The best thing to happen to the Washington Nationals this offseason might be Bryce Harper turning down the $300 million contract offered by the club at the end of the season. Rather than allocating vast resources to one free agent superstar, the Nationals made smaller moves to shore up their weak spots, signing starting pitcher Patrick Corbin on Tuesday to bolster their rotation and adding two catchers earlier in the offseason.
It wasn’t clear if the Nationals would be able to compete without Harper. But according to some forecasts, they are already better without him. They have improved themselves in a National League East where every team — save for the Miami Marlins — seems intent on trying to dramatically improve this offseason.
After the Nationals finished 82-80 last season, FanGraphs projects them as the sixth-best team in the majors at the moment — the best team in the division — with a 91-71 forecasted record. While it’s unclear whether the Nationals still want to compete for Harper, they don’t need him to improve over last season.
Baseball is a weak-link sport, meaning that the quality of the minor contributors on a team is more important than in a sport like basketball, where star power is paramount. Baseball, by rule and nature, spreads around opportunity more uniformly. A slugger hits only once every turn through a lineup, an ace pitcher pitches once every five days. The same is true for the light-hitting starting shortstop and the back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. While it’s possible to win with a stars-and-scrubs approach, that’s inherently riskier, given that one injury can derail a club’s entire season. That’s one reason that a successful MLB team rarely allocates more than 16 percent of its payroll to one player.
With this in mind, the most efficient way to improve may be to strengthen the weakest links of a roster, not to target brand-name stars as saviors. A team can improve itself quickly and often more efficiently by bringing the most underperforming areas of its roster closer to, or exceeding, average production. It’s an idea the NEIFI analytics company attempted to quantify. (NEIFI co-founder Adam Guttridge was hired by the Mets to lead their data-science department.)
While Corbin wasn’t cheap — he signed a six-year, $140 million contract — he upgrades what was a top-heavy Nationals staff that had question marks after Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Perhaps the Corbin signing was made possible by payroll flexibility coming from the club moving away from resigning Harper. Corbin could provide a similar production bump as Harper for a lesser cost. With his 3.5 forecasted WAR, Corbin projects as a 2.8-WAR upgrade over the Nats’ incumbent fifth-best starting pitching option, Joe Ross. (The Nationals project to receive 2.7 WAR from right fielders without Harper. Harper projects to produce 4.9 WAR in 2019.)
But even before signing Corbin, the Nationals had cheaply and significantly improved upon their weakest link.
The Nationals’ catchers have been among the most ineffective positional groups in recent seasons. Since 2015, the club ranks 27th in catcher wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. That mark doesn’t even include catcher framing metrics, in which the Nationals were also one of the worst teams in 2017 (-10.7 framing runs) and below-average last season (-4.5 framing runs), as reported by Baseball Prospectus. And according to weighted runs created plus, a measure of offensive ability that adjusts for park and run-scoring environments,1 Nationals catchers were 27th in the majors, with a wRC+ mark of only 64.2
So it makes sense that the Nationals made upgrading their catcher group a priority in acquiring Yan Gomes in a trade with the Cleveland Indians last week and signing Kurt Suzuki to a two-year, $10 million deal in mid-November.
At a time when catcher is the weakest offensive position in baseball (84 wRC+), Suzuki and Gomes are average performers compared with all hitters but virtual stars compared with the rest of the catching field. Suzuki posted a 108 wRC+ with the Braves last season (and a 127 mark in 2017). Gomes had a 101 wRC+ in Cleveland (on top of a 92 career mark). The players represent a major upgrade over Matt Wieters, who entered the past two seasons as the club’s primary catcher. Gomes, who will likely be the starter, is an above-average defender for his career.
Consider the upgrade Gomes and Suzuki would have provided over the past two seasons. Nationals catchers combined for 0.5 WAR IN 640 plate appearances last year, according to FanGraphs. Gomes and Suzuki combined for 4.2 WAR (3.3 WAR when adjusted for 640 plate appearances). In 2017, Nationals catchers produced an MLB-worst -1.2 WAR. In 692 plate appearances in 2017, Gomez and Suzuki combined for 4.3 WAR. Catcher depth is key as the position requires more off days and the risk of injury is higher.
For comparison, Harper has averaged 3.8 WAR over the past three seasons.
Harper has superstar upside, but he could require a record contract commitment — and the Nationals have an outfield loaded with talent in Adam Eaton and young stars Juan Soto and Victor Robles.
(A warning to clubs pursuing Harper and Manny Machado: Of the five highest-paid players in MLB history, three — Alex Rodriguez three years into his deal, Giancarlo Stanton three years into his deal and Robinson Cano five years into deal — were eventually traded to New York clubs, and the other two, Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, are nearly untradeable.)
The Nationals are paying Suzuki a relatively modest $4 million in 2019, and Gomes is owed a club-friendly $7 million. In other words, the Nationals are paying a relative bargain if Gomes and Suzuki upgrade the position by 3 or more WAR, roughly what Harper has brought to the outfield in recent years. Without Harper, they had payroll flexibility to improve elsewhere.
For every win above replacement, a player on the open market in 2017 could be expected to receive more than $10 million. By that measure, the Nationals have done well. With Corbin and the catcher upgrades, they project to have improved by 6 WAR at a cost of $34.3 million in 2019 when combining Gomes and Suzuki’s salaries with Corbin’s.
The Nats are not the only NL East team to have filled voids.
Josh Donaldson signed a one-year, $23 million deal with the Braves after averaging 3.2 WAR per season the past two years. The defending NL East champs elected to take on short-term risk to seek reward in adding the talented but injury-prone Donaldson. With the addition, the Braves strengthened one of their few weak links and now project to be average or better at every position except left field.
The Phillies had too many weak links last season, ranking 22nd or worse in six position groups according to Baseball-Reference.com: shortstop, second base, third base, left field, center field and right field. They addressed arguably their weakest link entering 2019, shortstop — ranking 30th in WAR last year — in landing Jean Segura from the rebuilding Seattle Mariners.
Segura averaged 4 WAR the past three seasons, according to FanGraphs, and is signed to a club-friendly five-year, $70 million deal through 2022, with a club option for 2023. (The Phillies also shed the contract of Carlos Santana in the deal and added bullpen arms Juan Nicasio and James Pazos.) Segura is a borderline star. The Phillies have cash to fill other voids, and they need to do just that to beat their 78 projected wins. They could use that cash on either Harper or Machado, both of whom have reportedly been in their sights.
As the for the Mets, new general manager Brodie Van Wagenen has been in search of brand-name star talent. In Cano, the Mets added a well-known star. But Cano does not directly address the Mets’ weaknesses. Second base tied with left field as the Mets’ most productive position group last season. Jeff McNeil had projected to be the club’s most valuable position player (3.0 WAR) — just shy of Cano (3.4 WAR projection), according to FanGraphs projections.3
While Cano has aged well, he did turn 36 in October. He’s going to decline at some point. After receiving cash contributions from the Mariners, Van Wagenen — a former agent with no front office experience — gave a deal to Cano that amounts to a five-year, $60 million contract. Cano and elite reliever Edwin Diaz — who will upgrade a need area — cost the Mets dollars and two top 100 overall prospects in their No. 3 (Jarred Kelenic) and No. 4 ranked prospects (Justin Dunn) in the trade.
The Mets ranked 20th or worse in the majors in production at catcher, first base, shortstop, third base and in their bullpen last season. The Mets didn’t need a star second baseman. They needed to strengthen their weakest links.