For the next four days, the baseball world will revolve around an unlikely sun — the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Oxon Hill, Md., home to the 2016 Winter Meetings.
There, down the Potomac from D.C., in the shadow of a giant Ferris wheel not usually present at proceedings like these, Major League Baseball’s offseason will spin into a frenzy. Few teams will be more central to the swirl than the Washington Nationals.
They have money to spend, young talent to trade and a tendency to aim high. They have holes to fill, strengths to be strengthened and a deep preexisting core on which to build.
A few big moves could vault them from division winners to legitimate World Series contenders. A quiet week, while by no means an indication of a quiet offseason overall, could leave them with a smaller talent pool from which to pull.
The Winter Meetings are not the end-all, be-all of offseason dealing. After all, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo and his colleagues at other teams have cellphones, and hardly need to be locked in a convention center together to get deals done. But proximity hastens the process. It allows for in-person conversations with agents or other teams. Conversations lead to deals. They also lead to rumors.
The Nationals have been the subject of several such rumors on the eve of the Winter Meetings. They have reportedly discussed Andrew McCutchen with the Pirates, though no one from their side will say much about that. They are reportedly discussing left-handed ace Chris Sale with the White Sox, though how far those talks have gotten remains unclear. The sense from rival evaluators is that the asking price on both players will be high.
Rizzo tends to call about any player he believes is available via trade. Asked about specific talks with the Pirates this week, one Nationals person said “we’re talking to a lot of folks.” Many teams do not have the luxury to listen, not equipped with the same high-profile prospects the Nationals are, nor the roster flexibility to make elite talent fit in the outfield or at shortstop, behind the plate or on the pitching staff.
Fewer teams have the willingness to give up prospects in megadeals like these. The Nationals, traditionally conservative when adding in the present because of a firm loyalty to the future, have enticing prospects like outfielder Victor Robles, pitchers Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, and others to deal. Should they concede one or more of them in a deal for a superstar, the decision to do so will signal an increased emphasis on winning now.
But the Nationals do not need a blockbuster to improve. They made one deal already, acquiring an everyday-ready catcher in Derek Norris for a low-A right-hander, Pedro Avila, Friday evening. As the roster stands now, Norris fits as a low-cost starting catcher.
They have options in free agency, most notably at closer. People familiar with the Nationals’ thinking indicate an internal belief that Aroldis Chapman might cost too much. Kenley Jansen will cost nearly as much as Chapman, and because the Dodgers made him a qualifying offer, he will cost them a draft pick, too.
But the Nationals would love to bring back Mark Melancon. Rizzo praised Melancon’s clubhouse presence, and though the right-hander will likely earn one of the biggest deals in relief pitching history, he will come at the lowest price of any of the elite closers. The Giants and others are reportedly chasing Melancon, too, which could mean the Nationals will have to look elsewhere.
Rizzo has pointed to the back end of the bullpen, shortstop and center field as places he wants to improve heading into next season. A deal for a center fielder would push Trea Turner back to shortstop, thereby pushing Danny Espinosa into a utility role — though Rizzo has expressed a willingness to deal Espinosa if the opportunity arises.
A deal for a corner outfielder would push Bryce Harper to center, something Rizzo said he is willing to do, though he prefers Harper and his cannon arm in right field, where the whole field is ahead of him. A deal for a shortstop seems far less likely, but would mean Turner stays in center long-term.
The Nationals could also trade for pitching help. A deal for Sale or another frontline starter would once again give them the kind of super-rotation they built in 2014 when Max Scherzer signed and bumped 15-game winner Tanner Roark from the rotation. The Royals could be willing to trade Wade Davis, too, which would give the Nationals another closing option should the big three go elsewhere.
In other words, the Nationals have options. If they decide to sell the future for the present, they can launch themselves into another season filled with pennant expectations. If they decide to take a conservative approach, they will still have most of the roster that won them the National League East, and was a win away from the National League Championship Series. Either way, the Nationals seem likely to be in the middle of the action this week in Oxon Hill, at the center of the baseball universe in more ways than one.