As per usual, GM Mike Rizzo and the Washington Nationals have been very active this offseason, kicking the tires on virtually every free agent, and being connected to several teams in trade rumors. Rizzo has made a few of those deals, and come up short on others. So is this team better than they were just three months ago?
Out: Danny Espinosa
In: Adam Eaton
Trea Turner’s positional flexibility forced me to package these two positions together. Turner was manning centerfield by the end of 2016, with Espinosa at shortstop (starting centerfielder Ben Revere had long been banished to the bench). But now that Eaton is in the fold, Turner is able to move back to his natural shortstop position, and Espinosa became expendable. So essentially, it is Eaton replacing Espi in the starting lineup. That’s a clear upgrade. Eaton has hit each of the past three seasons, topped off by a .284/.362/.428 slash line last year. He is only an average defender in centerfield, but his excellent bat will play anywhere in this Nats lineup.
The Nats did lose some of their young depth by trading away top prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez in the Eaton deal. That could become a factor if the injury bug hits the starting rotation. But those two youngsters were no sure thing, while Eaton looks to be exactly what the Nationals needed. (Rizzo was able to recoup a little pitching depth by trading Espinosa to the Los Angeles Angels for right-handeders Austin Adams and Kyle McGowin).
Out: Wilson Ramos
In: Derek Norris
The Nationals were in an impossible situation here. Ramos blew up in 2016, posting career-high numbers in average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, games played, homers, RBIs, runs scored, and WAR. He was in line to receive a huge deal this offseason, but that was sidetracked when he tore his ACL in September. The Nationals stayed away, and Ramos signed a two-year, $12.5 million deal with Tampa Bay.
The Nationals then went after Norris, acquiring him from San Diego. Norris has put up solid numbers in his numbers, but slipped mightily last season, as he batted just .186/.255/.328. Norris was always a .250ish type hitter before that, so it’s reasonable to expect a bounce back with the bat. But there is no way the Nats will see the same kind of production from behind the dish in 2017. Norris should be a league average battery mate, but Ramos posted the best wRC+ among catchers last year.
Out: Mark Melancon
In: Shawn Kelley
This was a tough blow for the Nationals, especially considering Rizzo sent reliever Felipe Rivero to Pittsburgh in the deal (Melancon signed a four-year, $62 million contract with San Francisco). Rizzo then struck out on other big name closers like Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen, which means Kelley, last year’s setup man, is in line to be the Nats Opening Day closer. There are still a few trade options out there, such as David Robertson, but there is a good chance the Nationals will stand pat.
This is a clear downgrade. Melancon ranks fourth in WAR, fourth in walk rate, and third in ERA among relievers over the past four seasons. He is a difference maker in the back of a bullpen. Meanwhile, Kelley is a nice piece, but nowhere near as dominant. Also, now that he has been promoted to closer, everyone else in the bullpen has been moved up a role. So instead of a Melancon-Kelley tag team at the end of games, the Nationals are now stuck with just Kelley, while Sammy Solis and Blake Treinen do the best they can. I’m not sure if that is a recipe for success.
Looking at the moves as a whole, the offense is definitely better than last season. Even without Ramos, Eaton and a full season of Turner are going to be a huge boost to the offense (along with a potential Bryce Harper bounce back). But can the lineup score enough runs to balance out the pitching? That may seem like a strange question to ask about a team with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Tanner Roark, but when you look at the total mystery in the bullpen, pitching concerns immediately come to mind.