The Washington Nationals fell just short of a .500 season in 2011, finishing 80-81. An aggressive offseason could put the Nationals within spitting distance of a playoff berth.
Before we get into the meat of the Washington Nationals offseason decisions, I need to explain an assumption I make that I have seen mocked in various places. That is, for the right players, the Nationals could substantially increase their payroll in 2012.
The key to that statement is “the right players.” The right player is a guy whose presence adds significant value to the franchise. He brings the club closer to the 90-win threshold where the playoffs are a real possibility, which of course attracts fans. He also probably sells tickets just by virtue of being signed. Albert Pujols is an example, although probably not the right one for the Nationals.
There are some reasons to believe the Nationals could reasonably spend a lot of money this offseason. According to ESPN, the Nationals averaged 24,877 fans per home game for a total of 1.94 million tickets sold. The Nationals Website lists the total capacity of Nationals Stadium at 41,222 fans. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that if the Nationals could sell out every game, they would bring in over 1.32 million more fans.
Let’s say each of those fans spends a conservative $35 for the ballpark experience (parking near the stadium costs $40 alone). That equates to roughly $46 million in additional ballpark revenue. In the real world, ticket prices would escalate quickly and revenues would be considerably higher.
Additionally, Ted Lerner is said to be the richest majority owner in baseball. Fans sometimes have the unusual expectation that owners pay players out of pocket. Baseball is a business and typically franchises are run so that they remain profitable. In the case of the Nationals though, they live in a market that is strong enough to support a large payroll but currently has tepid interest in the ballclub. Lerner could take some of his personal fortune and invest it into 2012 contracts with the expectation that adding great players would allow them to behave like a large market franchise.
Bottom line: it’s time for the Nationals to think big.
The most pressing need for the club is in the outfield. As the roster is currently aligned, the defensively inept Mike Morse will man left field, Roger Bernadina inherits center field, and Jayson Werth remains in right. Ideally, the Nationals would like to acquire a center fielder who would be an upgrade over Bernadina. They would also like to find a way to push Morse back to first base. Worst case scenario, they could also experiment with Werth in center field. Bryce Harper is also lurking, so you can be sure the Nationals won’t be blocking him.
The current plan is to trade for center field help. Denard Span and B.J. Upton appear to be the best center fielders on the trading block. Both are role players rather than stars, but either represents a substantial improvement to Bernadina.
An interesting alternative to a trade might be coveted Cuban outfielder Yeonis Cespedes. The 26-year-old could become an instant franchise fixture for whoever wins his services. He makes a lot of sense for the Nationals, since they have a hole at the position, a need for young potential superstars, and plenty of payroll with which to lure him. The current expectation is that Cespedes will sign a contract that exceeds Aroldis Chapman’s, six-year, $30.25 million contract. I think a better barometer might be Jose Bautista’s five-year, $65 million pact. Given the clubs interested in Cespedes—which include the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies Cubs, and Marlins—bidding should get fierce.
The D. C. franchise could also look to improve at first base by pursuing Pujols or Prince Fielder. Either move would be popular with the fan base, but doesn’t make much sense for the Nationals. Adam LaRoche currently occupies the position. He isn’t blocking a major acquisition, but the Nationals have a cost effective alternative in Morse, who really shouldn't be playing the outfield.
The Nationals would do well to focus their attention on Reds first baseman Joey Votto. The Reds aren’t looking to trade now, but they will be hunting for suitors in the near future. The Nationals have a stout farm system and can afford the type of contract extension necessary to hang on to Votto.
The Nationals could also toy with the idea of signing Jose Reyes. Incumbent shortstop Ian Desmond appears to be nothing more than a role player. With Danny Espinosa capable of playing shortstop and prospect Anthony Rendon expected to make short work of the minors at his new home—second base—Desmond’s time with the Nationals already appears short. However, because Reyes is so injury prone, the safer route is to continue developing Rendon and make do with Desmond in the interim.
The rotation is where things get interesting. The Nationals would love to add an ace to the top of their rotation. Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and an additional ace would make a formidable trio. They have the firepower to make a trade; the challenge might be in finding an interested trading partner. The Rays might consider trading James Shields or even David Price in the right offer. Few other teams appear to have expendable, top-shelf pitching. The Nationals are also looking atC.J. Wilson and Roy Oswalt on the free agent market.
The bullpen appears to be an area that doesn’t need any work, but there are rumors that the Nationals are interested in a few closers like Ryan Madson. Current closer Drew Storen isn’t universally considered a first division stopper, so the Nationals might be looking to upgrade the position while making Storen available on the trade market.
- The Nationals could consider opening up the payroll since they have a lot of growth potential and an owner who can afford to make investments without immediate payoffs.
- A center fielder is a big need. Cespedes is tempting, although Upton or Span will be easier to acquire.
- First base is potentially open, but the Nationals would be better served planning for down the road when Votto hits the trade market.
- Adding an ace (or even two) would substantially improve the team.
- A closer could be acquired in order to make Storen expendable, but it isn’t a pressing need.
Follow Brad on Twitter @baseballAteam. Email him at pitchin432 AT Yahoo.com
Get more great baseball stuff over at The Hardball Times.