(Mitchell Layton, Getty Images)
by Max Smith
2020 Record: 26-34 (.433 win%, T-4th in NL East)
2021 Payroll: $161,841,575 (8th)
Projected 2021 Lineup:
1. OF Victor Robles, .248 AVG/.317 OBP/.404 SLG, 1.2 fWAR
2. SS Trea Turner, .285 AVG/.352 OBP/.476 SLG, 4.0 fWAR
3. OF Juan Soto, .302 AVG/.427 OBP/.594 SLG, 5.8 fWAR
4. 1B Josh Bell, .256 AVG/.355 OBP/.480 SLG, 0.8 fWAR
5. OF Kyle Schwarber, .239 AVG/.346 OBP/.505 SLG, 1.9 fWAR
6. 2B Starlin Castro, .265 AVG/.311 OBP/.424 SLG, 0.5 fWAR
7. C Yan Gomes, .233 AVG/.302 OBP/.408 SLG, 0.8 fWAR
8. 3B Carter Kieboom, .242 AVG/.330 OBP/.383 SLG, 0.8 fWAR
Projected 2021 Rotation:
1. Max Scherzer, 179.0 IP/3.53 ERA/1.10 WHIP, 4.8 fWAR
2. Stephen Strasburg, 163.0 IP/4.05 ERA/1.26 WHIP, 3.6 fWAR
3. Patrick Corbin, 190.0 IP/4.03 ERA/1.30 WHIP, 3.6 fWAR
4. Jon Lester, 135.0 IP/5.01 ERA/1.43 WHIP, 1.1 fWAR
5. Joe Ross, 127.0 IP/4.97 ERA/1.43 WHIP, 1.1 fWAR
As the reigning World Series champions during a Covid-altered 2020 season, the Nationals put in a very lackadaisical victory lap, falling to 4th place in the NL East and finishing sub .500 for the first time since 2011. Yet, with key players from the World Series run still on the roster, Max Scherzer entering the last year of his 7-year contract, and hopefully a more normal season ahead, the Nationals’ offseason indicated the internal desire and belief that the team can re-enter postseason contention in a loaded NL East.
With that in mind, GM Mike Rizzo spent the offseason complementing the star-laden core of the team by taking chances on a group of established players with previous track records of success, coming off of disappointing 2020 seasons. Most prominently, the team added switch-hitting 1B Josh Bell in a Christmas Eve trade with the Pirates and signed former Cub Kyle Schwarber to a one-year, $10 million deal in early January. By taking a chance on two players that hit a combined 75 home runs in 2019, the team hopes to fill some of the hole left in the lineup by Anthony Rendon’s departure last offseason. Additionally, the team cleared a spot in left field for the defensively-limited Schwarber by declining its club option on Adam Eaton’s contract and shifting Juan Soto to right field—the position he most commonly played in the minors. Other position player departures included 1B Eric Thames, C Kurt Suzuki, OF Michael A. Taylor, INF Asdrubal Cabrera, and the retirement of World Series Game 7 hero Howie Kendrick. Suzuki’s rotational catcher spot was filled through the addition of Alex Avila on a one-year contract, while the infield depth was replenished by bringing back veteran utility man Josh Harrison.
On the pitching front, the biggest moves were signing another World Series-winning former Cub, 37-year-old Jon Lester, to a one-year deal, and adding top free-agent reliever Brad Hand to the backend of a bullpen that features Daniel Hudson, Will Harris, and Tanner Rainey. Lester’s best years may be behind him, but the veteran southpaw pitched more than 170 innings every year from 2008-2019 and most recently made an All-Star team in 2018. As an innings-eating fourth starter behind Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin, Lester has the chance to offer the Nationals immense value if his ERA can return to its pre-Covid sub-4.50 norm—plus, it’s not like the team signed him for his first base pickoff throws. Rounding out the rotation will most likely be Joe Ross, whom the Nationals gave a one-year deal in early December after Ross elected to not play last season. Bullpen-wise, Hand is about as good as it gets, having posted a 1.37 FIP and .773 WHIP with nearly 12 K/9 in 2020.
Finally, in a move that may ultimately add more sentimental than on-field value, Washington brought back D.C. baseball’s founding father Ryan Zimmerman, after he too elected not to play last season. 2021 will mark his 16th season with the franchise, and one in which he will look to extend some of his franchise records in starts against left-handed pitching (before Juan Soto hopefully breaks them in the future).
2021 Season Preview:
As evidenced by their offseason moves, the Nationals intend to contend in 2021. The NL East may have grown even more competitive through the influx of money and Francisco Lindor-fueled star power in Queens, but an experienced core of Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin gives Washington a potential fighting chance in the division, and realistically a more likely path to a Wild Card berth. Yet for a team with four NL East Division titles followed by four NLDS exits, and one Wild Card appearance followed by one World Series ring, that is not a bad spot to be in after a disappointing, Covid-altered 2020.
With both the Braves and Mets looming large in the division, and even the projected last-place Marlins having made the playoffs last year, Washington does not face an easy path to the postseason – but a return to increased normalcy should help. Rather than only playing East teams from arguably both the NL and AL’s toughest division last year, 2021 offers a traditional 162-game schedule with matchups against non-divisional opponents, which the Nationals will need to win the bulk of in order to push their record towards the 90-win mark.
Fortunately, being able to start a multiple-time All-Star in 4 of 5 games, including a 3-time Cy Young winner and a World Series MVP, builds a solid foundation for competitiveness on a daily basis. Max Scherzer posted an unusually high 3.74 ERA in 2020, but after five consecutive years with an ERA below 3.00, there is sufficient reason to believe that Mad Max will finish his 7-year contract in D.C. just as strongly as he started it. Speaking of 7-year contracts, Stephen Strasburg will be looking to complete the first full season of his 2020 extension after being sidelined with carpal tunnel neuritis for most of 2020 – and given that his last healthy start was an 8 1/3 inning, 2-run gem against the Astros in Game 6 of the World Series – his return should bode well for the team. Meanwhile, Patrick Corbin had an argument to be the best third starter in all of baseball until the Padres and Dodgers engaged in a literal arms race this offseason. If Jon Lester and Joe Ross can stay healthy and provide solid innings, the Nats rotation can offer both star power and depth that rivals the Mets and Braves.
Washington’s lineup, on the other hand, skews closer to star power than depth. Juan Soto and Trea Turner both had their best seasons to date in 2020 and should continue to produce at an elite level in 2021—but more about those two later! The more important question will be: who else will step up to take the lineup from top-heavy to strong? The aforementioned Kyle Schwarber and Josh Bell will certainly look to add power from the four and five spots in the order, and other veterans like Starlin Castro and Yan Gomes hope to be solid contributors. Yet the most important players may be a trio of currently or previously top-rated prospects: Victor Robles, Carter Kieboom, and Luis Garcia. As he enters his fifth Major League season, and third as the Nationals’ everyday center fielder, Robles has graduated from prospect status, offering immense defensive value, speed, and an inconsistent bat. If things begin clicking offensively for the 23-year-old, 20 HRs and 100 runs are not out of question, though Robles will have to cut down on the strikeouts in order to hit at the top of the order. Kieboom is a different story, and may still count as a prospect, but is certainly not as highly rated. Having barely broken a .200 average last season after hitting .128 in 11 games in 2019, Davey Martinez continues to put faith in Kieboom as the team’s everyday third baseman, and seems to be hoping that offseason LASIK eye surgery makes an impact. Meanwhile, across the infield, 20-year old second baseman Luis Garcia had a much more impressive 2020 rookie season, slashing a respectable .276/.302/.366, which may earn him a shot at significant playing time if either Kieboom or Castro have a slow start to the 2021 season.
If the rotation can live up to its billing, and the lineup can score enough runs, the Nationals will be handing over their games to a much-improved bullpen compared to years past. Despite Sean Doolittle’s departure, the addition of Brad Hand to a core of Will Harris, Daniel Hudson, and the developing Tanner Rainey may even make relief pitching a strength for Washington in 2021.
Record Prediction: 86-76
Ultimately, everything comes back to how good the NL East and National League are overall. Yes, Washington’s Scherzer-Strasburg-Corbin top of the rotation is amongst the best trios of pitchers in baseball, but are they better than LA’s Kershaw-Buehler-Bauer (no), or San Diego’s Darvish-Snell-Lamet (maybe), or even the in-division trios of DeGrom-Carrasco-Stroman and Fried-Morton-Soroka (hopefully)? And yes, Soto and Turner are one of the most dynamic offensive duos too, but once again Atlanta and New York may have them beat with Acuna-Albies and Lindor-Alonso.
No matter what, the three-, maybe four-, or maybe even five-headed divisional race for the NL East crown will be must-watch baseball. Headed into that race the Nationals appear to be the third strongest team on paper, behind the Mets and Braves, but ahead of the Phillies and Marlins. Yet paper means nothing once Opening Day rolls around, and whether through injuries, regression, or simply bad luck, one of the NL heavyweights in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, or San Diego may underperform just enough for the Nationals to grab an NL Wild Card berth. And if Washington manages to sneak into those playoffs, this star-studded core has proven that anything can happen—especially from a Wild Card spot!
Player to Watch #1: OF Juan Soto
Here is a brief sampling of headlines about Juan Soto from this offseason:
The Athletic: Yes, Juan Soto at 22 just might be Ted Williams
Admittedly, I am not sure that I can add any more eloquent or well-researched analysis than Sarah Langs, Jay Jaffe, Jayson Stark, and Buster Olney, so let me just say this: Juan Soto is really, really, really good.
In a 2020 marred by regression for stars across the sport, the now 22-year-old Soto posted a career-high .351 batting average and led Major League Baseball with a 1.185 OPS and 201 wRC+ in 47 games. Additionally, the lefty slugger had the third highest Barrels/PA (per Baseball Savant) and posted a 20.9% walk rate that topped his 14.3% strikeout rate by over 6%.
Soto may be the best pure batter in baseball regardless of age, and Washington’s offensive success will hinge on their young star continuing to perform at a historically great level.
Player to Watch #2: SS Trea Turner
Soto’s sidekick in anchoring the top of the Nationals’ order is Trea Turner, the 27-year-old shortstop who has somewhat quietly played himself into the game’s elite by putting up consecutive seasons of an .850+ OPS and the 5th most fWAR in all of MLB in 2020. In an era defined by the three true outcomes, Turner stands out by rarely walking (8.5 BB% in 2020), not striking out much (13.9 K% in 2020), and typically stealing a lot of bases (39.3 stolen bases/year from 2016-2019).
Similar to Soto— and Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon before them—Turner is another a homegrown offensive star that Nationals fans are clamoring for the franchise to extend ahead of his 2023 Free Agency. Two years out may seem a little early to be thinking about free agency, but with Harper and Rendon’s departures, and recent early extensions for stars around the league, Soto and Turner have already been facing questions from reporters about their long-term future this spring. Another year of top-end production from Anthony Rendon’s favorite player should hopefully cement his value to the organization for both this year and beyond.
Player to Watch #3: 1B/OF Kyle Bellerman
You may note that no pitchers are featured amongst the Nationals’ players to watch, but for a team that received the third most Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) from its pitchers in a 2020 season in which Stephen Strasburg pitched only 5.0 innings, pitching is not the primary concern. You may also note that Kyler Bellerman is not in fact a real person.
Yet, where the pitchers excelled, the team’s first basemen and non-Soto corner outfielders disappointed in 2020. Only one team received less value from its first basemen than the Nationals’ -1.0 bWAR, and only five teams received less value from their right fielders than the Nationals’ -1.1 bWAR. Enter Kyle Bellerman—the theoretical combination of Kyle Schwarber, Josh Bell, and Ryan Zimmerman.
If even one of these three players can recreate the 30+ home run power that Schwarber and Bell last displayed in 2019, and Zimmerman last displayed in 2017 -but showed flashes of in the Nationals’ World Series run – the complexion of this season’s lineup changes drastically. Admittedly, it is unlikely to be Zimmerman, but there is good reason it may be at least one of Bell or Schwarber. Despite unsightly batting averages, both players finished top-21 league-wide in average Exit Velocity (per Baseball Savant) and had HardHit% that only dipped slightly from 2019, yet remained above their respective career averages. At 28, both players are firmly in their prime years and represent smart gambles by GM Mike Rizzo that hope to add immense potency to Washington’s 2021 lineup. If Kyle Bellerman can hit 65 home runs in 2021, watch out!