- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Winter is coming, and for MLB players, it could bring a long, cold free agent market.

That’s nothing new, with deals for some of baseball’s top talents dragging out for the past couple years. But with the coronavirus pandemic and the adverse effects it had on profits, particularly, teams could be especially tight-pursed this offseason.

That could work out for the Nationals and general manager Mike Rizzo, though, who has a penchant for finding veteran talent — and isn’t afraid to spend when doing so. After allowing a slew of players to leave (among them: Adam Eaton, Kurt Suzuki and Aníbal Sánchez) Washington has room to operate with 30 players on the 40-man roster, leaving space for a big-name bat or a pitcher who could solidify the back end of the rotation.

Looking back at the abbreviated 2020 campaign — in which the Nationals finished 26-34 — there are holes all over the diamond the team may want to plug. But chief among them will be searching for a third starting outfielder, additional pitching and infielders who could answer questions at third and first base.

Marcell Ozuna

For much of 2020, a lack of quality bats around Juan Soto and Trea Turner meant pitchers were comfortable pitching around the two keystones in Washington’s lineup. Not that it stopped Turner and Soto from producing special numbers, with both hitting well into the .300s during the 60-game slate.

But after the Nationals declined an option to bring Eaton back as their starting right fielder, it opened up an opportunity to take care of two issues with one signing — a big bat who can join Soto and Victor Robles as starting outfielders.

Marcell Ozuna could be the answer, entering free agency after spending one year with the Braves. In Atlanta, the left fielder hit a National League-best 18 home runs and 56 RBIs. His .338 average showed he could do more than just launch balls into the stratosphere, too.

Entering his 30-year-old season, Ozuna would provide the sort of threat Washington lost when Anthony Rendon departed for the Los Angeles Angels. However, Ozuna does come with caveats. While his production at the plate is impressive, his defense is a liability — which could bring Rizzo to pursue other targets.

George Springer, the former Houston Astros star, is another obvious choice in the outfield, clubbing 14 longballs with a .265 average in 2020. It would take a hefty contract to bring either Springer or Ozuna to Washington, but the 31-year-old Springer has the advantage of above-average defense and the capability to lead off the batting order.

Both Springer and Ozuna would bring new life to the Nationals at the plate. But they won’t come cheaply.

Chris Archer

The trade that brought Chris Archer from Tampa Bay to Pittsburgh looks — with the benefit of hindsight — debilitatingly lopsided. The Rays received Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Shane Baz from the Pirates. Archer, who finished fifth in Cy Young voting in 2015 and was named an All Star in 2017, never reached anything near that level with the Pirates.

In 2019, Archer pitched in 23 games, finished with a 5.19 ERA and was charged with a 3-9 record. And then he missed the shortened 2020 campaign, undergoing surgery in June to alleviate symptoms of neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome.

So why would the Nationals want Archer? Well, the 32-year-old’s market value will likely be low, making a relatively affordable one-year contract realistic. He could be just the piece to complete the back end of Washington’s starting rotation, joining a healthy Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin.

Add in the options of Austin Voth, Erick Fedde and Joe Ross, who opted out of the 2020 campaign, and that’s an imposing rotation.

Of course, much of that banks on Archer returning to his Rays form rather than his Pirates output. So if the Nationals are wary of taking that gamble, 28-year-old Taijuan Walker could be a good fit for the present and future.

Walker pitched to a 2.70 ERA across 11 starts in 2020, split between the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays. Walker’s appearances late in the year for the Blue Jays, especially, were promising signs in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery in 2018.

J.T. Realmuto

J.T. Realmuto is the best catcher on the free-agent market, and he has a solid claim as the best catcher in baseball, too. That might price the Nationals out of negotiations, but Rizzo knows the 29-year-old well from Realmuto’s time with Miami and Philadelphia.

In 2020, Realmuto hit for a .266 average and added 11 homers. It was his worst batting average since 2015. Ever since then, Realmuto has hovered at .275 or above while knocking in more than 60 RBIs in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Add his defense, too, and Realmuto would be a massive upgrade behind the plate for the Nationals.

Plus, Soto is a fan of Realmuto. Earlier this year, Soto told reporters Realmuto is one of his favorite catchers to talk to during a game.

“He’s one of my favorites because he is always happy,” Soto said. “He don’t mind. He just try to do his job behind there. Some catchers, they are always mad.”

Realmuto did receive a qualifying offer from the Phillies, and his price tag will be steep. That could cause Washington to shift its attention to another free agent backstop, such as James McCann. Or the Nationals won’t get a catcher at all, trusting who they have internally.

Suzuki left in the offseason after Washington declined his option, leaving Yan Gomes and 26-year-old Tres Barrera as the two most likely internal options. Gomes rebounded from a paltry 2019 to hit .284 in 119 plate appearances in 2020. Barrera, though, has two major league at-bats, both coming in 2019.

And while Barrera would have been a reserve option this season, he received an 80-game suspension in July for testing positive for Dehydrochlormethyltestosterone (DHCMT), a steroid. He was reinstated off the restricted list in October, though, making him an option to be a rookie contributor.

Jeremy Jeffress

The Nationals needing bullpen help is a yearly tradition. And after Sean Doolittle entered free agency, the club could use some more late-inning options.

Washington could look at Jeremy Jeffress for help in that regard. The right-handed reliever is coming off a solid 2020 season in which he helped take over the closer role for the Cubs. He finished with eight saves, a 1.54 ERA and an 0.943 WHIP.

Those marks mirrored more closely his success from 2018, when he earned an All-Star appearance for his work with the Brewers. The 33-year-old is just one of a slew of bullpen pieces on the market, however. Washington could look at former Nationals Brandon Kintzler and Greg Holland, who compiled 2.22 and 1.91 ERAs in 2020, respectively.

Jake Lamb

The Nationals will need to find answers at first base after losing Ryan Zimmerman, Howie Kendrick and Eric Thames to free agency. While there’s a chance one or two of them might return — Kendrick on a team-friendly one-year deal makes sense — they will likely opt for a platoon approach at first base.

Enter Jake Lamb, a left-handed hitter who is versatile to play first or third base. That could come in handy, particularly with the way Carter Kieboom struggled in his first season as a starter. Washington optioned the rookie third baseman in August to the team’s alternate site in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Lamb has battled injuries in recent years, and he got off to a rough start to the shortened campaign, leading the Arizona Diamondbacks to release him in September. He latched onto Oakland, where he hit .267 in just 49 plate appearances.

Admittedly, Lamb has played the bulk of his career at third base, but he has played 44 career games at first, including 12 in 2020. The 30-year-old Lamb could benefit from a platoon situation, too. He has hit .257 against right-handed pitchers in his career compared to .169 when facing lefties.

Another option at first might be Carlos Santana — the top first baseman on the market — who slugged eight home runs and worked an American League-best 47 walks for the Cleveland Indians this past season.


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