After completing a magical October run that was capped by the first baseball title for the Nation’s Capital since the Washington Senators all the way back in 1924, Dave Martinez‘s ball club is poised to be the first team to repeat as champions since the 2000 New York Yankees. In a shortened 2020 season, Martinez and General Manager Mike Rizzo hope that their star-studded pitching and timely hitting can lead the Washington Nationals to their fifth NL East crown in the past nine years.
Not many teams had two high-profile free agents in the same offseason, but that was the case with the Washington Nationals. After re-signing Stephen Strasburg to a seven-year, $245 million contract, the Nationals elected not to re-sign star third baseman Anthony Rendon as he signed with the Los Angeles Angels for a seven-year, $245 million contract. Leaving a large hole in the middle of the order, Rizzo looked for low-cost signings and placed their hopes on the farm system to replace the .319 batting average and 34 home runs by Rendon.
As a result, the Nationals signed former Marlins second basemen Starlin Castro to a two-year, $12 million contract. Castro rebounded after an abysmal first half of 2019 by hitting .302 with 16 home runs after the All-Star break. The Nationals also re-signed utilityman Asdrubal Cabrera and “Mr. Franchise,” Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman has opted out of the 2020 season, however. The Nationals also brought back World Series hero Howie Kendrick and signed former Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Eric Thames to a one-year, $3 million deal for a platoon at first base.
After an NL-Worst 5.66 ERA, the Nationals’ bullpen was in dire need of upgrades. Rizzo signed former Houston Astros reliever Will Harris to a three-year contract. Harris, who sported a 1.50 ERA in 2019, allowed the go-ahead home run to Kendrick in Game Seven of the 2019 World Series. The Nationals also re-signed postseason hero Daniel Hudson to a two-year, $11 million deal. As the back end of the bullpen was overworked towards the end of 2019, Rizzo added some arms to the pen to ease the workload on Sean Doolittle, Wander Suero, and Tanner Rainey.
Heading into the 2020 season, the Washington Nationals arguably have the best starting rotation in all of baseball. Led by future first-ballot Hall of Famer Max Scherzer, Strasburg — who had an unbelievable postseason with a 1.98 ERA, and Patrick Corbin, the Nationals’ top three is one of the best in recent memory. Anibal Sanchez rebounded in 2019 after an 0-6 start by finishing the season with a solid 3.85 ERA. Joe Ross was projected to be the fifth starter but has elected to opt out of the 2020 season, and Austin Voth is now slated to be the fifth starter after a promising 2019 season where he had a 3.30 ERA.
Although losing Rendon is a big blow to the offense, the Nationals still have 21-year-old phenom Juan Soto and star shortstop Trea Turner. The Nationals also have the “prototypical two-hole” hitter in Adam Eaton, and centerfielder Victor Robles looks to build upon his up-and-down rookie season in year two.
Speed is also a big advantage for Washington. After leading the National League in stolen bases during the 2019 season, the Nationals possess speed all around the lineup, which will prove to be a headache for opposing pitchers. Turner and Robles led the Nationals in stolen bases with 35 and 28, respectively, despite Turner missing 40 games last season mostly due to a broken finger. Additionally, Eaton and Soto also chipped in with 15 and 12 stolen bases, respectively.
Three Questions Heading into 2020
Carter Kieboom at Third Base
The biggest question for the Nationals heading into 2020 is Carter Kieboom‘s performance at third base, both defensively and at the plate. Martinez named Kieboom the starter at third base in an interview on July 4th. Last season, Kieboom struggled mightily in a short stint in the big leagues as he hit .128 and committed four errors in only 11 games.
There seems to be more concern for Kieboom on the defensive side, as many expect that his .287 career minor league batting average and 45 home runs will catch up to big-league pitching. Kieboom had defensive questions coming into the league and has big shoes to fill at the hot corner. With a shortened season, it will be interesting to see how long of a leash the Nationals give Kieboom with veteran Cabrera waiting in the wings.
Pitching depth may be the most important factor for teams in the shortened season. With starters most likely not being on regular pitch counts to begin the season and 60 games in 66 days, bullpens will be heavily taxed. Despite having signed Harris in free agency, the Nationals have many unknowns after their top five with Roenis Elias coming off an injury and Erick Fedde most likely transitioning to the bullpen. The Nationals will probably carry an unknown commodity on the 30-man roster, such as Dakota Bacus or James Bourque, or a veteran who has struggled in the past couple of seasons such as Kevin Quackenbush. Even with the improved bullpen in 2020, many questions still arise for depth.
Batting Third Is…
The Nationals have a gaping hole in the middle of the order before Soto. Martinez had discussions of an unorthodox lineup with Turner moving down to third and has mentioned Castro as a candidate despite his struggles in spring training. Most likely, the Nationals will keep a right-handed hitter in the three-hole to keep R-L-R-L in the top four. This could bode well for a player like Kendrick, who could get more consistent playing time with the addition of the designated hitter, or Castro. No matter who bats third, there will be difficulty replacing the All-Stars the Nationals have had hitting third in the past such as Bryce Harper and Rendon.
Even with the question marks throughout the lineup, the Nationals lineup stacks up very well with the rest of the National League. They have a legitimate MVP contender in Soto and complementary pieces throughout the lineup, such as Eaton and Kendrick. The Nationals also sport one of the better benches in baseball with Michael A. Taylor — coming off a strong postseason — as the fourth outfielder, and Kendrick, who will be limited to a platoon role to remain healthy.
- Trea Turner (SS)
- Adam Eaton (RF)
- Starlin Castro (2B)
- Juan Soto (LF)
- Eric Thames/Howie Kendrick (1B)
- Eric Thames/Howie Kendrick/Asdrubal Cabrera (DH)
- Carter Kieboom (3B)
- Kurt Suzuki/Yan Gomes (C)
- Victor Robles (CF)
- Michael A. Taylor (OF)
- Andrew Stevenson (OF)
- Emilio Bonifacio (Utility)
- Eric Thames/Howie Kendrick/Asdrubal Cabrera
- Wilmer Difo (IF)
- Yan Gomes/Kurt Suzuki
For the rotation, the Nationals top four seems set in stone as they are one of the best in baseball when they are clicking on all cylinders. With Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin, the Nationals have three legitimate number-one starters and a great complementary piece in Sanchez.
However, in March, Martinez called the fifth starter spot an open competition between Fedde, Ross, and Voth. Ross, who came off his first season since Tommy John surgery, began to show glimpses of his excellence as he posted a 2.75 ERA in his last eight starts. Voth also showed the Nationals his case to be the fifth starter as he had a 3.30 ERA last season as he missed time with shoulder tendinitis. With Ross opting out of the season, Voth is in-line to be the fifth starter.
In the bullpen, the Nationals should have a strong top five as they hope for growth in younger pitchers such as Rainey and Suero. In front of them for the late innings is a strong, veteran top three of Doolittle, Hudson, and Harris. These five should immediately give them a better bullpen than that of last season.
- Max Scherzer
- Stephen Strasburg
- Patrick Corbin
- Anibal Sanchez
- Austin Voth
- Sean Doolittle (LHP)
- Daniel Hudson (RHP)
- Will Harris (RHP)
- Tanner Rainey (RHP)
- Wander Suero (RHP)
- Roenis Elias (LHP)
- Erick Fedde (RHP)
- Kevin Quackenbush (RHP)
- James Bourque (RHP)
- Dakota Bacus (RHP)
Looking to Repeat
Even with the lost pieces, the Nationals stellar starting rotation, formidable lineup, and revamped bullpen make them a contender in the National League. Nationals fans have a lot to look forward to this season including the growth of young players such as Carter Kieboom and Victor Robles, as well as the established MLB players like Juan Soto, Trea Turner, and Adam Eaton. The path to victory will definitely not be easy for the Nationals as the NL East will be one of the more competitive races in baseball with four contenders: the Atlanta Braves, the Philadelphia Phillies, the New York Mets, and the Washington Nationals. But with the monkey off their back, the Nats and their fans are excited for the new era in Nationals baseball.
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