Before the Washington Nationals could even finish celebrating their first World Series win, questions about their long-term future started to emerge. Star third baseman Anthony Rendon would be entering free agency for the first time in his career while ace right-hander Stephen Strasburg would parlay a World Series MVP performance into opting out of his contract to cash in on a larger pay day.
These two high-profile departures presented the Nationals with a decision that they likely didn’t want to make, but they nonetheless chose to re-sign Strasburg to a seven-year, $245 million deal that will help solidify their rotation for years to come.
However, with that decision, the team decided not to to aggressively pursue a reunion with Rendon who eventually signed a seven-year, $245 million deal of his own with the Los Angeles Angels.
With Rendon gone, Washington pivoted and filled out the rest of their roster with several veteran options including Starlin Castro, Asdrubal Cabrera and Eric Thames. The team also brought back fan-favorite Ryan Zimmerman and World Series hero Howie Kendrick with a pair of one-year deals.
The strength of the 2020 Washington Nationals will once again be their starting rotation which includes two bonafide aces in Strasburg and Max Scherzer. Strasburg turned in a near career-best season in 2019 logging 33 starts and 209 innings while increasing his strikeout rate to 29.9 percent. Strasburg produced the highest swing-and-miss rate of his career at 13.4 percent. ZiPS projects another outstanding season for him in 2020. Scherzer was slowed a bit in the second half due to injury but he produced another dominant season producing a career-best in strikeout rate (35.1 percent) while lowering his walk-rate to 4.8%. The Strasburg/Scherzer combo was worth a combined 12.2 fWAR in 2019 and there is no sign that they will be slowing down anytime soon.
Patrick Corbin would front the rotation on just about any other team, but is relegated to a third wheel behind the Nationals’ dynamic starting duo. Corbin made 33 starts and logged 202 innings and struck out 28.5% of the batters he faced in 2019, which was exactly what Washington had in mind when they signed him to a six-year, $140 million deal prior to the 2019 season. Veteran Anibal Sanchez will be back as the team’s fourth starter while Joe Ross and Austin Voth are expected to round out the rotation. Erick Fedde may also get a shot if injuries or ineffectiveness strike.
When Bryce Harper left for Philadelphia following the 2018 season, the Nationals didn’t miss a beat offensively, largely because they had another budding star in Juan Soto who was ready to take on the load. Soto is on an MVP-like trajectory and is expected to be among the best players in the game in 2020. The Nationals boasted the second-best offense in the National League in 2019 despite the loss of Harper. However, they may not be as fortunate this time around. The loss of Rendon, who slashed .319/.412/.598 with 34 home runs and 126 RBI, will be difficult to replace.
Top prospect Carter Kieboom is expected to replace Rendon at third base and the team also added veteran options in Castro and Cabrera to add depth. Even if Kieboom does hit it big, the Nationals will still be hard pressed to replace Rendon’s production. The rest of the offense returns intact with Trea Turner and Victor Robles both hoping to take another step forward. Turner continues to be dynamic offensively but struggled at shortstop last year; Robles is the opposite, still figuring out offense while racking up outs in the field. Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes will both reprise their roles in a catching timeshare for the World Series champions, and Adam Eaton will be back for another year of decent production in the outfield.
If there was a concern for the 2019 Nationals, it was the bullpen. Washington relievers ranked 29th with a 5.68 ERA last season. They were bottom of the barrel in ERA-, FIP-, and xFIP-, bottom 10 in reliever fWAR, and dead last in WPA. The team attempted to shore that up during the offseason by giving 35-year old reliever Will Harris a three-year, $24 million deal. They also brought back Daniel Hudson who pitched well for them down the stretch. If Harris and Hudson can provide a quality bridge to Sean Doolittle, then it may all work out, but the bullpen remains an area of concern for the Nationals, especially if Wander Suero and Tanner Rainey can’t repeat their 2019 seasons.
FanGraphs and PECOTA project the Nationals for right around 87-88 wins. Given their rotation and Juan Soto, they can eclipse that even with the quality of teams in the NL East. They still look like a playoff team but one that may be looking for some offensive punch and/or relief help at the trade deadline.