As underachieving as the Washington Nationals were last season -- and let’s face it, they were more disappointing than a lukewarm shower on a cold December morning -- they’ve got plenty of pieces in place to make a run for the 2016 NL East title. That’s not to say there aren’t issues. Heading into next week’s winter meetings, here’s a look at GM Mike Rizzo's most pressing action items.
1. Patch up the pen
Every team’s fans think their bullpen is a mess. But Washington’s pen really is. Their closer (Jonathan Papelbon) is public enemy number one after choking the team’s best player (Bryce Harper). Their setup man (Drew Storen) imploded after being demoted and needs a change of scenery like Linus needs his blanket. Craig Stammen is a question mark after an arm injury ended his season in April, and fellow middle man Aaron Barrett is a no-go for 2016 following September Tommy John surgery. No wonder the Nats are considered a front-runner to secure the services of Darren O'Day, arguably the best reliever on the market. For Rizzo, closing the deal on O’Day would be a huge first step towards steadying Washington’s bullpen.
2. Balance the bats
Even before losing Denard Span to injury for most of last season, the Nationals were heavily right-handed. Without the lefty-hitting Span, their lineup was more one-sided than a unigon. (OK, there’s no such thing as a unigon, but you get the point.) And it showed. Washington hit .265 against lefties, compared with just .247 against righties. Against a Mets team that was loaded with dominant righty starters, the Nats compiled a sickly .573 OPS, the worst mark of any team in baseball vs. New York. With Span now a free agent, that leaves Harper as the sole lefty in the projected 2016 lineup. As gifted as the reigning NL MVP is, the list of his superpowers does not include "able to single-handedly balance a major league lineup." Expect Rizzo to work the winter meetings in search of a lefty bat.
3. Steal a starter
Not saying that Joe Ross doesn’t have a bright future. Not saying that Tanner Roark doesn’t have a bright past. What I am saying is that neither of them is Jordan Zimmermann. After seven memorable years in D.C., the winningest pitcher in Nats history is now a Tiger (and $110 million richer), leaving Washington with a rotation full of question marks. Can Stephen Strasburg stay healthy? After hitting the rookie wall last season, just how many innings does Ross have in him for 2016? Can Roark transition back to being an effective full-time starter? Will Max Scherzer stop giving up home runs as if his contract contains an incentive for giving up home runs? Whether it’s a free-agent signing or a trade, Nashville would be a good place for the Nationals -- a franchise that seems to value starting pitching above all else -- to add another arm to the rotation mix.
4. Land a leadoff hitter
How badly does Washington need a leadoff hitter? Last season, with Span on the shelf, Jayson Werth -- a 36-year-old power hitter -- regularly found himself batting first down the stretch. Infielder Trea Turner boasts a .384 career on-base percentage in the minors and can fly (52 stolen bases in 185 games). But he’s only 22 years old, has just 40 big-league at-bats, and will likely have to compete for a starting job at second base or shortstop. If the Nats don’t feel comfortable tapping Turner to top the order, Rizzo would be well served reeling in a leadoff hitter next week.
5. Find a good home for a stray Pap
On the one hand, new skipper Dusty Baker has an honorary Ph.D in clubhouse chemistry. On the other hand, Jonathan Papelbon choked Bryce Harper. Like, put his hand around Harper’s neck and squeezed. As of now, Papelbon -- who came to Washington in a deal with Philly right before the trade deadline -- is still on the Nats’ roster. Rizzo has also said that Papelbon and Harper have talked it out and are ready to move forward. I’m not buying it. I’m not even renting it. Nor am I leasing it, borrowing it, or stealing it. What I am buying is that Rizzo will spend part of his time in Nashville looking for a trade partner who’s willing to take on Papelbon. And his baggage.