Not since the 1998-2000 Yankees has a team won the World Series in back-to-back seasons. In a shortened 2020 season, the 2019 World Series Champion Washington Nationals will look to buck the trend of the last two decades. Despite failing to win the NL East for the second consecutive year, a somewhat rare occurrence for the franchise since their current competitive window opened in 2012, the Nationals were able to outlast the Brewers, Dodgers, Cardinals, and that team from Houston en route to the first World Series title in franchise history.
While they certainly experienced a big loss in free agency in third-place NL MVP finisher and postseason hero Anthony Rendon (LAA), the defending champs still have a lot going for them. They retained their other major 2019 free agent, World Series MVP and franchise cornerstone Stephen Strasburg, and were quite active this winter, as I noted in a January article. These pieces, as well as those that remain from last year’s squad, will look to keep pace in a loaded NL East.
Projected Opening Day roster with selected 2019 stats for starters:
Depth chart via FanGraphs’s RosterResource
SS Trea Turner .298/.353/.497, 35 SB, 117 wRC+
RF Adam Eaton (L) .279/.365/.428, 103 R, 107 wRC+
2B Starlin Castro .270/.300/.436, 162 G, 22 HR, 86 RBI, 91 wRC+
LF Juan Soto (L) .282/.401/.548, 34 HR, 110 RBI, 16.4 BB%, 142 wRC+
DH Howie Kendrick .344/.395/.572, 146 wRC+
1B Eric Thames (L).247/.346/.505, 25 HR, .258 ISO, 117 wRC+
CF Victor Robles .255/.326/.419, 28 SB, 25 DRS, 91 wRC+
C Yan Gomes .223/.316/.389, 31 CS%, 79 wRC+
3B Carter Kieboom .303/.409/.493 in 494 PA at AAA Fresno; Nationals #1 overall prospect
SP Max Scherzer 2.92 ERA, 2.45 FIP, 1.03 WHIP, 243 K/33 BB in 172.1 IP, 6.5 fWAR
SP Stephen Strasburg 3.32 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 251 K/56 BB in 209 IP, 5.7 fWAR
SP Patrick Corbin (L) 3.25 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 238 K/70 BB in 202 IP, 4.8 fWAR
CL Sean Doolittle (L) 4.05 ERA, 29 SV, 1.30 WHIP, 9.9 K/9 in 60 IP
CL Daniel Hudson 2.47 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 71 K/27 BB in 73 IP with TOR and WAS
RP Will Harris 1.50 ERA, .93 WHIP, 62 K/14 BB in 60 IP with HOU
PECOTA Projections: 32.9-27.1, 1st in NL East; 43.6% chance to win division, 64.2% chance to make playoffs
Key Roster Points
During the 2019 playoffs, Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin combined to pitch 89.2 of the 153 total innings thrown by Nationals pitching, a whopping 58.6% share for the Big Three. Since the season is starting almost four months later than it originally should have, the rotation should be fresh and ready to go for the 60 game sprint that 2020 will be. With some of the weaknesses in their lineup and bullpen, it will be of the utmost importance that Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin provide the club with as many quality innings as possible in a shortened season.
As I mentioned in my 2019 Season Recap, the bullpen for this team was absolutely horrendous, putting up the worst ERA of any NL bullpen. Mike Rizzo was active over the offseason in attempting to improve on that number, with the two biggest moves being the signing of Will Harris from Houston in free agency, and retaining 2019 second-half stud Daniel Hudson. Smaller but also important moves include the acquisitions of Ryne Harper (3.81 ERA in 54.1 IP with MIN) and Kyle Finnegan. Tanner Rainey and Wander Suero are late-20s relievers with electric stuff and high strikeout rate potential who are poised to have breakout years. With any luck, manager Dave Martinez will be able to spread the workload around a bit more than he did in the first half last season. I’m sure Sean Doolittle’s left arm is hoping so.
The loss of Anthony Rendon’s bat will almost certainly be seen in the team’s 2020 offensive output. The club hopes to use a collection of seasoned veterans and one very special prospect to fill the gap that he left. New signings Eric Thames and Starlin Castro will likely see the most time at first and second base respectively. Trea Turner has a vice-grip on the shortstop position, and does not look to be giving it up any time soon. Third base is where things are the most complicated. Dave Martinez stated at one point during Spring Training (the first one) that third base was Carter Kieboom’s spot to lose. According to the Fangraphs projections, that statement appears to have held up. Personally, I would not be surprised to see Asdrubal Cabrera getting about the same number of looks as Kieboom over at the hot corner. Howie Kendrick, the Nats’ best hitter for 2019 based on a number of rate stats, suffered last year by not being able to be on the field every day due to his, to put it politely, large amount of Major League experience. Thanks to the addition of the designated hitter to the National League for this year, Kendrick will be in the box a lot more this year.
For me, the most impressive thing about this infield is its sheer versatility. Castro has some experience at third, and could see time there in a pinch. Kendrick played games at second, first and third in 2019, and Cabrera is serviceable at all four infield positions. As for Kieboom, he came up through the minor leagues as a SS/2B type, and has only recently begun playing third, though there were concerns about his defense during his cup of coffee in the Majors last summer. Bench bats Wilmer Difo and Jake Noll are both versatile as well: Difo can play both middle infield positions as well as third, and Noll is a corner infielder. This defensive versatility will allow Dave Martinez to always be able to keep legs fresh, and to go with the hot bat if one of their hitters gets on a streak.
The last thing I would like to break down is the Nationals starting outfield. Robles and Soto each have fewer than 1.2 years of MLB service time and have each already established themselves on the national stage. Being on national television all October certainly helped Juan Soto ascend to a point where, after just one full MLB season, is an MVP favorite and plastered all over MLB promotional materials. Robles has yet to prove himself at the plate at the big league level, but his arm, field, and speed tools are as advertised from his days as a top prospect. The development of these two young outfielders will be a major storyline for Nats fans to follow over the next couple years, as both will be free agent eligible in 2025.
Top-5 Award finishers: Max Scherzer, Cy Young; Stephen Strasburg, Cy Young; Juan Soto, MVP
Record: 33-27, 2nd NL East, 1st NL Wild Card Spot
I can not, in good faith allow myself to predict a repeat for the Washington Nationals, but I think that they are a top-8 team in MLB and can cause some trouble in the playoffs if they get there, like they did in 2019. If they find success, then it will means the rotation was as elite as it projects to be, and the lineup scores just enough runs to win games behind strong starting pitching.
All stats from Baseball Reference or FanGraphs
Featured Photo via Wikimedia Commons