Galdi examines five Nats issues for which we’ll have answers by the end of spring training
The Nationals report for spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla. on Feb. 14. They are again the favorites to win the National League East. But, of course, that’s not the point. The Nats have authored six consecutive winning seasons, have won the NL East four times over those six seasons and have won at least 95 games in each of those four NL East-winning seasons. And yet the Nats are 0-4 in playoff series during this run. And it’s not just that. The Nats during this run are 0-3 in NLDS Game 5s, all of which have been at home. The Nats in fact are 3-8 in home playoff games during this run. That’s incredible.
Dave Martinez is the Nats’ sixth full-time manager since the start of the 2009 season. The man I refer to as The Ninja, Mike Rizzo, is in the final year of his contract. Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Gio Gonzalez are entering contract seasons. The Nats are loaded for another run. But there may be more urgency than ever before during this run.
Here are the five biggest spring-training questions facing the Nats:
1. Are the Nats going to trade for Miami catcher J.T. Realmuto?
This has been maybe the biggest drama of the Nats’ offseason. Realmuto wants to be traded; his agent confirmed this to MiamiHerald.com on Feb. 2. The Marlins reportedly have been asking for the Nats’ top two prospects, outfielders Victor Robles and Juan Soto, in trade talks. But the Marlins don’t have a ton of leverage, unless the Nats are that desperate not to again go with Matt Wieters as their starting catcher.
The Nats getting Realmuto would be huge. He is entering just his age-27 season, is under team control through the 2020 season and is a stud. Realmuto was third among all major-league catchers last season with a 3.6 fWAR. He led all major-league catchers with a 1.5 BsR, which is Fangraphs’ all-encompassing baserunning stat. And when it comes to something that Wieters has been woeful at for years, framing, Realmuto represents colossal improvement. Per Baseball Prospectus’ Framing Runs, Wieters ranked no. 108 out of 110 catchers at -13.6 last season. Realmuto was no. 17 at 3.8.
Perhaps heightening the Nats’ desire for Realmuto was what broke on Wednesday (Feb. 7) – that arguably the Nats’ top catching prospect, Raudy Read, has been suspended for 80 games by MLB without pay for testing positive for Boldenone, an anabolic steroid. The Nats do have prospect Pedro Severino and did sign Miguel Montero to a minor-league deal with an invite to major-league spring training, but you wonder if the Read suspension will be the spark that leads to the Nats actually pulling off the trade for Realmuto.
2. Might the Nats sign one of the many remaining starting pitchers left on the free-agent market, including a big fish like Jake Arrieta?
The first four in the Nats’ rotation are set: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark. I have advocated for the Nats to trade Gio for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t seem like it will be happening.
It is the no. 5 spot in the rotation that is very much up in the air. Joe Ross isn’t expected to be back from his recovery from Tommy John surgery until at least July. Erick Fedde’s stock has fallen, as he was disappointing over three major-league starts last season and then was shut down in September due to a right forearm flexor strain. A.J. Cole has been given chance after chance and yet has a 4.52 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in 22 major-league games (17 starts) over the last three seasons.
This has been such a bizarre offseason in MLB. We have had a whole lot of whining and complaining from the MLB Players Association and player agents over the last few weeks due to this free-agent market moving at a snail’s pace. So many of the top free agents in this market (which just isn’t that good) remain unsigned. How low might some of the prices go? And what if the Nats can sign someone like Arrieta – a Scot Boras client – at a bargain price? USA Today MLB insider Bob Nightengale, who knows Rizzo and the Nats quite well, predicted in a piece on Wednesday (Feb. 7) that the Nats would sign Arrieta to a five-year, $120 million deal. I suggested in January that the Nats should be interested in Arrieta at four years, $110 million. There are some major red flags with Arrieta, including a significant decline in his average fastball velocity last season and a significant jump in his HR/9 last season. But you could do a lot worse than him. I wouldn’t sign Arrieta for anything more than a bargain rate, but I would not be shocked if the Nats ended up signing him in yet another manifestation of the Boras-Lerners love affair.
3. How is Daniel Murphy doing?
Adam Eaton coming off a torn left ACL and torn left meniscus is certainly a big deal. But Murphy’s situation worries me more.
You can make a pretty good case that the single-best free-agent signing by Rizzo has been Murphy’s three-year, $37.5 million contract in Jan. 2016. Murphy is tied for eighth in the majors with a 146 wRC+ over the last two seasons. Plate appearance for plate appearance, he has been an elite batter over his two seasons with the Nats.
But we learned on Oct. 20 – the same day on which we learned that Dusty Baker was out as Nats manager – that Murphy had undergone microfracture surgery on his right knee that day.
“Microfracture surgery” is a dreaded phrase in some sports. Some consider it worse than ACL surgery.
But there are plenty of athletes who have succeeded after undergoing microfracture surgery. Justin Turner underwent microfracture surgery in Oct. 2015 and has been a stud for the Dodgers the last two seasons. Kendall Fuller underwent microfracture surgery while at Virginia Tech in Sept. 2015 and was the Redskins’ best defensive player in 2017.
Murphy is entering his age-33 season. It is not at all considered a given that he’ll be ready for the start of the regular season. This guy has been an offensive force for the Nats. His health right now is a concern. Perhaps helping this is that a guy who Murphy swears by, launch-angle guru Kevin Long, is the Nats’ new hitting coach.
4. Does a Bryce Harper #ChaChaCha emerge?
We have come to know quite well with the Kirk Cousins saga how taxing and draining a high-profile contract situation can be. Harper is a bigger star in MLB than Kirk is in the NFL. And while D.C. is far more of a Redskins city than a Nats city, Harper’s looming free agency will (and should) be a very big deal. I have referenced multiple times part of what Nightengale tweeted on Nov. 15: “Nats ownership believe[s] Harper in free agency would cost in excess of $500 million.” Harper has never been a troublemaker as a Nat, but that doesn’t mean that him being poised to be the biggest free-agent in MLB or even sports history can’t become a sideshow the way the Kirk #ChaChaCha did.
5. Who beyond the Law Firm ends up comprising the Nats’ bullpen?
I love that the Nats re-signed Brandon Kintzler in December. He, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle – the Law Firm – turned what was a disaster of a bullpen – what I called the #CantTrussIt bullpen – into a strength for the Nats over the final two months of last season.
But a bullpen is made up of more than three people. And while Kintzler, Madson and Doolittle form a nice backend of a bullpen, there are still middle-innings pieces that are needed. And the candidates for these pieces for the Nats are many: Austin Adams, Koda Glover, Trevor Gott, Matt Grace, Shawn Kelley, Enny Romero and Sammy Solis.
Two guys of note are Glover and Kelley. Glover still has a ton of potential but must stay healthy (and must be honest about his injuries). Kelley was atrocious last season, giving up 12 homers in 26 innings in nearly tripling his HR/9 from 2016 (1.40 to 4.15). But Kelley was no. 10 among qualified major-league relievers in K/9 in 2016 at 12.41. This guy can be terrific. We just didn’t see that last season.