There’s never been a secret as to how general manager Mike Rizzo went about building his Washington Nationals roster. With a trio of standout starting pitchers — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin — creating one of the most dominant rotations in MLB, the evidence of a pitching-oriented team is in plain sight.
Those three arms will still anchor much of what Washington will accomplish during the 2021 season. But the truncated and coronavirus-altered 2020 season also showed the Nationals something about their offensive production.
With Trea Turner and Juan Soto, Washington has two of the league’s best hitters high up in its lineup. There were clear holes elsewhere, though, lessening the impact Soto and Turner brought with them to the plate, which forces the Nationals to evaluate ways to supplement those two bats.
“I think our top priority in our search, via the free agent market or even the trade market, is trying to get a bat to fill in the middle of the lineup and kind of complement the rest of our middle-of-the-lineup bats,” Rizzo said Tuesday on a Zoom call. “We felt that our best bet would be to kind of surround the guys we have in the middle of the lineup already with some more bats and make our offensive production a little bit more of a priority this offseason.”
Soto earned All-MLB first team honors for his work in 2020, leading MLB with a 1.185 on-base plus slugging percentage. Turner wasn’t too far behind, leading all shortstops with a .335 average to go with his 12 home runs.
There was a significant dropoff after those two pieces, though. Second baseman Starlin Castro broke his wrist early in the campaign — manager Dave Martinez said Castro is “full go” for spring training — and five players who featured in at least 33 games hit below .230.
That allowed some teams to pitch around Turner and Soto. The 22-year-old Soto walked 41 times, tied for fifth-most in baseball last season. And while Martinez tells Soto to accept the walks, more firepower around him in the order could offer Soto more opportunities to swing.
“I’m looking at all different things, I’m running some numbers,” Martinez said. “Like I said, when [Soto and Turner] hit one and two, they were phenomenal. But we need some guys that can actually drive those guys in as well.”
After Washington let right fielder Adam Eaton and a slew of first basemen depart — including Ryan Zimmerman, Howie Kendrick and Eric Thames — there are two clear positions the team must fill heading into the new campaign.
Rizzo said Zimmerman and Kendrick plan to play in 2021, and he didn’t rule out the return of either of them. But as the Nationals search for a big bat to fit into the heart of their order, Rizzo said the perfect fit would be adding a player who can play first base or a corner outfield spot.
Carlos Santana, the top first baseman on the market, signed a two-year deal with the Kansas City Royals last week. There are plenty of options still to choose from, such as C.J. Cron and Mitch Moreland. There’s also Michael Brantley, Marcell Ozuna and Joc Pederson, among others, available in the outfield.
“I think we’re versatile in the fact that it doesn’t have to be strictly a right fielder or strictly a left fielder,” Rizzo said. “But a corner outfielder that complements the lineup, or a first baseman, would be the smoothest transition, because those are positions of need. But with that said, we can be creative and get a bat in all sorts of ways, and with a little maneuvering, we feel comfortable doing it in all sorts of creative ways.”
One of those creative ways doesn’t include third baseman Kris Bryant from the Chicago Cubs, though, who the Nationals had been reportedly linked with this offseason. Generally speaking, Rizzo said, he doesn’t see the value of trading for a player with one year left on his deal.
And in Bryant’s case — despite being a standout player who has clubbed at least 26 homers four times between 2015 and 2019 — Rizzo all-but snuffed out any speculation of a deal happening.
“We haven’t had a serious conversation about Kris Bryant in probably two years,” Rizzo said. “He was not a big guy on our radar last year or this year. He’s a great player, but at this point in time with where we’re at and with what we have in our farm system and where we’re going, we think we can allocate our dollars and prospect capital in a better way.”
As has been the case for the past few years, the hot stove that is traditionally baseball’s free agent market has been tepid at best and frigid at worst. And with the coronavirus pandemic altering teams’ revenue streams and casting doubt over exactly how the 2021 season will look, there’s no surprise Washington’s offseason has been slow going.
But Rizzo’s mission is clear this offseason: find a big bat to join Turner and Soto in the lineup, adding offensive firepower to a team that has long put pitching first.
“Ownership has given me marching orders to put a championship-caliber club on the field,” Rizzo said. “That’s my purpose, that’s my focus, and that’s our objective this offseason.”