Drew, RP Marc Rzepczynski, RP Matt Belisle, SP Mat Latos, RP Sean Burnett
Rotation: These Nationals were built on their starting rotation, and they put themselves in position to make it a strength for years to come when they inked Stephen Strasburg to a seven-year contract extension in May. They have an elite pair at the front of their rotation with Max Scherzer and Strasburg, if they can find a way to keep Strasburg healthy for a full season. Roark firmly established himself as a reliable starter with a breakout campaign, and Joe Ross showed progress before a shoulder injury forced him to miss most of the second half. Washington almost certainly will pick up Gio Gonzalez's $12-million team option next season, even after he finished an inconsistent season with the worst ERA of any full season in his career.
The Nationals have starting depth as well, with prospects Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López and A.J. Cole as potential options, even if they all had mixed results in the Majors this year. It could create a battle for the fifth rotation spot in Spring Training next season.
Bullpen: Finding a closer will be near the top of the Nationals' to-do list this offseason with Melancon set to hit free agency after he was acquired in a non-waiver Trade Deadline deal from Pittsburgh. But the bullpen became another strength for Washington with the emergence of Sammy Solís and strong seasons from Blake Treinen and Shawn Kelley. Rzepczynski was another solid in-season addition via trade, but he will also be a free agent. Oliver Pérez is under contract for another season and will provide another option from the left side. The team is also very high on Koda Glover, who should figure into the mix, along with Trevor Gott and Matt Grace.
Catcher: Ramos underwent successful surgery to repair the torn ACL that ended his breakout 2016 season early. He will enter free agency with 6-8 months of rehab ahead, putting the start of next season in question for him. So the Nationals seem likely to move on at catcher and they liked what they saw from Pedro Severino in his limited action this season and during the postseason. Severino and Lobaton should handle the catching duties.
First base: One of the more puzzling questions for the Nationals this offseason is whether Ryan Zimmerman can continue to be an everyday player. He is the club's longest-tenured player and one of the leaders of the clubhouse, but he has been slowed by injuries and was not productive when he was in the lineup this season. Despite a frustrating year, Washington stuck with Zimmerman last season and pointed to the encouraging signs of his high exit velocity and his production in the postseason.
Second base: Daniel Murphy continued his late-career surge by building off the adjustments he made in 2015 to become an MVP candidate in 2016. While it may be unfair to expect him to duplicate those numbers exactly -- where he finished a point shy of the batting title and set a career high in homers -- it is clear that Murphy is no fluke and one can expect his production to closer resemble those numbers than his previous years.
Shortstop: Espinosa remains a perplexing question for the Nationals. He is a strong defensive shortstop with a power stroke that finished tied for second on the team in home runs, but is that enough to justify the fact that he was among the worst qualified hitters in the Majors in some categories? What Washington decides to do at shortstop will likely come down to whether it decides to return Turner back to his natural position or make the full-on conversion to turn him into an outfielder.
Third base: A bounceback year from Rendon erased any questions about third base. Rendon posted the second highest WAR among the team's position players (according to Fangraphs) and graded out as one the best at his position defensively. After struggling at the plate in the first half, he became one of the Nationals' hottest hitters in the second half to post similar production to his numbers in 2015.
Outfield: Another priority for the Nationals this offseason will be to understand why Harper's numbers were drastically down from his MVP campaign in 2015. If he was healthy, and the team has insisted that he was, was Harper slow to react once pitchers made adjustments in how they approached him? Regardless, Harper and Jayson Werth, who silenced doubters that may have believed he was done with a solid season, figure to be two of the team's three starting outfielders. The final piece rests on the decision with Turner and whether he remains an outfielder or transitions back into the infield.
Turner only ever made the conversion to center after a disappointing year from Revere, who is set to enter his final year of arbitration. Are the Nationals willing to bet that his season was an aberration due to an injury suffered at the beginning of the year? If not they could cut ties with Revere. Michael Taylor has had chances to play every day but has struggled, and while Brian Goodwin was a pleasant surprise late in the year, he has not made the jump to become an everyday player just yet.
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.