By Chris Cwik
This offseason, Sports on Earth is asking baseball writers what they would do if they ran the front office.
The Nationals were the big winners of last offseason. By dealing for Denard Span and signing bounce-back candidate Dan Haren to a one-year deal, the team became a popular pick to win the World Series. Those lofty aspirations fell flat as the team's flaws were exposed, and their stars got off to slow starts. By the end of the July, the team sat at 52-56, 11 games out of first place. A late-season surge brought them to a more respectable, yet ultimately disappointing, 86-76.
To his credit, general manager Mike Rizzo isn't overreacting to the team's frustrating year. In November, Rizzo told John Perrotto that the team "should have a lot of wins at the end of the year," if the club's key players live up to expectations. Rizzo is right. Despite their disappointing 2013, the team still boasts one of the best young cores in the game. Because of that, the Nationals have spent much of their offseason improving their depth.
Rizzo already addressed two of the team's biggest needs. With Haren leaving after a disappointing season, the team acquired Doug Fister for three players. Fister combines with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann to form the best top four in the game. The club also had trouble with left-handed relievers last season. Zach Duke began the year as the sole lefty in the pen and lasted just 20 2/3 innings, before an 8.71 ERA led to his release. Rizzo is taking no chances with the pen this year, dealing for Oakland lefty Jerry Blevins. Blevins has compiled a 138 ERA+ over the past three seasons and can pitch to lefties and righties alike. The team also solidified its outfield, signing Nate McLouth to a modest, two-year, $10.75 million deal.
Where does that leave the team?
The most glaring need is a legitimate backup catcher. Wilson Ramos has shown a lot of promise, but he's only played in 103 games over the past two seasons. That's meant more playing time for Jesus Flores and Kurt Suzuki, neither of whom provide much with the bat. If Ramos misses time again in 2014, the team will want a useful option behind the plate. John Buck is an exceptional fit. While far from the perfect hitter, he has enough power to contribute in limited opportunities. He's hit at least 12 home runs in each of the past four years and would give the team a reliable backup plan.
There's also a need for another left-handed reliever, given how much relying on just one hurt the team last season. That issue might be solved internally, as Ross Detwiler likely will join the bullpen if he loses out on the fifth starter spot. Outside the organization, Scott Downs and Oliver Perez are the most attractive options left on the free agent market. Perez signed with the club in 2011 but did not reach the majors. (His former pitching coach from the Pirates, Spin Williams, is a coordinator in the Nationals farm system.)
Aside from those two spots, there's not much else the Nationals need. Danny Espinosa is expected to be the team's primary backup infielder, and he gets good marks for his defense at second and short. If he happens to falter, the team can turn to Zach Walters. Walters is capable of playing short adequately and has enough power to put pressure on opposing pitchers. His approach at the plate is far from ideal, so he's better suited to a limited role. The team has been linked to super-utilityman Jeff Baker, who could be an extra bat off the bench, if they want Walters to get more time in the minors. Baker plays every infield position except short and has seeen time in the outfield as well. At first base, the team has Tyler Moore to backup Adam LaRoche. Moore regressed after a promising 2012, but he performed much better after he was sent to the minors. There are questions about his ability to handle a full-time job, but he's perfectly acceptable as a backup.
It's wise for the Nationals to stick with internal options instead of spending more money on free agents. Some key Nationals are approaching free agency, and the team will need extra cash to hand out extensions if they want to keep heir core together. The team has already expressed interest in extending Zimmermann and shortstop Ian Desmond. Both players are under team control through the 2015 season, but that hasn't stopped the Nationals from negotiating with them already. There's a sense that the team will deal Zimmermann next offseason, if they can't sign him to an extension. The newly acquired Fister and bullpen workhorse Tyler Clippard will also be free agents after the 2015 season. A year after that, both Strasburg and Ramos will be eligible to hit the open market.
For the most part, the team is in a great position. Rizzo has already filled the club's major needs, trading for Fister and Blevins. The team's core may be threatened in the future, but every key player will be there in 2014. After winning the offseason for the second straight year, the Nationals once again will enter the season as one of the game's most talented teams and a World Series favorite.
Chris Cwik writes for various baseball sites on the internet, CBSSports.com and FanGraphs.com. He has also contributed to ESPN and the Hardball Times Baseball Annual. Follow him on Twitter at @Chris_Cwik.