Although the predominant talk of the offseason has been about Bryce Harper, it seems that people have forgotten about the rest of the Nationals squad that is, without Harper, still projected to win 91 games next season and finish atop the competitive National league East race according to Fangraphs. Since harper declined the Nationals’ $300 million contract, their budget has become more flexible, and instead of signing a superstar with heavy upside, they’ve opted to fill multiple weak links in the roster that can prove to be just as, if not more beneficial than signing Harper alone.
Because baseball isn’t a sport that can be won by having one superstar, but one where you have to get production from just about every position, the Nationals have been wise this offseason by acquiring bullpen and rotation depth and filling holes at the catcher and second base positions.
One week into the offseason, the Nationals made one of the most underrated free agent signings when they inked reliever Trevor Rosenthal to a one-year contract worth $7 million. Although Rosenthal is coming off of a season where he underwent Tommy John surgery, his showcase a few weeks prior to the signing demonstrated he can still reach the upper-90s with his fastball, showing he is healthy enough to return to the mound. Over his 6-year career with the Saint Louis Cardinals, Rosenthal struck out 435 over 325 innings of work for a K/9 of 12.0, ranking him among the best in the same span, while walking only 148 and allowing 7 home runs.
The Nationals bullpen last year, in contrast, was among the worst with about 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings while giving up 81 home runs in only 528.2 innings. Therefore, from Rosenthal, the Nationals are expecting him to be the key piece in the bullpen that shifts not only the performance of the bullpen but also the tough mentality that he brings to every play.
Along with reshaping the bullpen, the Nationals upgraded their starting rotation by signing free agent Patrick Corbin. As he figures to be a dominant force behind one of the best one-two punches in baseball in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, Corbin is expected to produce at the same level he did last year when he posted a 3.15 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP while striking out a grand 243 and walking a mere 48 in 200 innings of work. Corbin’s 2.61 xFIP ranked him second, behind only Jacob deGrom, among starting pitchers last year. While the Nationals rotation hasn’t been considered a weakness in recent years, adding Corbin to an already-strong rotation is a sign of their determination to bounceback from a disappointing season.
After Rosenthal, the Nationals acquired catchers Kurt Suzuki from free agency and Yan Gomes from a trade with the Cleveland Indians. By acquiring both, the Nationals have acknowledged that the catching slot in the past years has been minimal and has quickly shifted from a heavy weakness to a strength. While it is extremely uncertain how the catching situation will unfold, we can expect that their overall production will be a huge benefit to the Nationals lineup. In 2018, Gomes slashed for .266/.313/.449 in 112 games while hitting 16 home runs. Suzuki, similarly slashed for .271/.332/.444 in 105 games and struck out only 43 times in 347 at-bats. Although they are not significantly better than the average position player, Gomes and Suzuki have both been more productive than the average catcher as they combined for a 4.2 fWAR last season. In contrast, Nationals catchers last year combined for a mere 0.7 fWAR.
Finally, general manager Mike Rizzo and the front office decided to bolster the infield by signing slugger second baseman Brian Dozier. Despite a disappointing showing last year, the Nationals expect Dozir to return to his 2016 and 2017 form where he slugged a combined 76 home runs, the most by any second baseman in that span. Doziers wRC+ of 132 in 2016 and 125 in 2017 prove he is not only more productive than the average second baseman, but he’s substantially more productive than the average position player.
Ultimately, the nationals are riding on a lot of potential, and can easily win more than the 91 games they are projected to win without Harper, but their injury prone players have to stay healthy, otherwise those 91 projected wins can instantly flip as it did last year.