Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

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Nats 40-man Options status

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Nearly every year we talk about the Options status of the 40-man, and what it means for spring training. And this year is no different; nearly every year the options availability (or lack of them) helps drive some edge-of-the-roster decisions and the team ends up keeping players at the expense of others, often times in stark contrast to fan-perceived value or merit of inclusion.

Here’s a run-through of the Options status of the current 40-man roster. I have uploaded my Options Analysis annual spreadsheet to the Big Board; it is one of the 2021 tabs. Direct link here. The online XLS has a ton more information than we show here: it has updated Service time, first added to 40-man, known years optioned and some notes.

I divide the Roster into 5 categories of players on the 40-man:
– Vets who can refuse demotion (5 or more years of service)
– Players with Options available but who are MLB Entrenched
– Players with Options Available, jeopardizing 25-man roster status
– Players with Options almost guaranteed to be used in 2021
– Players with No Options left (the main analysis of this post).

For completion, here’s a quick run-through of all the categories:

Category 1: Vets who can refuse demotion (5 or more years of service)

We have 13 such players for 2021: Scherzer, Corbin, Gomes, Strasburg, Harris, Castro, Hudson, Harrison, Schwarber, Lester, Zimmerman, Hand and Avila.

Interesting tidbits about this group:
– Castro, Zimmerman and Avila never once burned an option
– Schwarber just got his 5 years of service time last season.
– Zimmerman earned 10&5 rights in 2015, and Strasburg earned it last year.
– Of this group, only Hand actually burned three options. Then, he didn’t make the Miami team out of spring training in 2016 so they had to DFA him; San Diego claimed him and he began to flourish from there.


Category 2: Options Avail but are MLB entrenched

We have 7 such players for 2021: Turner, Soto, Robles, Suero, Rainey, Bell, and Finnegan.

You may quibble perhaps with Finnegan being called “entrenched” but for now, his 2020 season has him being a lock for the pen in my book.

Interesting tidbits about this group:
– Turner and Bell will reach 5 years of service time in 2021, which means they would be able to refuse an option.
– Neither Soto and Finnegan has ever been optioned.
– Turner’s 2015 nonsensical call-up ended up burning the team dearly; he achieved Super2 by just a few days and the Nats have been on the hook for millions more than they “needed” to spend.

Category 3: Options Available and not a lock for the 25-man roster.

I count 5 players in this category for 2021: Kieboom, Clay, Garcia, Fedde, and Harper.

Each of these players needs some discussion.

  • Kieboom, by all accounts, is being handed the 3B job. The team did not pursue a replacement, Castro wants to play 2B, and the job is his. I suppose it is still possible that the team finds a new 3B and sends him to AAA, where a lot of people think he needs to be. But for now, he’s in this category instead of the one above.
  • Clay signed a MLB contract with the team in the 2020 off-season, somewhat oddly in that he had zero MLB service time at that point and was a MLFA. I wonder if the team “beat out” another suitor by promising the 40-man slot. Either way, I do not favor Clay to make the team coming out of Spring Training.
  • Garcia could theoretically make the 25-man roster as our backup infielder … but i’d much rather see him in AAA playing full time. His slash line was not that impressive last year (but better than Kieboom’s … hence why some are wondering what the heck the team is doing). For now, i’d send him to AAA.
  • Fedde got a 4th option thanks to some timing issues … and i’ll bet the team uses it in 2021. Which means Fedde will be in AAA as a 28yr old and service time in four different MLB seasons. That’s got to be a bummer to him. And to make matters worse he may not be the first spot starter called upon, thanks to an option-less player we’re about to talk about.
  • Harper was solid in 2019, awful in 2020, and I think his options flexibility will mean he starts the year in AAA in lieu of one of the MLFA/NRIs we’ve signed this spring. But he should be back up eventually to provide injury relief cover.

Category 4: Players with options who are almost guaranteed to be optioned out of Spring Training.

I count 11 guys in this category: McGowin, Barrera, Noll, Braymer, Armenteros, Adon, Antuna, Fuentes, Hernandez, Romero and Bacus.

Lets take these guys by category:

  • Adon, Antuna and Fuentes: just added to the 40-man, not yet expected to contribute at the MLB level.
  • McGowin, Braymer, Armenteros and Romero: i’d want this to be 4/5ths or 4/6ths of my AAA rotation. I do not consider these players serious contenders to the 5th starter role, but I do think the team may be looking at the two lefties (Braymer and Romero) as relievers going forward. I’d rather see if they can cut it as starters and provide more value. Armenteros is a wildcard; he has certainly shown he can succeed as a starter in the minors and his release by Houston was somewhat surprising. I’m guessing he pitches excellently in AAA and could be a surprising call-up mid-seaons.
  • Noll: honestly i’m not sure why he’s still rostered at this point; instead of calling him up last year they started a 19yr old’s service time clock. Eventually they called him up and he got a grand total of three starts. He’s my “first guy off the 40-man if we need space” candidate right now.
  • Barrera: you have to have a backup catcher on the roster and he’s it.
  • Hernandez sits on the 40-man after a late-season call-up, but he seems to have no spot on this team. he’s 2nd behind Noll in “next guy to get DFA’d.”
  • Lastly, Bacus seems to be an afterthought reliever on the roster right now, and is not favored to beat out several MLFA NRIs for the 2021 roster.

Category 5: Players out of options.

We have 3 players out of options for 2021: Ross, Voth and Stevenson.

  • Joe Ross is the current leading 5th starter candidate.
  • Voth (along with Fedde) are the leading competitors for said 5th starter job, and the odds on circumstance to occur is this: Voth loses the 5th starter job but “looks good” in spring training, which leads the team to either carry him as the 8th reliever or to invent a soft tissue injury and stash him on the DL for a few weeks. If Voth does NOT look good in spring training, he’s a DFA candidate come 4/1/21.
  • Stevenson has proven his worth as a plus defender, 4th outfielder type and his 2020 allowed the team to move on (finally?) from Michael A. Taylor this off-season. He’s out of options, but it doesn’t matter b/c he’s the bench OF.

Post Publishing Update 3/23/21: an Arbiter has just ruled that Erick Fedde does NOT have a 4th option, meaning that he’s now out of options and would have to be exposed to waivers if he doesn’t make the 2021 opening day roster.

Nats Off-Season Roster Considerations

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Do the Nats bring back this famous celebration couple? Photo via Brobible

Since we have no playoffs to discuss, we’re pivoting immediately into off-season mode.

The Nats procedurally on 9/28/20 activated all their 10-day DL players. They also procedurally recalled the last three remaining players from the 40-man alternative site for the purposes of off-season moves. Amazingly, they ended the season with 9 players on the 10-day DL and just one healthy player on the 40-man roster not already playing (Raudy Read).

https://www.mlb.com/nationals/roster/transactions/2020/09

Free Agents to-be are immediately declared FAs at 8am Central time the day after the World Series ends. The team doesn’t have to restore its 60-day DL players until 5 days after the World Series ends, which allows them to add them back after free agents are declared and after the team has a small exclusive window to negotiate. So, we have to wait for about a month to see the next dominos fall, but we can start to speculate now.

Based on my records, here’s how our roster will look in the off-season, which will drive the decisions to make. We’ll classify these players into 5 categories

Category 1: Players under a “veteran” contract for 2021 (7): Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, Hudson, Harris, Gomes, Castro. Seven players but a huge payroll hit (per Cots, these 7 players count for $120M or so in cap space next year.


Category 2: Pre-Arbitration players under full team control (22): Voth, Fedde, Crowe, Finnegan, Harper, McGowin, Braymer, Espino, AWilliams (TJ aug 2020), Read, Garcia, Noll, Robles, Stevenson, Hernandez, Bacus, Rainey, Bourque, Kieboom, Sanchez, Romero, Barrera. That’s a ton of players on pre-arb deals, which is important since they will represent a huge chunk of the active roster in 2021. I think a few of these pre-arb guys are in discussion for “first 40-man guy to get DFA’d when the team needs room” territory (Noll, Williams, Sanchez) but for now, they’re all in play. Note: a couple of these guys were technically MLFA signings in 2020 so i’m not sure if they are now pre-arb or still FAs. Apologies if I got their status wrong).


Category 3: Arbitration-eligible players for 2021 (8). Here’s where we start discussions. Player by player:

  • Suero (A1); lock to tender
  • Turner (A3): lock to tender
  • Soto (A1): lock to tender. I saw something recently that seemed to indicate he may or may not be a Super-2 guy, but he was projecting to be Super-2 after last off-season so i’m assuming he’s Arb-eligible this year.
  • Taylor (A4); Nothing has really changed with Taylor; he struggled at the plate again but hit a few bombs, which drove his OPS+ figure up a bit from what you’d expect for someone who hit below .200. The change in Taylor in 2020 is that his defensive numbers COST him WAR this year instead of helped. Probably Small Sample Size driven, but Taylor’s bigger problem is that his direct competition as “4th outfielder” on this roster Andrew Stevenson just blew up in 2020, making Taylor an obvious non-tender candidate.
  • Guerra (A4); his contract status is odd; he has bounced back and forth on and off the roster and signed a combo major/minor FA deal this past off-season. But Cots lists him as arb-eligible, so i’m not entirely sure if he’s a FA or if he’s arb eligible. My guess is that the team cuts another deal with him and non-tenders him if he’s eligible then immediately re-signs him the next day.
  • Barrett (A3); another odd case; how much does sentimentality count? The team called up a slew of other prospects before recalling Barrett this year, he pitched in 2 games then hit the DL. It seems to me he’s a non-tender candidate and at age 32 could be facing one last shot at making a MLB roster next year.
  • Elias (A3); 2020 a lost season for Elias, who went onto the 60-day DL early and barely pitched in 2019 for this team as well (thanks to the idiotic decision in Aug 2019 to allow him to hit, which resulted in a leg injury with him running out a grounder in a meaningless at bat). The Nats didn’t give up a ton to acquire him (giving up two decent minor league arms in Taylor Guilbeau and Elvis Alvarado) so I can’t imagine them non-tendering him, but how do you do salary evaluation of a player who misses an entire year?
  • JRoss (A3); he opted out in 2020, and his absence was felt immediately when it became clear his 5th starter replacements could not cut it. I think you tender him and he goes back into the starter competition for 2021. Worst case he gets cut mid-way through spring training and the Nats escape with 1/6th of his salary.

Category 4: Players with Options for 2021 (5): here’s where we start having some tougher decisions.

  • Sanchez: $12M club option, $2M buyout: I’m not sure how you take this option if you’re the Nats after the season we just saw. Sanchez was lucky to post the numbers he did in 2019 (his FIP was more than a half a point higher than his ERA), and he bottomed out in 2020. Decline the option, pay the buyout.
  • Thames: $4M mutual option, $1M buyout. Thames posted just a 65 OPS+ playing primarily as a 1B/DH type. That’s just patently awful, considering how many options there were on the market for “non-mobile mid-30s slugger.” Decline the option, pay the buyout.
  • Holt: $5M club option, $750k buyout. He took a significant step back from his Boston numbers, which resulted in Milwaukee cutting bait on him a month into a 2year deal. Despite his positional flexibility (he played 6 positions in 20 games for the Nats) I don’t see how you guarantee $5M to a guy who didn’t “wow” you in his audition. Decline the option, pay the buyout.
  • Eaton: $10.5M club option, $1.5M buyout. Phew; what do you do here. His fourth straight year in offensive decline. He was awful defensively. But he’s only 31; does the team take the $10.5M option and roll the dice that 2020 was an anomoly? If they cut him, do they have a replacement minor leaguer that makes sense (not really no). So do they roll the dice that they can get comparable production on the FA market for the same price? How much does sentimentality factor in here? Clubhouse presence and managerial relationship? Again, he’s only 31, which is a lot different from 36 (see next). I think the team exercises the option.
  • Kendrick: $6.5M mutual option, $2.25M buyout. Word came out a few days ago that Kendrick was considering retirement until he got hurt. I’m not sure I buy that, not with a 6.5M option on the table and more gas left in the tank. Another sentimental pick here; a guy who can plug in multiple positions in a pinch and who now has the DH to settle into if need be. Also a factor here; much like in poker, if you’re into a hand already for the big blind, why not make a call for a little bit more? Declining the option only saves them $4M, and it may be worth the cost to keep a veteran presence around one more time. I mean, if Eaton is there, you gotta keep his buddy Howie right? Exercise the option.

Category 5: Unrestricted FAs (6). Now, there’s nothing the team can really do with these guys since they’re FAs. But we can talk about whether or not we think the team pursues them in the off-season:

  • Suzuki; do you re-sign a 37yr old catcher? He’s been amazingly consistent at the plate the last few years while splitting time pretty evenly with Gomes. Still sporting a decent OBP. Is he getting pushed out by rising minor league depth (hardly, unless you think Read or Barrera is an option in the majors in 2021). I might pursue a 1-yr deal.
  • Cabrera: reverted to his 2018-19 form at the plate, league average providing poor, slow, aging defense at multiple infield positions. I think you move on.
  • Harrison really showed a jolt for this team, but he’s a 2B on a team with a prospect seemingly installed there for the longer run.
  • Doolittle: tough one. Struggled last year, struggled this year. A huge part of the community, outspoken leader. Maybe bring him back on an incentive-laden deal?
  • Freeman (TJ Aug 2020); really bad timing on his TJ surgery, as he’s a FA and will be rehabbing on his own.
  • Zimmerman, the most difficult decision of all. The team was onboard with a $2M deal for 2020 before he opted out for completely understandable family reasons. 2020 was his age 35 season; I’d guarantee him a $2M incentive-laden deal to be a 1B/DH platoon with a lefty slugger for 2021 absolutely. When he’s healthy he can hit, and doing nothing but DHing will help keep him on the field. Its worth a flier for a guy who is either retiring to the Nats front office or playing in 2021.

If the team does exactly what I say here, what would be our needs heading into the off-season? First lets see how this would look from a roster perspective (not counting FAs):

  • SP: Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, JRoss (A3), Voth, Fedde, Crowe, McGowin, Braymer, Espino, Romero
  • RP: Hudson, Harris, Suero, Elias, Finnegan, Harper, Bacus, Rainey, Bourque
  • C: Gomes, Read, Barrera
  • INF: Castro, Turner, Garcia, Noll, Kieboom, Sanchez, Kendrick
  • OF: Soto, Robles, Stevenson, Hernandez, Eaton

Immediate thoughts on areas of need:

  • Another starter. I’m just not sure you can go into 2021 with your 4th/5th starters being Ross, Voth, Fedde and Crowe. I’m not sure I trust what I saw from McGowin or Braymer. Espino has never really succeeded in the majors and seems like the definition of a 4-A guy. And Romero? Maybe he can step up now that he’s gotten his debut out of the way.
  • Reliever help: I see 5-6 mlb-quality relievers here, but we’d need like 12 on the 40-man roster.
  • Catcher; as discussed with Suzuki above
  • Infield: well, right now your starting infield in 2021 is Castro/Kieboom at 3rd, Turner at SS, Garcia/Castro at 2nd, Kendrick at 1st (if they exercise his option), with Noll and Sanchez in AAA or released. They probably need more depth here.
  • Outfield: If they exercise Eaton’s option, then little needs to be done. If they don’t, then they’ll need a starting corner OF.

In other words, they need help basically everywhere.

Thoughts? did I get anything wrong?