The Washington Nationals’ offseason is not quite finished as calendars flip from 2018 to 2019, bringing the official end of a forgettable year and the start of one they hope will be remembered for the right reasons. But the team has nearly put the finishing touches on its roster for the coming season, even as many around baseball are still plotting their second or third moves of the winter. Their eighth significant transaction came on Dec. 20.
For the Nationals, that’s significant on a few levels.
The first is that the franchise has signaled — to its competitors, to its fans and, maybe most importantly, to itself — that life after Bryce Harper began once the star outfielder passed on the Nationals’ 10-year, $300 million offer extended in late September. That doesn’t mean Harper and the Nationals won’t circle back with each other as the sweepstakes drag into the new year. But it did show that the Nationals were ready to build, and build to be competitive, regardless of what happens with Harper’s free agency.
The second is that moving at such quick pace has, in subtle ways, helped the Nationals fill most of their pressing needs as they narrow their focus to a full-time second baseman and additional help in the rotation and bullpen. That says nothing about the viability of each trade and free agent signing. Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, with a combined age of 66, still need to show it is smart to pay around $11 million for two veteran catchers who will split starts this year. Left-handed starter Patrick Corbin has to live up to a six-year, $140 million contract, a tall ask for any player. And the other new pitchers — relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough, and starter Anibal Sanchez — also have a lot to prove.
But their aggressive offseason approach produced a snowball effect of sorts, and that has them well ahead of schedule as spring training nears.
“We’re very impatient people,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said on Dec. 1, an understatement that came after the Nationals added Barraclough, Rosenthal, Suzuki and Gomes, and before they traded Tanner Roark and signed Matt Adams and Sanchez. “We have a wish list, and we try to get things done. When you see something that makes sense for you …”
Rizzo did not finish that thought before jumping into why he feels Barraclough and Rosenthal make sense for the Nationals. He didn’t have to. When you see something that makes sense for you, you get it done. That is how Rizzo and the Nationals’ front office approached the offseason, which started when they acquired Barraclough from the Marlins for $1 million of international slot money on Oct. 1.
Their next move, signing Rosenthal in early November, likely couldn’t have waited much longer. Rosenthal finished with 45 or more saves in 2014 and 2015, then was out of baseball last season while he recovered from Tommy John surgery. His Los Angeles workout in late October drew around 40 scouts and, just hours after his fastball reached 98 miles per hour off a mound, the 28-year-old had multiple teams reaching out. The Nationals acted fast, offering at least $7 million for 2019 and a 2020 option, and made Rosenthal the first free agent signing of the offseason.
Rosenthal, 28, was eager to join a team after his year away, making a November deal that much more logical. That was also the preferred route for Suzuki and Adams, two veterans who did not want to see their free agencies seep into 2019. Suzuki wanted “peace of mind” for both him and his family, and he officially signed with the Nationals on Nov. 20. Adams, who a year earlier had joined the Nationals on Dec. 22, again avoided stress by signing a week earlier this time around. Rosenthal, if anything like his pre-Tommy John self, could be the shutdown setup man the Nationals have been seeking. Suzuki helped the Nationals fill a glaring hole behind the plate, and Adams provides a left-handed-hitting first baseman to pair with Ryan Zimmerman. Springing into negotiations helped the Nationals land each player.
“I think it’s huge. For me, the way that my brain and myself worked, the later that I sign the more freaked out I’m going to be,” Adams said. “It’s the unknown, being out there and not knowing where you’re going to go, how many people you’re going to know on that team you sign with . . . so for me, I was lucky and blessed to have the opportunity to be able to sign back with the Nats.”
Next came the cumulative results, most notably in how adding Suzuki and Gomes influenced conversations with starting pitchers. Corbin called pitching to Gomes and Suzuki a “huge part” of his decision to sign with the Nationals instead of the New York Yankees or Philadelphia Phillies, even if the $140 million was the most attractive element of the equation. Gomes is a heralded pitch framer and Suzuki, at 35, is a respected game caller. Sanchez, who the Nationals signed to a two-year deal on Dec. 20, raved about Suzuki in a phone call with reporters and said the pair has a “really good relationship between pitcher and catcher.” They played together with the Atlanta Braves last season and Sanchez made tweaks to his pitching approach that turned his career around. The 35-year-old noted that “Suzuki was involved in everything, in every change that I made and everything that we worked for.”
This all matters, for what has happened and what will happen next, as the Nationals look to finish off their to-do list before looking toward 2019. Washington has downplayed its pursuit of Harper ever since principal owner Mark Lerner took to the radio in early December and said, “I don’t really expect him to come back at this point. I think they’ve decided to move on.” But a club source confirmed Wednesday that there have been multiple meetings between Harper and the team, leaving open the possibility of a return.
When asked about Harper at the winter meetings in early December, Rizzo indicated that the team would not meet with Harper while in Las Vegas for the event. Rizzo did, however, maybe sneak it in a small pitch most other teams could use at that point, made possible by the Nationals’ unwillingness to wait for the market to dictate their plans.
“Nothing’s changed with Harp since the end of the season except that I think we’re a better team than we were at the end of the season,” Rizzo said. “But we’re not closing the door on anything.”
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