Nationals 2021 season preview

Photo+via+Lynne+Sladky%2FAP+Photos%0A

Photo via Lynne Sladky/AP Photos

Marc Goldstein, Assistant Editor in Chief

The Washington Nationals, 2019 World Series champs, suffered a massive World Series hangover. While it came in a season many will remember, it is one that the Nats will hope to forget. They went a dreadful 26-34 in the 60 game campaign. Not only did they not play up to par for the defending champions, they did not even make the playoffs. It was a disappointing season for sure, but they have put that season in the rear view mirror and improved their team to the point where they believe they have a legitimate chance at winning a second World Series in three years. Here is a breakdown of each position group on the team and where they stand:

 

Starting Rotation

The starting rotation is a clear strength for the Nationals. Their three top starting pitchers, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, make up the majority of their payroll. They are well worth the money, as they not only lead them to the promised land in 2019, but they have become established aces for the Nats. Max Scherzer, the future first ballot Hall of Famer, will once again be tasked with being the face of this rotation. Entering his age 36 season, Scherzer is in an unusual situation as he is in the last year of his seven-year, $210 million deal he signed in the 2014 offseason. It seems likely that he will continue to pitch in the MLB after this season, but it is uncertain if he will return to Washington after this season. All of that aside, he will be trying to make his case that he has a lot left in the tank and that he is capable of pitching deep into his thirties. 

 

Additionally, the players who back Scherzer in the Nationals’ rotation are Stephen Strasburg, former number one overall pick and World Series MVP in 2019, Patrick Corbin, the third ace in the rotation who was pivotal in the 2019 World Series run as well, Jon Lester, a five time all star selection in his own right is a new face in Washington, and Joe Ross, the presumed number five starter for the Nats who sat out 2020. For Strasburg, he is coming off what realistically amounts to a lost season. He only got through five innings last year before sitting out the remainder of the season with an injury. Later, it was revealed that he had carpal tunnel syndrome, a condition that impacts the nerves in one’s hand, making the fingers lose feeling or become numb.

 

Corbin was the big splurge in the 2019 offseason. Much of his contract is made up of the money that the team did not use on renewing Bryce Harper’s contract, thus leading to Harper spurning the Nationals to sign with the rival Philadelphia Phillies. Corbin has been a steady presence in the Nationals’ rotation in the years since he signed with the team. Behind him is the proven veteran in Jon Lester. He signed a one year deal with the Nats in the offseason and is going to be called upon to give the team around 150-200 innings to minimize the strain placed on the Nats’ other starters as well as the bullpen. Entering his age 37 season, Lester experienced a down year in 2020, but is a mere seven wins away from hitting the impressive 200 wins list. Finally, the Nats will call upon Joe Ross to fill out the rotation. The 27-year-old has bounced around in the Nationals organization in the past few years. He arrived in the majors as a starter, but injury and poor performance prompted a move to the bullpen. During the 2019 World Series run, he primarily was in the bullpen, but actually started Game 5 of the World Series in place of Max Scherzer. He pitched admirably and after sitting out the 2020 season, he will have a chance to prove that he still has the potential to be a very effective back of the rotation starter. 

 

Bullpen

It is no secret to Nationals fans that their success hinges on the bullpen. For the longest time, the Nationals have been able to win with a porous bullpen. In fact in 2019, they won the World Series while only using 2-3 regular relievers and putting starters in the bullpen in order to eat up innings. Washington will hope to not only get good, productive innings from their bullpen, but for the unit to be a group that can help them win games. 

 

The Nats’ bullpen returns many key members to the unit that will be a driving factor as to their success as a whole. Daniel Hudson, World Series hero who retired the final out of Game 7, is back for another season in Washington. Will Harris, the pitcher who actually gave up the go ahead home run to Howie Kendrick now switched sides to the Nats, and is hoping to put a poor season behind him in the coming season. Unfortunately for the Nats, Harris was misdiagnosed with a blood clot recently and it remains unknown his status for the season. Harris actually had surgery for the blood clot until they realized that he was misdiagnosed, making for an odd situation all around. Additionally, revelations from last year Tanner Rainey, the young, hard throwing right hander who came into his own as a dominant reliever last season, Kyle Finnegan, the rookie from last year who just shut down opponents and Wander Suero, the pitcher with an awe inspiring cutter who provides reverse splits and gets out left handed batters at a higher rate than right handed batters. 

 

Finally, the big addition for the Nationals’ relief corps comes in the form of a veteran left hander in Brad Hand. Over the past few seasons, he has established himself as one of the best closers in the game, making All Star Game appearances and winning many other accolades. He is a very durable, reliable presence at the back end of the Nats’ bullpen, and can ease the workload on their starters. This signing, however, comes at a price. The Nationals were forced to let fan favorite Sean Doolittle, another late inning lefty, walk and sign with the Cincinnati Reds in free agency. He was a huge piece in the 2019 club, but also saw his production drop off in recent years as his effectiveness with his high fastball began diminishing. That being said, the Nationals definitely improved by signing Hand and will look to have a more reliable bullpen in 2021. 

 

Catcher

If the Nationals needed an improvement in any particular position group, catcher was the obvious choice for a renovation. Yan Gomes, entering his third season in Washington, had a solid season in 2020. He is a beloved pitch caller and teammate by the pitchers on the team. He clearly will be the starting catcher for the team on Opening Day. Behind him is Alex Avila, veteran backup who will be able to hold down the fort while the Nats give Gomes a day off. He was signed to a one year  contract following a season in Arizona with the Diamondbacks. He replaces Kurt Suzuki, who went to the Angels in free agency. Avila has familiarity with some of the pitchers on the Nats’ rotation, having caught Max Scherzer and Jon Lester in the past. The Nats also got a better defensive catcher in Avila, as Suzuki had a well documented poor throwing arm. 

 

Infield

The Nationals have no shortage of questions on the infield as well. Out of the four positions on the infield, there are only two certainties as far as who the Opening Day starter will be for Washington. At shortstop, it is obviously going to be Trea Turner, their All Star-caliber shortstop who broke out last season after a few injury riddled campaigns. He is a speed demon and hits for a surprising amount of power at the top of the lineup. At first base, the Nats will employ newly acquired Josh Bell, who landed in DC after an offseason trade from the Pittsburgh Pirates. In Pittsburgh, he emerged as one of the best hitters on their team, and made an All Star appearance in his time there. He regressed during last season’s campaign, but the Nats hope that he regains his old form and hits for power for a lineup desperately in need of some. Backing up Bell at first will be franchise stalwart, Ryan Zimmerman. He sat out last season, but has been the face of the Nationals for as long as he has been on the team. As their first draft pick in team history, he will undoubtedly have his No. 11 jersey retired when he decides to hang it up, which might be coming soon as he enters his age 37 season. He has battled injuries in the past few seasons, leading to questions about whether this will be his final season, but he has produced very well during Spring Training, already hitting five home runs as of March 26, 2021. 

 

Then, the questions emerge for Washington. It seems likely that Starlin Castro, veteran infielder, will assume either second or third base, but the question is merely about which position he will jog out to on Opening Day. The Nationals have had questions surrounding the hot corner ever since Anthony Rendon signed with the Angels after winning the 2019 World Series. Carter Kieboom, the team’s best prospect, was given the reigns to take over third base last season. He did not produce very well in 2020, and has continued to struggle in Spring Training. The Nationals have begun playing Castro at third base while Luis Garcia, the 20-year-old phenom who debuted last season, plays second base. Garcia is a younger option, but he also demonstrated a very poised approach to hitting, much like his close friend and mentor, Juan Soto. In the recent days, however, the Nationals have announced that neither Garcia nor Kieboom will be the starting third baseman. Instead, it appears as if the Nats will turn to one of three veterans on their roster. Jordy Mercer, former Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop who can play just about any infield position. He is very versatile with the glove, but struggles a bit at the plate. Hernan Perez is a former Milwaukee Brewer who has, like Mercer, always dazzled in the field, but struggled to find consistency at the plate. Finally, Josh Harrison, who played for the Nats last season, combines versatility and energy. He played very well last season, and was re-signed by the team this past winter. He most likely has the inside track at the third base job. The dilemma the Nationals face is a tough one. As Kieboom has proven in the minor leagues that he can produce at a high level, but has yet to do so for the Nats. On the flip side, Garcia has proven he is capable of hitting at the highest stage, but he is younger, and could be given more time to develop in the minors while the Nats try to find a solution for the Kieboom situation. Finally, the team seemingly has put forth their answer to this problem for the short term which is winning now and allowing their young players to develop in the meantime. The trade off is really deciding if the Nats are ready to give up on Kieboom and pivot their focus to Garcia or whether they want to win now with the older members of their roster for the time being. 

 

Outfield

The Nationals probably have one of the more straightforward outfields in the league. Juan Soto, their star outfielder, will move from left field to right field, his natural position. Victor Robles will continue to man centerfield as he has done for the past two seasons. And newly acquired slugger Kyle Schwarber will play left field. The Nats, however, are hoping that Robles and Schwarber can really emerge as big bats in the middle of their lineup and balance out their roster. Robles has long been touted as one of the organization’s top prospects. In fact, he was going to join the Nationals in 2018 instead of Soto when Howie Kendrick tore his ACL. The Nats could not call Robles, though, due to his preexisting injury. In his place, Soto got the call up, and the rest is history. He has not found consistency at the plate, but has been better with pitch selection and has shown flashes of his ability. Schwarber is the forgotten slugger from the Chicago Cubs’ 2016 World Series team. He was a big time hitter for them, and has improved. The Cubs, however, decided not to bring back Schwarber, and the Nats signed him in the offseason. 

 

Season Outlook

For the Nationals to truly succeed, they will have to develop the same grit, toughness, and leadership from within that was found in the 2019 team. They need those locker room presences like Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond, among others that have characterized the Nats for ages. In the offseason, they lost Adam Eaton to free agency as well as Howie Kendrick to retirement. While their on field play will surely be missed, the off the field influence on the other players will need to be found in this club. Players like Scherzer, Zimmerman, Turner and Soto will need to become clubhouse leaders and steady the ship when they are taking on too much water, like when they were 19-31 in 2019. 

 

All of that being said, the Nationals are in one of the toughest divisions in baseball. The NL East is loaded with talent. The Atlanta Braves, a team who has won the division three straight years and came one win away from the World Series last year, returns a young core of players who are developing into superstars. The Philadelphia Phillies boast a glut of talent on their roster, and have improved their historically awful bullpen from last season. The New York Mets have begun spending money on big names in the trade market and free agency, acquiring shortstop Francisco Lindor from Cleveland, and adding to their already potent roster. Finally, the Miami Marlins, fresh off a surprise appearance in the postseason last year, have a deep prospect pool, and a lot of young, raw talent. The Nationals are going to have to fight to win games in their division, but maybe that is a good thing. Teams that are forced to grind for wins and play in a gauntlet of a division, like the Nationals, are more accustomed to facing good teams as opposed to teams that cruise the entire season. 

 

Nonetheless, this will surely be the most interesting season for the Nationals. While it is not realistically a title defense, it feels like it. The Nationals need to prove that they can still contend with their current core, and that their World Series win in 2019 was not a fluke. In a division like the NL East, emerging in second or third place would feel like a victory in itself. Then there is the question of how fans will watch games. Mayor Bowser has recently allowed 5000 fans to attend games at Nats Park for Opening Day against the Mets. The Nats were the last team to announce their plan for fans returning to the stadium. It remains to be seen how the team will logistically organize this, but it will be something to watch out for as  the season continues. The Nationals, though, will be focused on their on field play, and 2021 will be a pivotal year for the franchise for so many different reasons. The only certainty for the team is that they will be must-watch television, and that they will endure quite the ride this season.