Sam Schneider | April 2nd, 2020
It’s been a long offseason. Aside from the delay of baseball due to the ever-growing concern over Covid19, there were also a lot of developments with respect to the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal. Fines, bans, and firings that made for an eventful offseason but also lent itself to the feeling that it has been particularly drawn out.
Was it a million years ago that Daniel Hudson fanned Michael Brantley (who went to one knee) on a 3-2 pitch? Was it a million years ago that Hudson threw his glove across the diamond and embraced his battery mate (you can re-live that here)
and became the first team in World Series history to win all four road games to take home the trophy? Nah. Not a million years ago, it just feels like it. Bang those garbage cans, Houston. The Washington Nationals are the defending World Series Champions.
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And why not? After qualifying for the postseason as a wild card, they took care of business. After a tight one-game playoff win against Milwaukee, in which they came back from a 3-1 deficit, they also came back for a series win against the Los Angeles Dodgers before absolutely curb-stomping the St. Louis Cardinals. A sweep that propelled them to the final seven games of the season against Houston. We’ve already covered how that turned out.
That all said (and it does feel like forever ago), we’re here to talk about the Nationals in 2020. The good news is that Washington is just as good as it was in 2019 and they have added a few key pieces and an upstart infielder. The bad news is, well… if you’re a Nationals fan there’s not a lot of bad news. Let’s have a look at the probable roster and pitchers for your defending champs this season.
1B: Eric Thames
2B: Starlin Castro
SS: Trea Turner
With the signings of Thames and Castro in January, there’s little doubt that the two will be in the lineup more often than not. Thames and Castro combined for 47 ding-dongs last season, no small feat considering Castro started off the season with an uncharacteristic performance at the plate and the former had less than 400 at-bats. Thames is devastating against right-handers (ask the Reds) but will get the occasional rest in favor of super-utility guy Howie Kendrick who will see work all over the infield.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Ryan Zimmerman because, well, he’s Ryan Zimmerman. Even after losing some pop in his bat, he’s the leader of this team in the clubhouse and on the field. He’ll see time at first, as he’s accustomed to.
At short, Trea is gonna Trea; he’s a career .291 hitter and a base thief in a time when there are very few left adept at swiping bags. Suzuki is the incumbent starter at catcher but in the Spring, manager Dave Martinez would only commit to Kurt absolutely catching Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez. Gomes is the better defensive player and should earn the reps outside of those pitchers, though with a limited season which is likely to include scheduled double-headers, it’s fair to say we’ll see plenty of both.
The wildcard on the infield is Kieboom at third. He (and the team) has said that he’s ready to take on the responsibility of manning the hot corner. He played sparingly last season and not at third (eleven games, ten coming at shortstop). While his bat has never been in question, in this year’s limited spring he managed just one hit in his first twelve at-bats. He’s young though, it’s to be expected. With his relative inexperience at third and his propensity to be erratic with his throws to first (again, he’s young), I expect we’ll see plenty of Cabrera getting spot starts (or Castro, one of five guys who played 162 games last season) or a worthy defensive replacement late in games. Either way, Kieboom is electric with the bat; susceptible to a low-and-in strikeout but if a pitcher hangs one high and inside, well, Kie-BOOM goes the dynamite. Feel free to use that… no royalties necessary.
Man, it’s hard to call an outfield like this underrated but here we are. If you asked the casual fan of any other team in baseball who the outfielders of the Nationals were, they’d nail Soto, struggle for a sec and go “Of course! Eaton” and polish it off with “I have no idea”. Isn’t that outrageous? The fact is, Robles is 22 years old, socked 17 round-trippers, scored 86 runs and set quite a few of those up with 28 stolen bases. Sure, he’s 22 and hit .255 but we can’t all be Juan-friggin-Soto and frankly, Robles is only a year behind him in age. It’s nearly unfair for the Nationals to be stacked and still calling upon the farm for guys like these two. Add in Eaton at a “whopping” 31 years of age (god he’s old) as Mr. Reliable and able to always come up with a clutch hit and you have one of the best outfields in the majors. Taylor is here for valuable depth; as a career player with Washington, his average is lacking (.240) but he is a run producer on base and at the plate.
Starting Rotation Projection
We’ve got six guys here and I could easily add Erick Fedde, but I think he’s bullpen-bound for long relief. He’s way more valuable there. So, we’ve got the only pitcher in major league history to go 5-0 in the postseason (en route to MVP) in Strasburg, a dual-Cy Young winner in Scherzer, and two vets that combined for 25 wins last year. Any questions? Maybe at number 5 and number 6 (they’ll need both considering potential double-headers and a condensed schedule).
Voth and Ross are unspectacular but still young, and frankly, with the firepower on the offense, the fifth starter still stands to get wins regardless of how they’re slingin’ it. I defer to Voth as the first choice here; he’s a year older but Ross has been in the organization long enough that (while they may love him) if there is rest to be had he might find himself throwing out of the bullpen. The benefit of having a top-heavy rotation and a powerful offense is that you can put the guy you think might put it all together out there on the mound and let him take his lumps. I think that’s Voth. His stuff is not devastating but he has the control and deserves a significant look as a regular member of the starting five. I think it’ll be a steady dose of both righties in 2020.
Will Harris (returning from injury)
Obviously, there are going to be a few blanks to fill in and the shortened “pre”-spring training has complicated those matters. Although Guerra was a non-roster invitee, I believe the shortened spring works in his favor; if you haven’t had enough time to evaluate all your options you are going to turn to a veteran. You can do worse than Guerra who still holds a 3.1 WAR and 3.72 ERA over nearly ten seasons in the majors. The delayed start to the season also benefits Will Harris who comes over from the Astros, an absolute machine with a 2.84 ERA over eight years.
The back end of the bullpen of Hudson and Dolittle is one of the best in the league. The Nationals have valued veterans in the bullpen and it’s paying off in spades. Props to a nice first season for Paul Menhart, who developed the pitching in the minors before being given the job as pitching coach with the Nationals in 2019.
Players to watch for
Andrew Stevenson – Yeah, you already know him. Over 3 seasons he has been up and down with Washington to the tune of 124 games. Stevenson is reliable, if not flashy and the real reason I put him here is that once again you’re more likely to see him if they need a fifth outfielder because of injury or just normal wear-and-tear on an abbreviated season. The Nationals sent Stevenson to the minors just a week ago but a lot of the moves during this period mean little going forward; they may not open the 2020 season with 5 outfielders but will need an extra one soon enough if they don’t use Thames to spell the regulars. Stevenson has the tools but could benefit from another half-season in the minors; he’s not going to be a factor as a pinch-hitter but he still has a great deal of potential.
Wil Crowe – There may be other pitchers that get a chance before the second pick in 2017 does, but they won’t be nearly as exciting. Crowe throws four pitches with confidence, including a dastardly changeup that he controls with surgical precision. It’s unlikely that we see him in 2020 in that fifth starter spot but there’s a chance with expanded rosters throughout the season that he may make an appearance heading into the playoffs, likely out of the bullpen. With Soto and Robles already up, there may be a few farmhands that appear first, but Crowe is the next wave of electricity.
It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon or a brain scientist to see that the Nationals have all the talent to make another run. In fact, they may have added enough talent to argue they’ll be even better. In a shortened season, injuries (or lack thereof) are key. If they can stay healthy, they’ll be in the thick of arguably the most competitive division in baseball. I see a lot of people jumping on the Mets’ bandwagon but I’m not buying them or the Braves for first in the East. It might not be a 162-game season, but I’ll call it that way anyhow: The defending champions finish 95-67, top the east and roll into the postseason ready to defend the crown.
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