All offseason, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s 2020 season and looking forward at what moves each team might have to make to set themselves up for improvement in 2021. Today, Joey Bohley takes a look at the Washington Nationals!
2020 Record: 26-34, 5th Place in NL East
Team MVP: OF Juan Soto
Team Cy Young: SP Max Scherzer
Biggest Positive Surprise: SS Trea Turner
Biggest Negative Surprise: CF Victor Robles
Expectations were high for the Nationals following their 2019 World Series Championship, so it was certainly a surprise to see them finish under .500 and in last place in their division. Frankly, there isn’t very much that this team did particularly well in 2020, and there were few bright spots. The team MVP has to be rising superstar Juan Soto. I mean, who else? The 2020 Silver Slugger and batting champion slashed .351/.490/.695 with a 200(!) weighted runs created plus (wRC+) and walked in nearly 21% of his plate appearances. Soto likely would have been a top-3 MVP finisher if he had played more than 47 games, as a false positive held him out of the first week and a half or so of the season. Max Scherzer was, unsurprisingly, the best pitcher on the 2020 Nationals, posting a respectable 3.74 ERA to go with a 3.46 FIP, all while posting a strikeout rate north of 31%. Surprisingly, pitching was where the Nats struggled the most in 2020. After being one of the top few staffs in the NL a year ago, the 2020 staff finished in the bottom five in all of MLB in ERA, FIP, and WHIP. Much of this can be attributed to a lack of starting depth after Stephen Strasburg, fresh off of a huge contract extension, was shelved for the year with a nerve injury in his hand. This will be an important area for the team to address going into 2021.
As far as other surprises go for 2020, SS Trea Turner’s offensive performance was the biggest positive one. He had a huge season, hitting .335/.394/.588 with 12 home runs and 2.7 fWAR, one of the best offensive lines in the league. Turner is shaping into quite the offensive star for the Nats, and it will be interesting to see how the team approaches his contract situation in the coming years. In terms of disappointment, there are several Nats that could be selected as the biggest, but I went with CF Victor Robles mainly because of the role he is going to be expected to play on this team in coming seasons. While OF Adam Eaton and 1B Eric Thames also performed far below expectations, both were likely slated for free agency after this year anyway, and therefore have less stake tied to their poor 2020 performances. Robles regressed massively both at the plate and in the field, perhaps most seen in his 28 K% compared to only a 4.8% walk rate. Robles is currently the centerfielder of the future in DC, but he is going to need to improve his output, offensively and defensively, in order to keep that role.
As I’ve already mentioned, the team’s starting pitching was incredibly underwhelming in 2020. As a result, the offense found itself behind early and often, and simply wasn’t good enough or clutch enough to make up for these deficits. While a healthy Strasburg and Joe Ross should help with this issue, there remain clear holes on this team.
2020-2021 Offseason Preview
Areas of Greatest Need: Offensive Gamechanger, Starting Pitching Depth, Corner Infielders
I may have been a little bold in classifying these players as “key losses,” as only one (Sanchez) accumulated positive fWAR in the 2020 season (0.2). More than anything, they show what the areas of need are on the current roster. Currently, Jake Noll and Carter Kieboom are the only two true corner infielders the Nats have, and Suzuki’s departure leaves Yan Gomes and either Tres Barrera or Raudy Read to do the catching. With all due respect to those players, that does not have the makings of a competitive MLB roster.
Desired Targets: OF George Springer (4 years/$95 million), C James McCann (3 years/$27 million), OF Michael Brantley (4 years/$69 million), 1B Mitch Moreland (2 years/$15 million), SP Rich Hill (1 year/$8 million), OF Hunter Renfroe (3 years/$20 million)
The biggest priority for Mike Rizzo and the front office this season needs to be an impact bat. A competitive baseball team needs to have more than two feared hitters (Turner and Soto). George Springer absolutely fits the bill. Over the course of his career, he has averaged 35 HR and 93 RBI per 162 games to go along with a career .491 SLG and 134 wRC+. This type of production, especially from a right-handed batter, is exactly what this team needs. That being said, however, Springer may ultimately be a little too expensive for the Nationals. Luckily, there are some other outfielders that also make sense.
Michael Brantley is a left-handed hitter, and he doesn’t have as much of a power tool as Springer or Soto, but he would certainly be a boost towards the top of this lineup. Since 2017, his age-30 season, Brantley has an .862 OPS, along with 21 HR and 91 RBI per 162 games. While he’s no George Springer, Brantley projects to be a less expensive option and is still a feared and respected hitter across the league.
A dark horse free-agent outfielder is the newly DFA’d Hunter Renfroe. He doesn’t bring a very good hit tool to the table, so he isn’t going to hit for a high average, but he is going to have good power numbers. From 2017-19 with the Padres, Renfroe averaged 28 home runs and 63 RBI per 162 games, good for a 106 OPS+ over that span. Renfroe has his drawbacks, including high strikeout rates and defense that will be average at best, but he could be a good, cheaper option if the team gets priced out of the higher-tier free agents. I am assuming, of course, that Renfroe clears waivers and actually hits the open market.
With the departure of Kurt Suzuki, the team is in the market for another backstop to tag-team with Yan Gomes. James McCann is the perfect fit in Washington. J.T. Realmuto is going to be far too expensive for a lot of teams, so my fear is that the price for McCann, probably the next-best catcher on the market, is going to increase as a result. Over the last two seasons with the White Sox, McCann has greatly improved both offensively and defensively, putting up a 116 wRC+ as opposed to a mark of 75 in four years with Detroit. Furthermore, he accumulated 9 defensive runs saved over about 1100 innings in Chicago as opposed to -10 in over 3600 innings in Detroit. If the Nats can get him for a reasonable price, he would make an excellent addition.
In addition to being a competent defender, Mitch Moreland would provide another left-handed power bat at a position of need for the Nationals. His career numbers don’t jump off the page, but since 2018 with the Red Sox and Padres, he has put together a respectable 110 wRC+ to go with a .479 SLG and 44 home runs over 946 plate appearances. Moreland might not be the best slugger on the market, but he makes sense for this team at this price point.
The last free agent I wish to cover is Rich Hill, a left-handed pitcher who spent 2020 with the Twins, though he only made 8 starts for them. Since he became a full-time starter in 2016, Hill has posted excellent numbers, pitching to a 3.01 ERA, 3.55 FIP, 1.088 WHIP, and striking out more than 10 batters per 9 innings. Due to his age (2021 will be his age-41 season), injury history, and the contract he signed last offseason with Minnesota (1 year/$3 million), I believe the Nationals should be able to lock up Hill to another one-year deal to bolster the back end of their rotation.
*Note: as this article was going to press, the Nationals were rumored to be connected to free-agent infielder DJ LeMahieu, but I don’t see the front office springing for a big-name infielder in free agency. A trade, however, would be a different story…
This is an interesting trade possibility, because I think the Nats might actually do it, but I’m not completely sure that they should. Kieboom has disappointed immensely at the big-league level so far in his career, but still has a lot of potential. The Nationals are most likely looking to compete now, and not wait around for whenever Kieboom develops. In that sense, this trade makes complete sense. The issue is that Bryant has only one year of team control remaining before he hits free agency, and the Nationals have other guys that they are going to have to start paying soon (mainly Turner and Soto). I don’t know if it is worth the prospect capital if the Nationals don’t plan to extend Bryant.
This trade is the opposite of the first one in that I think it is something the Nationals should pursue, but I’m not sure that they will. The Nationals have no real need for Castro, as they have Luis Garcia, who showed flashes in 2020, as well as Josh Harrison, who was actually pretty good in limited playing time. Castro fits a need for Cleveland, who see 2B Cesar Hernandez leave in free agency. Civale fills a need in DC as well, as he has pitched to a 3.69 ERA and 1.2o WHIP in 22 big-league starts. The only concern would be whether or not Cleveland is willing to deal Civale, but they have a wealth of starting pitching prospects in the upper minors, so there may not be a spot for him soon anyway. With a little negotiation, I think this could be turned into a deal that benefits both teams.
2021 Projected Roster
1) SS Trea Turner
2) RF Hunter Renfroe
3) LF Juan Soto
4) 1B Mitch Moreland
5) 2B Luis Garcia (vRHP)/Starlin Castro (vLHP)
6) 3B Carter Kieboom
7) C James McCann
8) CF Victor Robles
9) Pitcher’s Spot
RHP Max Scherzer, RHP Stephen Strasburg, LHP Patrick Corbin, RHP Joe Ross, LHP Rich Hill
For the purpose of this lineup, I assumed that the Nationals didn’t make any major trades and signed some of the lower-profile free agents on the market. Soto and Renfroe could be swapped at the top of this lineup, but more the most part this is what I would expect the 2021 Nationals to be putting on the field on a daily basis. For the starting rotation, I predict that both Erick Fedde and Austin Voth will start their 2021 campaigns at Triple-A Rochester. Both performed quite poorly as starters in 2020.
In a phrase that might seem like a foreign language to Nats fans, the bullpen might actually not be terrible! Rainey, Suero, and Finnegan all had breakout years in 2020 and will look to build on that going into next season.
There are a lot of things that this team can do to improve on 2020, and I trust Mike Rizzo and his staff to take a holistic approach to this offseason. Overall, I would expect the Nationals to be in contention for a Wild Card spot in 2021, but it will largely depend on how this offseason goes.