By Louis Addeo-Weiss
In lieu of the organization’s first World Series championship in 2019, the Washington Nationals have begun the work in order to become the first team to win back-to-back titles since the New York Yankees from 1999-2000.
Just a week into the new calendar year and the team has already added four pieces who could play a large part in the 2020 season.
January 3rd saw the team sign reliever Will Harris to a 3-year/$24 million deal. Some two days later, and the team had reached agreements with infielders Starlin Castro (2/$12M) and Asdrubal Cabrera. Monday saw the moves continue, with the team making a double-strike in free agency, bringing in first baseman/outfielder Eric Thames (1/$4M) and reliever Daniel Hudson (2/$11M).
Harris and Hudson will help to fortify a Nationals bullpen luckily devoid of exposure in the postseason thanks to their starting pitching. In 2019, the Nationals bullpen ranked 30th (of 30 teams) in ERA, posting a mark of 5.66. Since the start of 2015, the recently acquired Harris owns a 2.36 ERA.
And while the team hasn’t succumbed to the post-World Series vacation that we all assumes most front offices take following achieving the ultimate task, the hole left at third base in the wake of Anthony Rendon’s decision to sign with the Los Angeles Angels in December is one most desperately in need of filling.
Enter Josh Donaldson.
Following a 2018 season mostly lost due to injury (52 g, .246,.352,.449, 119 OPS+), Donaldson rebounded in grand fashion in 2019, posting a .900 OPS+ and 6.1 bWAR in his one season with the Atlanta Braves.
With a strong showing in 2019, Donaldson is set to receive a handsome payday, with many speculating he’ll get upwards of $100 million.
Of the many teams who would love to have Donaldson manning their hot corner, the two team’s most connected appear the Nationals and their division rival Atlanta Braves, Donaldson’s former employer.
Rendon’s loss could be the difference between the Nationals winning 5-6 games down the stretch in 2020. 2019 saw Rendon post a career-best 6.3 bWAR, while totaling a gaudy 1.010 OPS and 153 OPS+.
And while Donaldson wasn’t exactly that, as his 2019 OPS+ sat at 127, the differences in WAR are minimal given his ability on the defensive side. Donaldson owns 68 career defensive runs saved, and his 15 DRS ranked 2nd among all NL third baseman, trailing only the Rockies’ defensive artist Nolan Arenado, who finished with a DRS of 18.
Rendon, while not a bad defender, has been worth 18 DRS for his career, posting 2 in 2019. It is fair to suggest, however, that Rendon will be the better player in the long run given the differences in age – Rendon turning 30 in June, and with Donaldson entering his age 34 season – but a four-year deal with incentives for one of the premier players still in his prime is more than reasonable.
While Juan Soto is on a trajectory most don’t see every day, to expect him to carry the team offensively is a big task, the same of which can be said for the additions made on the position player front.
Yes, Howie Kendrick is forever engrained in the fabric of that city’s sports history, but he’ll be 37 in June, and his contract only runs through the end of the 2020 season. As for Castro, while he still possesses the ability to hit for reasonable amounts of power, hitting 22 home runs in 2019, he posted just a 94 OPS+, due in large part to his lack of plate discipline, owning a career on-base percentage of just .319 and 98 OPS+.
The beauty of these contracts, without ignoring Thames, Cabrera, and backup catcher Yan Gomes, is that they are short in length, with only two of them exceeding the one-year mark. None of these players will necessarily hurt you in the short term, but it would help to have a force such as Donaldson in the lineup for years to come.
We also must remember that we live in an age of marketing, where we view things through the lens of a dollar, and in sports, one that sells is a name, and Josh Donaldson is a name.