Although it seems like we are eons removed from 2019, it was only 17 months ago than the Washington Nationals got hot at exactly the right timing, powering their way through the playoffs to the franchises’ first World Series Championship.
That October, everything went right, the right pitchers (especially in the bullpen) stayed healthy and mostly effective, and Juan Soto and Trea Turner had their coming-out party for anyone in the baseball community who hadn’t been paying attention that regular season.
Looking to 2021, the Nationals still have some monster talent, but the lineup is comprised of all-stars and duds. Soto and Turner are two of the league’s best players, and are likely to total over 10 wins combined, Victor Robles is solid in centerfield, third base looks decent, led by Carter Kieboom, and catcher Yan Gomes remains serviceable behind the dish. The major question marks are the production, or lack-thereof, from left field, second base, and most importantly, first base.
That’s a corner outfield position and first base, two power-positions that are pretty big question marks entering the season.
It’s commonly accepted that Kyle Schwarber is a liability in the outfield, even at a corner position, but if he’s posting a wRC+ 20 percent better than league average (as he did in 2019) then it’s worth it. In 59 games last season he was pretty lousy, posting a 91 wRC+, and a slash line at a putrid .188/.308/.393. Whichever version of Schwarber shows up in 2021 will be a major help or a major hindrance to the Nats offense.
Similar to Schwarber, newly acquired Josh Bell had a stinker of a year in 2020, after posting a very strong 2019. The then-26-year-old broke out at the dish, posting career highs in wRc+ at 135, 146 hits, of which 37 were home runs, and a .378 wOBA. Bell followed up that excellent season with a 71 wRC+, and career-worsts in both K% and BB%.
The top-three starters for DC are as good as nearly any other top-three, with exception of the Dodgers. Max Scherzer remains one of the most dominant starters in the game, and when healthy (yet more question marks) Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin are an excellent 1-2 punch behind Scherzer.
After a 15-minute surgical procedure to remedy Strasburg’s Carpal tunnel neuritis rumor has it that he’s healthy and ready to make an impact. Corbin meanwhile has turned into a reliable 180-200 innings starter though his K% dropped 8.5 percentage points from 28.5 percent down to 20 percent in the COVID shortened season.
During the 2019 season, and including the early part of the playoffs, it was the bullpen that gave Washington skipper Dave Martinez the most indigestion. The Fernando Rodney Experience is over (sadly for non-Nats fans, as he was super fun to watch and made nearly every outing an adventure). In Rodney’s stead, the Nats enter the season with lefty Brad Hand the penciled-in starter, backed-up by Tanner Rainey, Daniel Hudson, and Will Harris.
Bullpens are notoriously difficult to predict each year, but on paper this relief corps looks serviceable, if not actually good.
The Nationals are projected to be in the middle-of-the-pack in the National League hovering around the .500 mark, behind the Mets and the Braves. Washington has one of the strongest cores in baseball on both sides of the ball, but it’s the boom-or-bust inconsistent players who will likely determine whether this is a .500 team or a pennant contender.