Nationals assemble championship-caliber team
Back in early December, Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo was told by the Lerner family to put together a team capable of winning it all, and that is just what he has done. Just about all the holes in the Nats' roster have been filled with experienced, top-quality talent, and all of a sudden, the Nats have become the team to beat in the NL East this year. The following table, which is also displayed on the Washington Nationals page, is "subject to revision." [Each player is identified by position, former team, contract terms, month of transaction, and special factors.]
- Josh Harrison (U) -- 1 year, $1 million (Oct.)
- Joe Ross [P] -- 1 year, $1.5 million (Dec.) AE
- Josh Bell (1B, PIT) -- 1 year, $6.35 million (Dec.) TRADE / AE
- Kyle Schwarber (LF, CHC) -- 1 year, $10 million (Jan.)
- Trea Turner (SS) -- 1 year, $13 million (Jan.) AE
- Juan Soto (LF) -- 1 year, $8.5 million (Jan.) AE
- Jon Lester (LHP, CHC) -- 1 year, $5 million (Jan.) D
- Ryan Zimmerman (1B) -- 1 year, $1 million + (Jan.)
- Brad Hand (RHP, CLE) -- 1 year, $10.5 million (Jan.)
- Alex Avila (C, MIN) -- 1 year, $1.5 million (Jan.)
New contracts of note
"+" = optional extension (mutual or otherwise). "D" = part of salary is deferred. "AE" = arbitration eligible. Dollar figures are rounded.
The first big move came on Christmas Eve, when the Nationals acquired [first baseman] Josh Bell in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates. In return, the Nats sent Wil Crowe and [Eddy Yean (both pitchers)] to Pittsburgh. Bell became the Pirates' star player after the departure of Andrew McCutcheon, and his loss was yet another big blow to Pirate fans' hopes for a competitive year.
In early January, Kyle Schwarber signed a fat $10 million contract with the Nats. He had a down season with the Chicago Cubs last year, batting just .188, and he did not receive a tender offer after the season ended. At the tender age of just 27, however, there are big expectations for him to rebound this year. He is a power hitter who played a part in the Cubs' 2016 World Series victory (after missing most of that year due to injury), but he is not known for hitting consistently or fielding the ball while in the outfield. He will presumably play [left] field for the Nats, depending on the center fielder (Victor Robles) for help with balls hit into the gap.
In mid-January, the Nats came to terms with shortstop Trea Turner and outfielder Juan Soto, who each signed one-year contracts worth, respectively, $13 million and $8.5 million. Thus the nuisance of arbitration was avoided. They both deserve multi-year contracts, and the Nats will have to put down a lot of dough to keep them both.
Right hand pitcher Jon Lester is another former Chicago Cub who was allowed to become a free agent. Unlike Schwarber, he is a veteran (age 37), with declining performance. His pitching speed has declined in recent years, but he is expected to be a solid part of an already-excellent rotation. His contract specifies that $3 million of the $5 million total will be paid as a signing bonus two years hence -- in 2023.
Next the Nats acquired former Cleveland Indian pitcher Brad Hand, and he is expected to be the closing pitcher, replacing Daniel Hudson in that role. His $10.5 million salary seems high, but the Nationals are apparently desperate to avoid a repeat of the frantic search for a closer that has happened in most recent years. Bullpen stability would be a huge benefit for the Nationals.
Later in the month, Ryan Zimmerman signed a renewed one-year contract for a mere $1 million, a clear demonstration of how much he loves the game and how much affection he has for the city of Washington, where he has played his entire professional career. This was a big relief for long-time fans of his, including me. He will be the second-string first baseman behind Josh Bell (who used to play outfield, actually), and will also pinch hit.
And finally, at the end of January, the Nats signed former Minnesota Twins catcher Alex Avila to a one-year contract. He spent most of his career with the Detroit Tigers,
but for some reason never had more than 57 at-bats in a year. [CORRECTION: I was misled by looking at his spring training stats. Actually, he averaged 265 at-bats over 11 full seasons.] I saw Avila play in Wrigley Field on August 5, 2017, a few days after he was acquired by the Chicago Cubs in a trade with the Detroit Tigers. He hit a home run that day, helping the Cubs beat the Nationals. [See my Aug. 16, 2017 blog post, with a photo of Avila scooping up the ball as Bryce Harper struck out to end the game.]
And, just for good measure, the Nats and Gerardo "Baby Shark" Parra reached a minor league deal, with an invitation to attend the Nats' spring training. After giving the Nats some much-needed good vibes during their triumphant 2019 season, he played in Japan last year. Could he work the same magic again?
The Washington Nationals page has been updated with new information on the Nats' probable starting lineup and new player contracts.
Departing the Nationals are Michael A. Taylor, who signed with the Kansas City Royals after an up-and-down decade with the Nationals; Adam Eaton, who returned to the Chicago White Sox, from whence he was acquired prior to the 2017 season via a trade involving pitching star Lucas Giolito; and Howie Kendrick, the hero of the Nats' 2019 postseason, who decided to retire. We wish them all the best in their respective futures.
Spring training 2021
Spring training began a few weeks ago, and actual games got underway at the end of February. The Nationals tied their first game, with the Cardinals, and then lost their next three before winning three in a row and tying with the Houston Astros today. That gives them a 3-3-2 record. Several of the Nats' new players, including Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber, have already shown great promise. Ryan Zimmerman got an RBI single to start the Nats' victory over the New York Mets earlier in the week, another good sign. Stephen Strasburg pitched very well, and Max Scherzer seems to have recovered from a twisted ankle. Jon Lester had surgery to remove a thyroid gland, and apparently he won't miss much practice time at all.
The Nats will face stiff competition from the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves this year, and the whole National League East Division looks very solid, in contrast to the rather pathetic performance in last year's shortened season. I will attempt to summarize prospects for other teams and other divisions before the regular season begins, just over three weeks from today!
Different cities will handle things differently, but it seems almost certain that most if not all teams will allow partial fan attendance when the regular season gets underway on April 1st. After some delays, the pace of covid-19 vaccinations has dramatically increased, and we could resume semi-normal life by next summer...
Spring 2021 road trip
In late February I took a road trip to New Orleans, passing through several states on the way there and back. While in Birmingham, Alabama, I paid a visit to historic Rickwood Field, built in 1910 -- the oldest baseball stadium in the United States! Its design was based on Forbes Field (built one year earlier), and was named after the owner of the Birmingham Barons, Richard Woodward. Unfortunately, it was raining that day, or else I would have spent more time getting photographs there. About an hour later I stopped in Tuscaloosa, Alabama to see Bryant-Denny Stadium, home of the NCAA champion Alabama Crimson Tide since 1929. On the east side of the stadium are a series of statues honoring the team's past coaches such as Paul "Bear" Bryant, as well as the current coach, Nick Saban. In New Orleans, I made a brief visit to the Superdome, where thousands of people took refuge from massive flooding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. It used to be used as an occasional venue for college baseball games, and even MLB exhibition games, but since the renovations in 2011, such a reconfiguration is no longer possible. I noticed the compass is slightly off in my diagrams, so I will probably make minor revisions to them in the near future.
It is worth mentioning that the Washington Nationals' original AAA farm team was the New Orleans Zephyrs, but that only lasted two years [: 2005-2006. Located in Metairie, a suburb on the west side of New Orleans,] Zephyr Field (now called "Shrine on Airline"!?) was where Ryan Zimmerman first played in the Nationals organization. The Zephyrs were renamed the "Baby Cakes" in 2017, and were supposed to relocate to Wichita, Kansas in 2020, but all minor league games were canceled last year, so that change will (presumably) take place this year.
On the way back to Virginia, I passed through Mobile, Alabama, but it was too late in the day to see the museum that has been built for home-town hero Hank Aaron, who recently passed away. The next day while driving along the bypass around Atlanta, I stopped at Truist Park (see update below), which was concealed from view by the surrounding high-rise buildings until we were right there. The sudden view of it caught my wife completely by surprise, giving me a chuckle. I was rather surprised that the street passing to the east of the stadium dips well below the level of the playing field -- at least 30 feet, I would guess. I got out to take photos, and as expected, I couldn't see much from the plaza beyond right field. Nevertheless, I did get plenty of exterior photos which provided me with oodles of information on architectural details for my diagrams.
Those who are interested can see my newly-updated Football stadiums photo gallery page, which now includes Bryant-Denny Stadium and the Superdome.
Truist Park update
Fascinated by all the quirky features I saw at Truist Park, I just had to incorporate them into my diagrams. Of course, that meant that I had to review all the aspects of the diagrams, making necessary corrections. The most notable alteration is that the roof now tapers toward both the left field and right field ends. There are several minor corrections in the angle of the grandstand and the position of certain detailed features. The outfield wall in left field now angles out more sharply from the foul pole. Some details in the first-deck diagram are conjectural (hence subject to revision), pending a visit inside the stadium. You can compare to new diagram version to the old (2018) version by clicking on the diagram image on that page. There is a new "full-size" diagram that includes some of the adjacent hotels and other structures that surround the plaza beyond right field.