Photo by Laura Peebles for TalkNats

Hello and welcome to the 2022-23 off-season preview — two months early! We are going to do a deep dive into all things roster construction-related in the wake of Tuesday’s massive Juan Soto trade and how to set the Nats up to be, if not a playoff team exactly, a more competitive unit that can win 75 games or so (remember, there is no benefit to stinking like the Wharf fish market dumpsters in August next year – the new draft lottery took care of that).

With all of that, I am not proposing any more trades at the moment, but we will look at the 40-man roster, free agency, and reasonable (if leaning optimistic) timetables for promotion from within. The goal is to get better, to spend some money without assuming that the Nats’ prospective new owners will be Steve Cohen clones, and to make the best of the situation. Without further ado, let’s look at the existing options.

40-Man + 60-day IL + FA

Before we go grocery shopping, we have to see what we already have in the pantry. Sure, there’s a fair amount of stale ramen noodles left over from grad school, and perhaps some of the produce you keep forgetting about has started to liquify at the back of the bottom drawer, but it’s there regardless and needs to be accounted for. Here is a full list of the current members of the 40-man roster, the 60-day injured list (marked with an asterisk), and the pending free agents that we will be waving goodbye to at the end of next month. After each player’s name is the year through which the Nationals have control of that player’s rights.

Pitchers (22): Carl Edwards Jr. (‘23), Patrick Corbin (‘24), Erick Fedde (‘24), Kyle Finnegan (‘25), Hunter Harvey (‘25), Victor Arano (‘25), Tanner Rainey* (‘25), Jordan Weems (‘26), Paolo Espino (‘26), Stephen Strasburg* (‘26), Cory Abbott (‘27), Josiah Gray (‘27), Andres Machado (‘27), Reed Garrett (‘27), Seth Romero* (‘27), Joan Adon (‘27), Francisco Perez (‘27), MacKenzie Gore (‘27), Mason Thompson (‘27), Jackson Tetreault* (‘28), Evan Lee* (‘28), Gerardo Carrillo (‘28)

Catchers (3): Riley Adams (‘27), Tres Barrera (‘27), Keibert Ruiz (‘27)

Infielders (7): Luke Voit (‘24), Ildemaro Vargas (‘25), Luis García (‘26), Carter Kieboom* (‘26), Joey Meneses (‘28), Lucius Fox (‘28) C.J. Abrams (’28)

Outfielders (7): Victor Robles (‘24), Lane Thomas (‘25), Yadiel Hernández (‘26), Josh Palacios (‘27), Yasel Antuna (‘28), Donovan Casey (‘28)

Free Agents (11): Steve Cishek, Erasmo Ramírez, Aníbal Sánchez, Nelson Cruz, César Hernández, Maikel Franco, Alcides Escobar, Tyler Clippard, Joe Ross*, Will Harris*, Sean Doolittle*

As you can see, the Nats might not non-tender anyone (of which more later), and they have one 40-man spots to play with, although before the end of this season at least that spot might be going to be filled by Cade Cavalli. However, there are a number of Rule 5 candidates that the Nationals need to at least consider making room on the 40-man roster for. Also, Rainey just had UCL surgery and will be out for all of 2023, but he can’t be place on the 2023 60-day IL until Spring Training. There were almost certainly be multiple DFAs to open spots on the 40-man roster. 

Rule 5-Eligible Players from MLB’s Top 30 Nationals Prospects: Jackson Rutledge (#6), Matt Cronin (#15), Jeremy De La Rosa (#16), Drew Millas (#22), Jackson Cluff (#24), Israel Pineda (#26), Jordy Barley (#28), Mason Denaburg (#29), Jake Irvin (#30)

Only three of these guys might finish the 2022 season as high as AA/AAA, but that doesn’t mean that Mike Rizzo (who added Antuna to the 40-man last year despite a pretty dreadful year at Wilmington) won’t look to add them anyway, especially those with first-round pedigrees. Of the assorted names, I would not be the least surprised to see Rizzo protect any or all of Rutledge, Cronin, JDLR, Pineda, Denaburg, and Irvin. Millas is a tough call – MLB has him ranked above Pineda even though the latter has surpassed him recently in the organization (and is two years younger), but catching depth is a necessity, and Rizzo keeping him wouldn’t bowl me over. Cluff and Barley, although both are shortstops, are prime candidates to be left exposed, since neither has shown they are capable of hitting at AA or A+, respectively. If we assume that the Nats keep Millas and that Cavalli, and Cronin fill out the 40-man roster before the end of this year, that means taking the axe to six guys before signing a single free agent (ruh roh!). Who might those be? Some candidates follow in the next section. (Then again, I might be overrating Rizzo’s tendencies.)

DFA – Yea or Nay?

For purposes of this exercise, we are not going to waste brain space or internet pixels wondering if replacement-level bullpen arms like Reed Garrett or Cory Abbott might be DFA’d. They might, they might not (they probably will be, given that they’re eminently replaceable and for once a Mike Rizzo Nationals team will enter the season with bullpen depth as a strength). Who cares? Let’s look at some more intriguing names.

Yasel Antuna – Hitting .226/.365/.341 while repeating high-A and playing the second-easiest position on the diamond because he was a butcher on the dirt? I think we’ve seen enough here. Final verdict: Yea, DFA

Tres Barrera – Although (in a limited sample) Barrera has better framing stats than either Ruiz or Adams at the major league level this year, pitchers have been notably worse with him behind the dish, and the eye test bears that out; Barrera frequently jerks his glove around receiving the ball. Then of course there is his complete inability to control the running game (not that Nationals pitchers give their catchers any help in that department), and his bat is never going to bump him above Ruiz or Adams. He’s also the oldest catcher on the roster, and we just added perhaps two more to the 40-man. Final verdict: Yea, DFA

Gerardo Carrillo – Part of the quartet that came back for Trea Turner and Max Scherzer a year ago, Carrillo had a rough start to the year in Harrisburg and then hit the injured list for ten weeks before resurfacing (he’s currently in Wilmington). He has a live arm but no control, with a walk rate north of 7 per 9. Still, I have a hard time believing that Rizzo is going to admit defeat so soon on a 23-year-old he only traded for last year. Final verdict: Nay

Donovan Casey – Also a member of the same trade as Carrillo, Casey spent a few days on the major league roster without getting into a game back in April, and he’s hit for a mere .667 OPS at Rochester while striking out more than thirty percent of the time. The Nats already have a center fielder who can do that at the major league level (and is a year younger to boot). Final verdict: Yea, DFA

Patrick Corbin – Let’s get weird! This decision will depend entirely on how the new owner(s) view sunk costs. I myself would be quite content to never see another Corbin start in a Nats uniform (while acknowledging his critical role in 2019), but a new owner might not be so keen to light $60 million on fire. The question is this – do the 2023 Nationals have six better starting pitchers than Patrick Corbin? If MacKenzie Gore is healthy (and they sign someone in free agency), the answer here is yes. But I’m still going to hedge and say that new ownership will mandate trying to get some value out of Corbin as a bullpen piece before ditching him entirely. Final verdict: Nay

Francisco Pérez – There may not be a ton of left-handed options out of the bullpen, but if we’re moving Corbin there and adding Cronin, I think we can non-tender a guy who has allowed twenty-two base runners in fewer than nine MLB innings this year. Final verdict: Yea, DFA

Tanner Rainey – On the one hand, he’s maddeningly inconsistent and going to miss most or all of 2023 after undergoing Tommy John surgery this week. On the other hand, he throws 100 mph and has late-inning experience, including for a World Series-winning team. With two years of control remaining after his rehab and acres of payroll space, I don’t think Rizzo lets him go for nothing. Final verdict: Nay

Victor Robles – He is still a non-tender or DFA call. This might be the toughest call of all. I have occasionally called for DFA’ing Robles before on TN threads, frustrated at his addiction to bunting, his frequently poor baseball IQ, his months-long power outages, and his overall regression from promising rookie in 2019 to (waves hands) whatever this is. On the other hand, he is a very good center fielder, goes through stretches where he looks like a real major league hitter and base runner, and is unlikely to cost even $3 million in arbitration for 2023. I think you have to keep him at least until Robert Hassell is knocking on the door. Final verdict: Nay

Seth Romero – Every rule has an exception, and apparently the exception to Rizzo’s “You read about our guys in the sports pages, not the front pages” rule is Romero, who has been kept around despite never pitching even forty innings in a professional season because of injuries and his tendency to be a knucklehead. I thought they would get rid of him as soon as the lockout ended after he picked up a DWI this winter. It should definitely be time to move on now. Million-dollar arm, ten-cent head, etc. Final verdict: Yea, DFA

Coming Attractions & Organizational Depth

Not all of the guys on this list are exciting (certainly not the first two unless your name is Draz), but these are some names not currently on the 40-man roster who we might see rocking curly W’s either in September or at some point in 2023 for various reasons.

Alberto Baldonado – The big southpaw was unimpressive in 10 ⅔ innings down the stretch for the 2021 Nats’ dumpster fire of a bullpen, allowing ten earned runs with a 1.594 WHIP. He has also been thoroughly mediocre this year in Rochester after being DFA’d this winter and re-signed on a minor league deal. BUT…he is left-handed, and thus by default is a threat to rejoin the major league roster if enough injuries strike and the Nats feel like trying him again (although there are multiple better alternatives, as you will see).

Andrew Stevenson – We know what Stevo is at this point, a noodle-armed rangy outfielder who does well enough in limited playing time but is exposed as an everyday guy. Still, he’s a good soldier for the organization, is likely to stick around, and might get called up again should the injury bug devastate the outfield.

Cade Cavalli – I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Nationals fully expect Cavalli to make his debut before the end of this year and be a full-time member of the rotation next season. We have to expect some growing pains from Cavalli even though he has electric stuff; he barely threw 100 innings in college (he was a two-way player) and only recently eclipsed 200 minor league innings. Still, it would be a shock to not see him on the 2023 Opening Day roster.

C.J. Abrams – Already on the roster and should be up soon. Unlike Cavalli, Abrams has already just about used up his rookie status, so his current presence in Rochester is likely just to get him familiar with his new organization in a low-pressure environment, a la Keibert Ruiz a year ago. I would hope that he is in DC and bumping Luis García over to second base before the end of this season, preferably before the end of this month.

Cole Henry – If Henry’s right arm weren’t apparently made of fine china, he might already be in Washington. Alas, he was moved to the minor league injured list after his second start for Rochester in mid-June and has not been seen since. Given that the next time he throws 60 innings in a season will be his first time doing so in either the minors or in college, I imagine that he will have a 2023 innings limit of

David Dahl – The tenth overall pick by the Rockies a decade ago has been cursed by injuries his entire career, reaching 100 games in a professional season only in 2014, 2016, and 2019. He might be nothing more than a AAAA outfielder at this point, but with one remaining year of team control he might also be found money as a left-handed bench bat if necessary.

Israel Pineda – Pineda might be that rarest of unicorns, a competent catcher signed and developed by the Nationals. Pineda hit a very respectable .271/.326/.491 while doing most of the catching for a top-five pitching staff in the South Atlantic League before moving to AA Harrisburg and celebrating with five bolts in his first eight games at the new level. He won’t turn 23 until April, and his growth thus far suggests that he could be the next catcher called up to DC in 2023 should Keibert Ruiz or Riley Adams hit the injured list.

Jake Alu – Most likely a fallback plan should neither a Carter Kieboom redux nor the token scrap heap free agent work out, Alu has steadily climbed the minor league ladder since being drafted in the 24th round out of Boston College in 2019 and is now just one stop away from the majors at Rochester. He might get a September opportunity if Rizzoli & Isles, er, Rizzo and Martinez decide that they’ve seen enough of Maikel Franco whiffing at sliders six inches off the plate, but he will more likely be in the mix in major league camp next spring. He’s probably nothing more than a AAAA player (and he will turn 26 in April), but you never know.

Jose Ferrer – Along with the three remaining names in this section, Ferrer is a promising potential bullpen arm who could join the majors at some point in 2023, either because of injuries, performance, or trades. The 22-year-old has a 2.31 ERA in almost 50 innings at Fredericksburg and Wilmington this season, and I bet that he opens the 2023 season no lower than Harrisburg.

Matt Cronin – Although he experienced a bit of a rude welcome upon his promotion to Rochester, Cronin has registered zeros in ten of his last thirteen outings for the Red Wings, striking out twelve and walking six during that time. A southpaw who reminds one somewhat of our old friend Dr. Doolittle, Cronin is a candidate to get called up this September, and should be the first guy knocking on the bullpen door in 2023.

Mitchell Parker – Currently being developed as a starter, Parker’s frightening walk rate (6.2 per 9, with only a single start where he has walked one or zero batters) might push him to the bullpen at the major league level. He does have swing-and-miss stuff, as evidenced by 93 punchouts in 73 ⅔ innings thus far, so there is definitely more ceiling there. I imagine that he finishes this season at Harrisburg and continues to work as a starter in 2023, but at some point the change will come if he doesn’t stop issuing free passes.

Zach Brzykcy – Much like Ferrer, Scrabble Jr. has not missed a beat since being promoted a level mid-season, in fact allowing fewer runs thus far for Harrisburg (3) than for Wilmington (5) in more appearances at AA. Brzykcy has whiffed 63 batters in just 43 innings this season against 21 walks, and should earn himself an invite to major league spring training in February.

Projected 2023 Opening Day roster (before any free agents)

We’re going to take a little license here and say that for purposes of this exercise that Gore does NOT need Tommy John surgery and can start the year on the active roster. 

SP: Mackenzie Gore, Josiah Gray, Cade Cavalli, Erick Fedde, _______

RP: Kyle Finnegan, Carl Edwards Jr., Hunter Harvey, Jordan Weems, Mason Thompson, Andres Machado, Patrick Corbin, Paolo Espino

C: Keibert Ruiz, Riley Adams

IF: Luis García, C.J. Abrams, Luke Voit, _______, ________

OF: Victor Robles, Lane Thomas, Josh Palacios, _______, ________

DH: Yadiel Hernández

The bullpen might be the strongest area of the team, which is both a) really strange to say of a Washington Nationals roster and b) not exactly an ideal scenario. The other position group that’s fairly well-off is catcher, but there are serious holes everywhere else. You might think I’m crazy for having, say, Palacios on the roster and Kieboom/Meneses off, but there’s a method to my madness. Palacios is more versatile defensively and a few years younger than Meneses, and Kieboom will probably have to win the third base job in an open competition with Alu and some bargain free agent. Speaking of free agents, let’s look at a few of those possibilities. After all the moves that we’ve made so far, these hypothetical Nats will enter free agency with about $90 million committed to payroll, two thirds of that to the Corbin/Strasburg sinkhole. I doubt that a new owner is going to go all the way to $233 million with an uncertain roster in year one, but let’s assume that they budget $45 million AAV to cover the remaining holes in the roster, which are: a starting pitcher (preferably one that can eat innings reliably), a third baseman to compete with Kieboom/Alu, a backup infielder who can ideally play shortstop (this could also be Fox, but I doubt it), and two outfielders, at least one of whom should be a regular (and preferably both). So how about some potential signings?

SP – This is where the Nats should probably spend 30-40% of that $45 million. The top tier of free agent starters is probably in some order Jacob deGrom, Taijuan Walker, Carlos Rodón, Martín Pérez, and Jameson Taillon (he might be in the second tier, but I have a feeling he will be looking for tier one money). We’ll leave Clayton Kershaw out because there’s a 0.0% chance he signs with anyone but the Dodgers. The second tier of starters contains Sean Manaea, Chris Bassitt, José Quintana, Noah Syndergaard, Tyler Anderson, Corey Kluber, and Nathan Eovaldi. Beyond those pitchers you are looking at serious injury risks and reclamation projects. Depending on age (this group ranges from 30-37 entering 2023), I would be fine with two to five years and $15-$18 million per year for any one of the tier two pitchers, with Manaea or Bassitt the top targets.

3B – If you’re looking to spend $4-$5 million on a guy who can hold down the third base job for a year should Carter Kieboom (yet again) fail to win it for himself, you could do worse than Aledmys Díaz, a sure-handed fielder who generally hits somewhere around league average, which in both cases makes him an improvement on Maikel Franco. If you wanted a little more offense and a little less defense you could go with Wilmer Flores in the same price range.

IF – Assuming Kieboom makes the team out of spring training, the utility infield spot is covered by the previous signing. If not? Unless you’re pivoting to Fox, the scrap heap will have César Hernández, Franco, Hanser Alberto, and Rougned Odor. If I’m being perfectly honest, none of those are doing it for me.

OF – By now we have $20 million or so left in our totally hypothetical budget, and need to add two outfielders to the quartet of Robles, Thomas, Palacios, and Yadiel Hernández. At least one should be someone with more serious thump than those four, none of whom can be counted on for more than 12-15 bombs in a best-case scenario. Taking Aaron Judge out of the equation, almost all of the best options are lefty bats: Brandon Nimmo, David Peralta, Joc Pederson, Michael Brantley, Andrew Benintendi, Charlie Blackmon if you believe in a resurgence, or Joey Gallo if you REALLY believe in a resurgence. The best righty options are Tommy Pham, Adam Duvall if he’s healthy, or switch-hitter Jurickson Profar. I would absolutely spend that $20 million on Profar and Pederson. Pederson could platoon with Thomas in a strict righty/lefty setup in right field while Profar is the everyday left fielder and Swiss Army Knife (he’s perfectly capable of playing first or second base, and can handle third or shortstop in an emergency). If Pederson is uninterested in playing for a rebuilding team, perhaps Gallo would like a low-pressure environment in which to hit bombs and strike out 150 times, but he would definitely be a fallback option. After all those moves, let’s look at the lineup and rotation again.

Nats vs. RHP

SS C.J. Abrams (L)

LF Jurickson Profar (S)

2B Luis García (L)

RF Joc Pederson (L)

1B Luke Voit (R)

DH Yadiel Hernández (L)

C Keibert Ruiz (S)

CF Victor Robles (R)

3B Aledmys Díaz (R)

Nats vs. LHP

CF Victor Robles (R)

LF Jurickson Profar (S)

C Keibert Ruiz (S)

1B Luke Voit (R)

2B Luis García (L)

RF Lane Thomas (R)

DH Riley Adams (R)/Yadiel Hernández (L)

3B Carter Kieboom (R)

SS C.J. Abrams (L)

Rotation

LHP Sean Manaea

RHP Cade Cavalli

LHP Mackenzie Gore

RHP Josiah Gray

RHP Erick Fedde

Bullpen

“A” Kyle Finnegan, Carl Edwards Jr., Hunter Harvey, Patrick Corbin?

“B” Mason Thompson, Andres Machado, Jordan Weems, Paolo Espino

Perhaps there are other moves around the margins – I don’t think any of us would be stunned to see Tyler Clippard or Sean Doolittle back in West Palm Beach on minor league deals next spring, for example. And there you have it. That is by no means a World Series-winning outfit, or even a playoff team, but it’s a good sight better and more competitive than the dreck that we have been watching every night this season. And who knows? Perhaps Robert Hassell continues to pummel minor league pitching and is knocking on the door next September, or Cole Henry gets healthy enough to audition for Fedde’s spot, or Cronin forces his way into the pretty deep bullpen and gives the Nats even more late-inning options. We can dream, can’t we?

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