Update: To see what the Nationals actually did now — like, less than an hour after we published this — click here.
The Nationals took a gamble in 2016 by dealing away years of control of Felipe Rivero for, essentially, three months of Mark Melancon. Washington hoped to give him a favorable enough impression that he’d want to stick around awhile and be the closer for a few years on a contending team. Then Melancon signed with the Giants.
Washington’s “Plan A” was no more. Plan B?
Nationals, looking at RP options after losing Melancon, could pursue David Robertson as well as Sale in a big deal with White Sox.— Chris Cotillo (@ChrisCotillo) December 6, 2016
The Nationals made a push for Chris Sale. Any team would happily feature an All-Star who finished fifth in Cy Young voting and won 17 games. A rotation with Sale, Max Scherzer, and Stephen Strasburg as the one-two-three punch would be a showstopper. Things looked good!
But then ...
The Nationals lost out to Boston. The prevailing rumor is that the White Sox wanted future superstar Trea Turner, along with top prospects Lucas Giolito (RHP, #4 on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list) and Victor Robles (CF, #13 on BA’s list). The Nationals were reportedly offering Giolito, Robles, and Reynaldo Lopez, as Turner is the only true untouchable of the organization’s young talent, although the Washington Post indicated the Nats would prefer not to surrender Robles either. The two sides couldn’t bridge the gap, and that was that.
Losing out on Chris Sale may be the optimal scenario for the Nats because their starting rotation was already a strength. In fact, that’s the mindset that was supposed to bring them the World Series in 2015. Get enough starters together with the likes of Scherzer, Strasburg, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmerman, then expect to win. Except baseball’s “best rotation” didn’t even make it to the playoffs because they had other glaring weaknesses.
The Nats have finite resources to cultivate a deal, and Sale would have required all their movable players for whom they can get an elite return. He would have taken away innings from Joe Ross, a very competent pitcher, making him less of an upgrade than it might seem at first glance. It's putting all their best eggs in the same basket without addressing their major problems.
“Plan B” is gone, so they need to focus on their current weaknesses: the bullpen and the outfield. The Nationals non-tendered Ben Revere, who was their 2016 stop-gap solution in center. Dealing Robles and Giolito, their two premiere pieces, would have left the Nats without a full-time center fielder and without a closer. Center field is where we find “Plan C”:
The Nationals are top contenders for Andrew McCutchen. The five-time All-Star and former MVP is being shopped around at a bargain price after declining significantly in 2016. Nationals GM Mike Rizzo appears confident that McCutchen would be a good fit despite the downward trend in his 2016 stats. On Tuesday Rizzo said, “Good player. Good defender. I like the whole package.”
Washington has what Pittsburgh wants in Giolito and Robles. McCutchen is not a free agent until after the 2018 season, so his acquisition would steady 2⁄3 of the Nats’ outfield for the next two years. If the Nationals receive McCutchen from the Pirates, their outfield next season will include the 2013 MVP (McCutchen), the 2015 MVP (Harper), and the only man on the roster with a World Series ring (Werth).
But as the Melancon and Sale rumors show, not every plan comes to fruition, so I’m going to suggest the Nationals’ “Plan D” is Adam Eaton, whom they might be considering as well. The White Sox had major interest in Giolito and Robles, as evidenced by how close the Nats got to Chris Sale. Eaton fits the need for a center fielder. In 2016, he hit .284 (primarily at leadoff) with a .428 SLG and nine triples. A bat with some power and some speed would be a great addition to the lineup, especially since the White Sox are already interested in the pieces Washington wants to move.
As for the bullpen? The Nationals are in the hunt for a closer to replace Melancon:
The hangup in Wade Davis' reported deal to the Cubs? The Nationals have made a late push. https://t.co/OTdxiEYAmk— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) December 7, 2016
As is becoming the norm for the Nats, they lost out on Wade Davis. He went to the Cubs, so the remaining elite closers are Jansen and Chapman. Will the Nationals sign either? It may be a good bet to spend big and steady the 9th inning because their starting rotation is so solid.
The Nationals have several different paths forward after losing out on Chris Sale. They have valuable prospects and want to make a significant push before Bryce Harper hits free agency in 2018. It looks like McCutchen is the best fit for what the Nationals need now.