Nationals Must Go All-in with Uncertain Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper Futures

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 15, 2015

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 03:  Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals celebrates with Stephen Strasburg #37 after a victory against the San Francisco Giants at Nationals Park on July 3, 2012 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
G Fiume/Getty Images

The Washington Nationals are in a spot where they can glance back and see a less-than-awesome 2015 season and also look forward at a future that could take both of their biggest homegrown stars away.

An enviable spot? Well, no. But if nothing else, it's a spot that should spur the Nationals into some serious action this winter.

Ideally the Nationals' winter checklist will see them extend star right-hander Stephen Strasburg and star right fielder Bryce Harper. Strasburg, the team's No. 1 pick in 2009, is only a year away from free agency. Harper, the team's No. 1 pick in 2010, is three years away from free agency. But extending him in the wake of a season in which he OPS'd 1.109 with 42 homers is a good time to do it.

But here's some advice on what to do with your breath: Don't hold it.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Strasburg, 27, and Harper, 23, are represented by Scott Boras, who indicated at the winter meetings last week that nothing is imminent—particularly not with Harper, as Boras says it's up to the Nats to instigate extension talks.

“I think those are club dynamics,” Boras said, via Mark Zuckerman of Nats Insider. “Whenever any team approaches me about any player, obviously we have dialogue with them. But at this point in time, Bryce is going to be there for three more years; very happy there. So we’ll just go forward.”

However, let's be real here. Boras generally doesn't do extensions, and it's hard to imagine him changing his tune no matter how hard the Nationals go after Strasburg or Harper.

If Strasburg can make it through 2016 unscathed, he'll be the best starting pitcher on the market next winter. If Harper can make it through the next three seasons unscathed, he'll be the most attractive free agent since Alex Rodriguez.

The guy who knows this better than anyone is Mr. Boras himself.

So that sound that's now materializing in your head is the ticking of a clock. Because the Nationals can't take it for granted that either Strasburg or Harper will be sticking around long-term, it's on them to do what they can to win while they're still around.

And make no mistake, that's going to require some effort.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Does this sound like stating the obvious? It might sound like stating the obvious. 

After all, it's generally a good idea for a team to put some effort into the offseason when it's coming off of a mere 83-win season. It's an even better idea when said season features bad chemistry and incompetent leadership. It's a downright awesome idea when the offseason has already robbed a team of an ace starting pitcher and a starting infielder and is threatening to rob it of three more regulars.

Thing is, though, the Nationals actually could justify a quiet offseason if they need to.

Sure, it stands out that the Nationals have already lost Jordan Zimmermann to free agency and Yunel Escobar in a trade and that they could also lose Ian Desmond, Denard Span and Doug Fister. That's a good chunk of talent that's missing.

But the Nationals' big addition is not to be overlooked. They began their offseason by booting Matt Williams and replacing him with veteran skipper Dusty Baker. He's known as a true player's manager, so the Nationals may improve simply by letting him clean up last year's dysfunction.

Just as important, let's realize that Baker is taking over a roster that isn't the disaster some might see it as. Heck, MLB.com's Mike Petriello notes that it actually projects as elite heading into 2016:

Mike Petriello @mike_petriello

Rough winter for @Nationals so far, but they're starting from a very good place anyway: https://t.co/Yk1UHR4nNT https://t.co/8u6KlnSyNC

This isn't hard to believe. The Nationals are returning many players from their 2015 roster, which wasn't undone by a lack of talent.

At the center of it all, obviously, was Harper doing MVP things at the dish. Strasburg also gave the team a lift, finishing the year on a 10-start tear that lowered his ERA to 3.46. Gio Gonzalez also had a good season, and Max Scherzer was downright fantastic in his first year with the club.

Even more so than bad chemistry and poor leadership, what really killed Washington's 2015 season was injuries. Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman were hurt for much of the year and weren't themselves when they were healthy. Strasburg also missed time with injuries.

And that's just among the players who are due to return in 2016.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

If the injury bug leaves Rendon, Werth and Zimmerman alone, Harper will have lots of help on offense. If Strasburg can stay healthy, the front three of the Nationals rotation will be outstanding.

But, yeah. If you're thinking "Those are some big ifs," you're not wrong.

It's easy to sit and wonder about how good the Nationals lineup will be if Rendon, Werth and Zimmerman are in it, but two of those guys are old and the other has a history of injuries, as does Strasburg.

While we're tackling a list of areas where the 2016 Nationals could go bust, let's also grant that they're betting heavily on some less-than-sure things.

Trea Turner is a talented shortstop prospect, but he has all of 44 major league plate appearances. Michael A. Taylor is a capable defensive center fielder with some power and speed, but he needs to kick a bad whiff habit. Joe Ross flashed some pretty good stuff in 16 appearances in 2015, but he's a 22-year-old who only has those 16 appearances.

Bottom line: Washington's current lineup is one that could be good, but it's not nearly solid enough for anyone to take that as a given. It needs depth.

And considering the circumstances, it shouldn't just be any depth.

Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

In the NL East, the Nationals need to worry about keeping up with the New York Mets. They're coming off of a trip to the World Series, and you might have noticed them directly behind the Nationals in Petriello's 2016 WAR projections. With a vaunted starting rotation and a lineup that features a good amount of depth, that's arguably even more believable than Washington's 2016 WAR projection.

Elsewhere, it's not just the Mets the Nationals need to worry about if they want to win big while they still have Strasburg and Harper.

The big threat in the National League is in Chicago, where the Cubs have built a superteam. The Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals are also still dangerous. Out west, the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants have built themselves into dangerous contenders. That only gives the Los Angeles Dodgers more incentive to put their mountains of riches and young talent to use in response.

To the Nationals' credit, it seems like they're aware of all of this.

Petriello highlighted a lefty-hitting outfielder and middle infield depth as the Nationals' two biggest needs. This would explain the clubs attempts to sign Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, who definitely could have filled both needs.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

But though the Nationals signaled with those pursuits that they want to go big, they've also indicated that they're OK going small if they can't make good on their "Plan As."

Take what's happened with the club's bullpen. The Nationals were heavily linked to Darren O'Day and have also been strongly connected to Cincinnati Reds flamethrowing closer Aroldis Chapman. But the Nationals missed out on O'Day and have rightfully called off their pursuit of Chapman.

The Nationals have responded to these misses, not by going after alternative relief aces but by settling for lesser options. They've traded for Trevor Gott and signed Shawn Kelley and Oliver Perez. Washington's bullpen is definitely deeper after these moves but not exactly more dangerous.

The Nationals won't be doomed if they continue like this, as adding complementary pieces to a team that has big potential isn't the worst idea. But considering that their future also has bust potential in a landscape that features some heavy hitters, merely adding these pieces isn't the best idea either.

So that need for a lefty-hitting outfielder? That's a good excuse for the Nats to make good on the interest that Pete Kerzel of MASN Sports says they have in Colorado Rockies outfielders Carlos Gonzalez and Charlie Blackmon. 

That need for middle infield depth? The best way to fix that might be to trade for Todd Frazier, someone who Jon Heyman of CBS Sports says the Nationals are interested in. Washington could plant him at third and move Rendon back to second. 

While the Nationals are at it, one would feel much more comfortable about their rotation depth if they went somewhere with their interest in Mike Leake. The bullpen doesn't necessarily have to be a finished product either. Bill Ladson of MLB.com has reported the Nationals are looking at Pirates closer Mark Melancon, who would be an upgrade over either Jonathan Papelbon or Drew Storen. While the Nationals are at it, one or both of them needs to go.

As things stand now, it's hard to say that the Nationals' window is closing in a hurry. They have a strong core in place—stronger than their lousy 2015 indicates, to be sure.

But for the first time since the Nationals rose to power in 2012, the point at which their window is going to start closing is in sight. The two homegrown stars they've been building around may not be sticking around for much longer. If the Nationals want to send them out on a high note, they need to keep building.

It's either that or pony up to keep them around for the long-haul. But good luck with that.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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