2020 Season Preview: Washington Nationals

Washington Nationals
By Simon Fettig

2019 Record: 93-69, 2nd in the NL East

2019 Payroll: $172,307,808 (7th highest in MLB)

Projected 2020 Lineup (Lineup projections via Rotochamp, stat projections via Steamer)

  1. CF Victor Robles — .262/.327/.424, 0.7 fWAR
  2. RF Adam Eaton — .282/.366/.432, 0.7 fWAR
  3. SS Trea Turner — .290/.353/.472, 1.5 fWAR
  4. LF Juan Soto — .293/.407/.557, 1.8 fWAR
  5. DH Howie Kendrick — .308/.362/.432, 0.4 fWAR
  6. 2B Starlin Castro — .283/.325/.441, 0.4 fWAR
  7. 1B Eric Thames — .237/.331/.448, 0.1 fWAR
  8. C Kurt Suzuki — .267/.326/.461, 0.2 fWAR
  9. 3B Carter Kieboom — .261/.336/.416, 0.8 fWAR

Projected 2020 Rotation:

  1. Max Scherzer — 72 IP, 3.43 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 1.9 fWAR
  2. Stephen Strasburg — 74 IP, 3.74 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 1.6 fWAR
  3. Patrick Corbin — 71 IP, 3.72 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 1.5 fWAR
  4. Anibal Sanchez — 60 IP, 5.23 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 0.4 fWAR
  5. Austin Voth — 51 IP, 4.55 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 0.7 fWAR

Offseason Recap:

The champs are here! After starting the 2019 season 19-31, the Nats, led by second-year skipper Dave Martinez, were able to right the ship, going 74-38 over the remainder of the season to clinch home field in the Wild Card game, where they came back to beat the Brewers 4-3 in dramatic fashion. They were then able to exorcise the demons of prior October trips, getting over the Game 5 hump by knocking off the top-seeded Dodgers, followed by a dominating sweep of the Cardinals in the NLCS to clinch the franchise’s first ever pennant and World Series berth. In the Fall Classic, they topped the juggernaut Astros in 7 games, led by the three-ace staff of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, with offensive heroics from Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon, and Howie Kendrick.

However, after this storybook ending to the 2019 season, General manager Mike Rizzo and the Nats were faced with many significant offseason decisions that will have a huge impact on the team’s future. After a dominant postseason that culminated in him winning World Series MVP, former #1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg opted out of the 7 year, $175 million contract he signed prior to the 2017 season, looking to cash in after a campaign in which he posted a 3.25 FIP and 10.8 K/9 while leading the National League in innings with 209. The Nats, who have shown a clear emphasis on starting pitching in free agency during Rizzo’s reign over the front office, were not going to let their postseason hero slip from their grasp. They signed the 31 year old right-hander to a 7-year, $245 million deal, a contract which featured the deferred payments that the Nats have become known for under the ownership of the Lerner family. The deal briefly made him the highest paid starting pitcher in the game with regards to both overall and annual value, at $35 million/year, until Gerrit Cole and the Yankees agreed to a 9 year, $324 megadeal ($36 million/year) just a few days later.

Simultaneously, the Nats were juggling the free agency of star third baseman Anthony Rendon, who posted MVP-caliber numbers during his 2019 campaign such as a 1.010 OPS, 154 wRC+, and a 7.0 fWAR. Rendon’s availability on the market was almost a dreaded inevitability for Nats fans after the departure of fellow homegrown star and Scott Boras client Bryce Harper the previous offseason, as they wondered whether the Lerners and Rizzo were willing to pony up to keep their position player studs. According to reports, the Nats offered him a 7 year deal worth about $210 million in early September, but Rendon declined the offer and opted to hit free agency as many expected. Despite lobbying efforts from Strasburg to keep him in DC, Rendon ended up taking a 7 year, $245 million deal with the Angels, teaming up with Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani to form a potent lineup out west.

Aside from these two superstars, the Nats had many players from their 2019 championship roster hit free agency. Veteran infielders Brian Dozier, Asdrubal Cabrera, Ryan Zimmerman and Howie Kendrick all saw their deals expire after the Fall Classic. Combined with the departure of Rendon, this left three vacancies in the infield, with the only returning member being shortstop Trea Turner, who the Nats settled with for $7.45 million to avoid arbitration. The first order of business was to bring back the utility man Kendrick, who became a DC legend after his playoff heroics. The Nats were careful not to overwork the 36 year-old in 2019, and it paid off, as he slashed .344/.395/.572 while playing part time at both first and second base. They rewarded him with a $6.25 million deal for 2020, with a mutual option in play for 2021. Zimmerman, known as “Mr. National” for playing his entire career in DC, had his $18 million club option declined after injury-filled campaigns the past two years, but the two sides were able to agree upon a more team-friendly $2 million deal for 2020, with the potential for him to earn more through incentives. However, Zimmerman has recently decided to opt out from the 2020 season, deciding to stay with his family through the Covid-19 pandemic while his wife expects their third child. Cabrera, who was signed in early August and slashed .323/.404/.565 with limited plate appearances, will return on a $2.5 million deal in 2020, and the second baseman Dozier signed with the Padres.

The club then looked to the free agent market to further strengthen the right side of the diamond, signing former Brewers first baseman Eric Thames to a $3 million deal for 2020, with a $4 million mutual option for 2021. The big lefty ripped 24 homers and hit to an .851 OPS in 2019, and will fill the left-handed first baseman platoon role previously occupied by veteran slugger Matt Adams. To fill the opening at second base, the Nats went after veteran Starlin Castro after the Marlins declined his 2020 option. They were able to agree to a 2-year, $12 million contract, giving the Nats a reliable infielder with the flexibility to play second or third.

Throughout the offseason, the club was said to be one of the finalists to sign 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson to replace Rendon at third, but he ended up signing with the Twins. And although rumors floated that the Nats were considering striking a deal with the Cubs for another former MVP in Kris Bryant, the team opted to stay put, indicating that top prospect Carter Kieboom will likely take hold of the reigns at the hot corner.

Other notable free agents from the 2019 roster included outfielder Gerardo Parra and reliever Daniel Hudson. Parra, who was known for using the infamous “Baby Shark” song as his walkup music and energizing the clubhouse, signed with the NPB’s Yomiuri Giants. Hudson, a journeyman reliever who has undergone Tommy John surgery twice over the course of his career, was acquired prior to the July 31st trade deadline, and was quickly thrust into a significant role to improve one of the weakest bullpens in baseball. He ended up proving to be a huge acquisition, pitching to a 1.44 ERA and 0.88 WHIP (despite a 3.53 FIP) in 24 regular season appearances. He also closed out 6 of the team’s 12 postseason victories, including, most memorably, Game 7 of the World Series. Originally, it appeared as if Hudson would not be returning, mainly due to the fact that the Nats went out and signed former all-star Will Harris to a 3 year, $24 million deal. However, the Nats were willing to bring back Hudson for 2 years and $12 million, hoping to solidify a bullpen group that was the club’s biggest weakness during its 2019 campaign.

Season Preview:

After a long offseason that ended after months of uncertainty, drawn-out negotiations between the owners and the MLBPA, and concerns about playing through the Covid-19 pandemic, Major League Baseball was able to work out plans for a 60-game season starting here in late July.

Alongside the previously agreed upon three-batter minimum rule, other rule changes for the 2020 season include a universal DH, as well as a runner on second base to start each extra inning. Washington will look to defend its first title in franchise history during this altered campaign.

The Nats return an elite rotation led by their three veteran aces Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. And with the three 30+ year old hurlers coming off big workloads last postseason, the extended time off was a likely benefit for them. Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young award winner, put together a fantastic year in 2019 despite a lower back injury that sidelined him for nearly a 2-month stretch in the middle of the season. The intimidating, heterochromic right-hander led all of the major leagues with a 2.45 FIP while also striking out 12.7 batters per nine, proving that when healthy, he remains one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. The Nats will hope that Mad Max can continue a similar pattern of effectiveness during his age 35 season, which will be his sixth in the nation’s capital.

Not to be overshadowed by Scherzer is the aforementioned Strasburg, who returns in 2020 fresh off a World Series MVP award and a new contract that makes him one of the league’s highest paid players. He hopes to build on a 2019 campaign in which he was able to avoid major injury, as he was able to throw over 200 innings for just the second time in his career. While Dave Martinez will give Scherzer the nod on Opening Day, 2020 could be the year in which Strasburg passes Scherzer as the team’s true number one starter.

Corbin, the club’s big free agent signing from the 2018-19 offseason, validated the front office’s decision to prioritize starting pitching with a brilliant 2019. The Nats utilized him as a versatile weapon during their October run. He made many appearances in relief that saved an otherwise shaky bullpen, including three massive scoreless innings out of the bullpen in Game 7 that played an integral role in helping secure the title. The southpaw possesses a devastating slider that allowed him to rack up 10.6 K/9 and pitch to a 3.25 ERA, and he should feature heavily on a team that will rely on its rotation again in 2020.

Rounding out the rotation are Anibal Sanchez, the crafty veteran who had a very solid second half in 2019, and either Erick Fedde or Austin Voth. Fedde and Voth will compete for the 5th starter role in camp this summer after both pitched limited innings last year. While Joe Ross had originally entered the spring as a contender for this spot, he has since decided to opt out of the 2020 season, leaving Voth and Fedde as the two main candidates. In 2019, Fedde logged 78 innings in 21 games, 12 of which he started. His numbers (4.50 ERA, 1.462 WHIP, 4.7 K/9) were not particularly impressive, indicating that he may be headed towards re-taking a role as the long man out of the pen. Voth, on the other hand, started 9 games for the club last season and exceeded expectations, pitching to a 3.30 ERA and 1.05 WHIP over 43.2 innings. While Fedde is the more experienced of the two at the major-league level, Voth has arguably flashed more potential, and thus enters Opening Day as the favorite to win the 5th starter job.

Moving on to the bullpen, in 2019, the Nats featured one of the worst units in the league. The group ended the season with a 29th-best 5.68 ERA, a stark contrast from the team’s second-best starter ERA of 3.53. The most notable returning member of the group is lefthander Sean Doolittle. After handling a heavier workload than normal early last season (due to him being the only reliable bullpen piece at the time), Doolittle struggled greatly for the majority of the remaining year, allowing one of the highest hard-hit ball rates in the game. He finished with a 4.25 FIP, 1.3 WHIP, 9.9 K/9 and 1.7 HR/9, all significantly worse than his All-Star campaign in 2018 in which he posted a 1.89 FIP, 0.6 WHIP, 12.0 K/9 and 0.6 HR/9. Despite these struggles, he regained some effectiveness during the stretch run and through the postseason as a result of a change in his approach: he increased the usage of his slider. While he is known for his high fastball that he throws around 90% of the time, a drop in velocity has arguably been the cause of his lower strikeout and higher home run rates. As a result, Doolittle has added some breadth to his repertoire by mixing in the slider more often. It will be interesting to see if the Nats re-insert him into the closer role in 2020, and whether or not he can return to elite form.

Joining the pen this year is former Astros setup man Will Harris. Harris pitched to a 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in the 2019 regular season, and prior to new teammate Howie Kendrick’s home run off of him in Game 7, he was virtually untouchable in the postseason. The veteran righthander provides the Nats with a proven and trustworthy late-inning arm, a luxury they have not enjoyed very often as of late. Combined with the return of Daniel Hudson, the Nats enter 2020 with a bit of flexibility at the back end of the pen.

Other key relievers include Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero, and Roenis Elias. Rainey, who will be featured later in this article, is a young flamethrower with a wipeout slider, and has arguably the highest ceiling of the entire group. Suero pitched in nearly half the team’s games last year and finished with a 4.54 ERA and 1.26 WHIP. While these numbers appear mediocre, a deeper dive into the situation reveals that he had a FIP of just 3.07, the lowest on the entire team. His cutter, which he throws 72% of the time, can be an extremely effective and tough-to-hit pitch, as seen by his 10.2 K/9 and 0.6 HR/9. As a result, Suero comes into 2020 as an interesting bounceback candidate. Elias, who was acquired at the trade deadline last year, will likely be the second lefty in the pen. However, he features reverse splits, so it will be interesting to see how Martinez chooses to use him, especially with the new 3-batter minimum rule coming into play in 2020.

Let’s now switch gears to the lineup, which is headlined by 21 year-old star Juan Soto. The young phenom raked in his first full season in the bigs, mashing 34 homers and driving in 110 runs while hitting to an OPS of .949. Additionally, he was able to improve his defense enough to be a Gold Glove finalist in left field. He commands the strike zone like a seasoned veteran, and can spray the ball to all fields with impressive power. After hitting in the cleanup spot last season behind Rendon, Soto will now be the main weapon in the Nats’ lineup, and will command the full attention of opposing teams. A main point of interest in 2020 will be whether or not the rest of the Nats’ bats can protect and support the potential MVP candidate.

Rounding out the outfield are CF Victor Robles and RF Adam Eaton. Eaton had his first injury-free season with the Nats since coming over from the White Sox in a trade prior to 2017. He put together solid numbers out of the two-hole, getting on base at a .365 clip while scoring 103 runs. The Nats will hope that he can continue this success after a terrific World Series performance (2 HR, .993 OPS). Robles, another young talent at just 22 years of age, patrolled the outfield at Nats Park in his first full big-league season. The speedy centerfielder led all outfielders with 23 Outs Above Average, displaying an elite ability to track down balls in the gaps. He struggled a fair amount in his first year facing major league pitching, striking out a team-high 140 times. However, he still slashed a respectable .255/.326/.419 to go along with 17 homers and 28 steals.

Aside from Soto, the Nats most valuable offensive piece is SS Trea Turner. After breaking his right index finger on a HBP during Bryce Harper’s return to Nats Park, the speed demon came back and was still able to produce at a high level for 122 games in 2019. He slashed .298/.353/.497 and posted a 3.5 fWAR out of the leadoff spot, while leading the team with 35 steals. The 26 year-old has always had some pop and a knack for driving fastballs, and as a result, there have been rumors that indicate Turner may be moved to the third spot in the order to account for the loss of Rendon. While Martinez may stick with him in the leadoff spot, this will be something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

At second base, the Nats expect new free-agent signing Starlin Castro to be their everyday guy. The former Cub, Yankee, and Marlin struggled last year prior to the All-Star break, but slashed .302/.334/.558 in the second half after reportedly placing an increased emphasis on launch angle. He will hope to continue that success and become a solid contributor for the defending champs. First base will feature a platoon of the previously discussed duo of Kendrick and Thames, both of whom will also get more at bats through the addition of the DH to National League play in 2020. Rookie and Top 20 prospect Carter Kieboom is the favorite to start at third, and he’ll be touched on more in the “Players to Watch” section below.

Behind the dish will be the returning duo of Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes. Suzuki put up the better offensive numbers of the two, and was able to provide some clutch homers during the stretch run. While Gomes had a bit of a disappointing year overall after making the AL All-star team with Cleveland in 2018, the two veterans were solid in calling and receiving pitches for one of the league’s top starting staffs. While father time is certainly not doing either of these two any favors at their ages, it’s still safe to assume decent production from this catching committee in 2020.

Predicted Record: 34-26 (.566 winning percentage)

Players to Watch:

CF Victor Robles:

Victor Robles finally had his first full season in the big leagues in 2019 after spending years as the organization’s top prospect. The 22 year-old center fielder had been touted as a dynamic five-tool player during his ascension through the farm system, and he was able to showcase these abilities during his rookie campaign. His electric speed and range propelled him to lead all outfielders in the majors with 23 OAA, and on many occasions he showed off his cannon of an arm to gun down runners trying to take the extra base. He has already established himself as one of the game’s best defensive outfielders, but what will be interesting to watch will be whether or not he can take the next step offensively. Despite his high strikeout numbers, he displayed a solid amount of pop, and hit some clutch late-inning homers against NL East rivals. While he featured mostly out of the eighth and ninth slots in the order in 2019, there have been rumors floating that skipper Dave Martinez wants to experiment with him in the leadoff spot in 2020. This would certainly pose an interesting dynamic, as combining his speed near the top of the lineup with that of Trea Turner would serve as a dangerous threat to opposing defenses. However, the obvious concern with Robles leading off would be whether or not he can get on base enough. A .326 on-base percentage and 140 strikeouts doesn’t exactly scream “leadoff hitter” in the modern game, so it will be compelling to see whether or not this happens, and even if it doesn’t, if Robles can elevate his game to a higher level in 2020 and become a star.

3B Carter Kieboom:

After the graduation of Robles, Kieboom became the Nats’ new number one prospect. The brother of former Nats catcher Spencer Kieboom climbed from A ball to AAA in less than three full seasons, and was even called up to the big league club for a brief stint this past spring while Trea Turner was hurt. Aside from a dramatic home run in his debut, he struggled in the majors, slashing just .128/.209/.282 in 11 games. He also committed 4 errors at shortstop during this stretch, and did not look comfortable overall in the field. But after this short experiment, Kieboom regained his confidence at AAA Fresno, and finished the year with a .303/.409/.493 slash line in the minors. The looming free agency of Rendon had put a lot of attention on Kieboom, and many saw him as the heir to the hot corner in DC despite having come up as a middle infielder. After Rendon officially left in the offseason, Kieboom’s name was also floated as the main piece in hypothetical trades for Kris Bryant or even Nolan Arenado, but Rizzo decided to hold onto his top prospect with the belief that he will blossom into a star. As Summer Camp has progressed here in DC in preparation for the shortened season, Davey Martinez has made clear that he expects young Carter to be his starting third baseman during the title defense.

RHP Tanner Rainey:

The Nats acquired the 27 year-old reliever in a one-for-one swap with the Reds involving Tanner Roark in 2018. With the team’s glaring bullpen struggles in 2019, he was given an opportunity, and the flamethrower certainly made a name for himself. He showed off a triple-digit fastball and wipeout slider that instantly made him the Nats’ most dynamic, and arguably most promising reliever. His slider featured a 63% whiff rate, making it one of the league’s hardest to hit pitches. He posted 13.8 K/9 as a result, and had one the league’s lowest hard-hit percentages. If he can develop better command of his fastball and limit the walks (7.1 BB/9 in 2019), he will likely be entrusted with a more prominent role in the Nats’ pen in 2020. And with the decline of Sean Doolittle in progress and some expected regression from Daniel Hudson, it’s not crazy to imagine a scenario where Rainey takes over the closer role sometime this coming year.

Enjoyed this article? Why not read our 2020 Yankees Season Preview?

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