- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Major League Baseball free agency began Monday, kicking off the unofficial start to the offseason for the Washington Nationals, who are coming off a disappointing 65-97 season marred by injuries and a demoralizing talent selloff at the trade deadline.

With about 100 days until pitchers and catchers report to spring training in February, here are seven questions facing the team this offseason:

1. Will the Nationals be aggressive in free agency?

This depends on the direction the owners and the team brass want to go, but the Nationals have the payroll flexibility to go big.

According to sports salary database Spotrac, the Nationals’ current payroll for 2022 is $89 million, although that figure doesn’t include the arbitration salaries of right fielder Juan Soto, first baseman Josh Bell and a few other players. While Soto and Bell are expected to get solid payouts through the arbitration process, the team would still be in a position to add in free agency if it wants to, as the 2022 luxury tax threshold is $210 million.

With possible question marks on the left side of the infield, two of three outfield spots, the back end of the rotation and the majority of the bullpen, the team has to decide whether to spend in free agency to bolster the roster that it dismantled at the trade deadline or let the younger players step into those holes full time.

The team’s Opening Day payroll in 2021 was approximately $151 million and $176 million at the start of the 2020 season. 

2. What about the bullpen?

This may be the biggest question facing the team. The Nationals‘ bullpen was the worst in the majors last season, and arguably one of the worst in MLB history. The group posted a 5.08 ERA — highest in the league save for the woeful Orioles. Nationals relievers also blew a major league-worst 36 saves. The team’s relievers were charged with 42 of the team’s 97 losses, most in MLB history. 

The most obvious way the team’s bullpen could improve in 2022 is the return of Will Harris, who has barely pitched for the team since he signed a three-year, $24-million contract before the 2020 season. Harris is coming off surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome and is expected to be ready for spring training. The last time Harris was healthy he was one of the league’s best relievers, posting a 1.50 ERA and a 0.93 WHIP in 60 innings with the Houston Astros. 

However, the group needs more reinforcements than just him, and the club didn’t wait too long this offseason to make a move to do just that. Last week, the Nationals claimed minor-leaguer Francisco Perez off waivers from the Cleveland Guardians. Perez, 24, was dominant in Double- and Triple-A last season with a 1.87 ERA in 53 combined innings. 

Kyle Finnegan, the team’s closer after it shipped off Brad Hand to the Blue Jays at the deadline, showed glimpses last season but also blew four of his 15 save opportunities and lost nine games, tied for second-most on the team last season.

The team is looking for bounce-back years from Austin Voth and Ryne Harper, while hoping Andres Machado, who had some success as a rookie, and hard-throwing youngsters Mason Thompson and Gabe Klobosits take the next step in 2022. 

In free agency, there are about a dozen relievers coming off great seasons, including closers Raisel Iglesias and Kenley Jansen and back-end arms Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin and Kendall Graveman. 

3. Is Stephen Strasburg ready?

Strasburg missed most of 2021 due to thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. His recovery program begins this month, and he is expected to be ready for spring training. 

The team’s ace, who is entering his age 33 season, hasn’t been healthy since 2019 when he led the National League in wins and innings pitched. He signed a seven-year, $245 million contract that offseason but missed the majority of 2020 with a nerve issue in his wrist. 

Joining Strasburg in recovery this winter is starting pitcher Joe Ross, who was solid in 2021 with a 4.17 ERA and the highest strikeout rate of his career before his season was cut short in August with a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament. Ross and the team decided to not get Tommy John surgery, and he is expected to be ready this spring.

4. Will the team sign Juan Soto to a long-term extension?

If the answer is yes, Soto will be one very rich man.

In September, at the end of Soto’s second-straight MVP-caliber season, Spotrac projected Soto’s next deal to be $503 million over 15 years. It marked the first time Spotrac projected a player to earn more than $500 million. 

While that number is just a projection, if it’s anywhere close, Soto could be in line to set the MLB record for a contract extension, passing the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts ($365 million) and the Angels’ Mike Trout ($360 million). 

Soto, who is eligible for his second year of arbitration this winter, led the Senior Circuit in on-base percentage last season at .465, adding 29 homers and 95 RBIs.

5. Who’s in the outfield with Soto?

Right field is locked up by Soto, but left and center are still question marks. 

Victor Robles opened 2021 as the team’s starting center fielder but ended the campaign in Triple-A after hitting .203 with very little pop in about 100 games. 

The team also has Lane Thomas, Yadiel Hernandez and Andrew Stevenson as outfield options. Thomas was solid in 45 games last season (.853 OPS) and Hernandez was a league-average hitter, but Stevenson struggled with a .229 batting average. 

There are several options in free agency if the club decides to go that route. High-profile options include Kyle Schwarber, who the team traded at the deadline, Mark Canha, Starling Marte, Nick Castellanos and Michael Conforto.

6. What about the left side of the infield?

At shortstop, Alcides Escobar revived his career in Washington last season. After two seasons away from “The Show,” Escobar posted the best offensive season of his career, hitting .288 in 75 games after the Nationals traded for him in July. He initially played second base but moved over to shortstop after the team traded away Trea Turner. 

If the team signs a shortstop in free agency — options include Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Corey Seager, Javier Baez, Jose Iglesias and Andrelton Simmons — Escobar could either move over to second or be a utility infielder. 

At third base, the club has to decide whether to sign someone — options include Kyle Seager, Kris Bryant, Eduardo Escobar, Matt Duffy and Jonathan Villar — or go with former first-round pick Carter Kieboom.

A former top prospect, Kieboom, 24, has not lived up to expectations through his first 106 games. He hit .202 with six homers in 249 plate appearances last season. 

7. Will Ryan Zimmerman be back?

Zimmerman, the face of the franchise since the team moved to the District in 2005, was the team’s backup first baseman last season and posted solid numbers (14 homers and 46 RBIs across 273 plate appearances). Zimmerman, 37, could retire this season after getting a standing ovation from the fans at Nationals Park during the team’s last home game, or he could decide he has more left in the tank. 

If he decides the latter, the Nationals’ brass has already suggested they’d welcome him back for a 17th season. 

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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