Nats Sail on the Hudson, Punt on the Thames

The Washington Nationals made two signings Monday afternoon, re-signing relief pitcher Daniel Hudson and inking former Brewers first baseman Eric Thames to contracts.

Hudson’s two-year, $11.5 million deal reunites the Nationals with one of their most reliable relievers in 2019. After being picked up at the trade deadline from the Blue Jays, Hudson put up a 2.47 ERA and 3.97 FIP for Washington. The Nats originally acquired him up as a setup man for closer Sean Doolittle, but after Doolittle went on the Injured List with a sore knee, Hudson picked up most of the save opportunities. This state of affairs persisted as the team eased Doolittle back into the bullpen in September. Hudson was one of the few relievers Washington trusted come the playoffs, with four of his nine appearances registering an average leverage index of two or higher.

It’s a fair price for one of the few quality relievers available in free agency. Of the major league free agent relievers still looking for a new team, only Aaron Loup projects to have an ERA under four by Steamer. Washington’s bullpen still isn’t particularly deep, but with Hudson set to join Doolittle and Will Harris, the Nats will start 2020 with solid choices at the top of the ‘pen. Wander Suero ought to have a better 2020 season, and while Tanner Rainey’s command is still a huge work in progress, I’d rather see him work it out in D.C. than become the umpteenth fascinating, youngish Nationals reliever to bloom in his next uniform.

Meanwhile, the one-year, $4 million contract for Eric Thames is yet another indicator that first base/designated hitters types are not only no longer overrated as a matter of course, but have perhaps come around to being underrated. Thames was a folk hero in Milwaukee, a modern Ken Phelps All-Star who became a hit in Korea, hitting 124 home runs in three seasons for the NC Dinos before returning to the States. Thames shocked the baseball world, hitting 11 homers and slugging .810 in his first month back, and while he fell off that torrid pace, he never lost the adoration of Brewers fans.

At 33, Thames has more baseball behind him than ahead, but he’s quite capable of taking the larger half of a platoon at first base. While Howie Kendrick’s .344/.395/.572 career-best season — at age 35 — has earned him a lot of leash in 2020, he’ll likely be the primary backup at second and third, with the team playing Carter Kieboom in the minors until they’re willing to commit to him full-time.

While Washington hasn’t categorically ruled out Ryan Zimmerman returning in 2020, it’s increasingly difficult to see how he would fit on the roster. Even assuming Kieboom is at Triple-A, the Nats have Thames, Kendrick, Trea Turner, Starlin Castro, Asdrúbal Cabrera, and Wilmer Difo, all primarily infielders. Even if Difo is cut, and Castro and Cabrera serve as Turner’s backup, it’s hard to see how the team finds a spot for Zimmerman. And with Zim already 35 and coming off a .257/.321/.415 line, it’s even more difficult to see how it would be a good idea.

With the infield looking just about complete, it’s a good time to review how much the Nationals really lost with the departure of Anthony Rendon. Josh Donaldson could still sign with Washington, but we’ll cross that bridge when we actually come to it.

Below I’ve projected the Nats infield twice: once based on the current depth charts using ZiPS, and once for a theoretical depth chart assuming they had been able to retain Rendon and didn’t sign Cabrera:

Washington Infield with Rendon
Anthony Rendon .296 .381 .538 5.5 665
Trea Turner .282 .341 .466 3.9 665
Starlin Castro .290 .323 .465 1.6 500
Eric Thames .242 .341 .505 1.5 485
Howie Kendrick .291 .345 .456 0.9 415
Carter Kieboom .253 .333 .412 0.5 150
Wilmer Difo .246 .308 .350 0.1 100
Adrian Sanchez .252 .289 .366 0.0 14
Jake Noll .245 .284 .361 0.0 14
Total .278 .345 .479 14.1 3008

Washington Infield without Rendon
Trea Turner .282 .341 .466 3.9 665
Starlin Castro .290 .323 .465 1.7 539
Asdrubal Cabrera .273 .340 .465 1.6 518
Eric Thames .242 .341 .505 1.5 485
Howie Kendrick .291 .345 .456 0.9 398
Carter Kieboom .253 .333 .412 0.8 231
Wilmer Difo .246 .308 .350 0.1 144
Adrian Sanchez .252 .289 .366 0.0 14
Jake Noll .245 .284 .361 0.0 14
Total .272 .335 .460 10.5 3008

That obviously doesn’t replace the seven wins Rendon generated in 2019, but chances are that they’d have lost a couple of those even if they had kept Rendon.

Washington came into the offseason with two of their best players hitting free agency just a year after losing Bryce Harper. They were able to keep one and while they haven’t replaced Rendon’s contributions — a near-impossible task — they’ve actively filled the team’s remaining holes. When you add in Thames and Hudson to their other recent signings, the Nationals are still a legitimate contender in 2020.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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4 years ago

Dan, do we need to have a conversation about headlines?

Brian Reinhartmember
4 years ago

This is one of my favorite headlines I’ve ever seen, anywhere.

4 years ago
Reply to  Brian Reinhart

I had to look up the punt reference, but now that I have been educated, I also throw my support behind this wordplay.

4 years ago
Reply to  Jimmy_Changa

I still don’t get it. A “punt” to me is usually a bad strategic move, but that doesn’t seem like what is being meant here?

4 years ago
Reply to  Mac

“Punt” in this case is speaking of a particular type of boating practiced on rivers in England.

4 years ago
Reply to  eaeolian

Yeah but can you water ski on a Szymbor?

John Elway
4 years ago
Reply to  Jimmy_Changa

Same here. Even though I’m long in the tooth, I had to trot out the old dictionary for “punting” on Thames.

Just neighing.