Here's a helpful reminder: the Washington Nationals won the 2019 World Series.
Under normal circumstances, leading off a note like that about a recent champion would feel unnecessary, if not patronizing. These past 18 months have strayed so far from regulation, though, that they've distorted the exchange rate on time. Surely it's been more than a season since Davey Martinez said "bumpy roads lead to beautiful places" (hope so, Davey), right? But no, it hasn't been that long since the Nationals were victorious; all the bucking and jerking around since fall 2019 has resulted in a collective memory-holing about the whole thing, and has necessitated gestures like the one above.
It's not the Nationals' fault; not entirely, anyway. They did make it easy to forget about their magical run last summer by authoring a disappointing title defense. Washington took a bumpy road to a not-so-beautiful tied-for-last finish in the National League East. The Nationals were an afterthought from the jump, spending just one day in first place. The easiest way to sum up the tediousness of the Nationals' season is with a fact: Brock Holt, the veteran utilityman, pitched as many games as ace Stephen Strasburg.
Anyway, this past winter revealed that general manager Mike Rizzo still has total recall of fall 2019. Rather than use the down year as a cover to disassemble the Nationals' aging core, he stayed true to his veterans and added even more in the forms of Kyle Schwarber, Josh Bell, Jon Lester, and Brad Hand. Judging by his acts alone, Rizzo seems to believe this group has something left to offer; is he right, or stuck in the past?
Win total projections, odds
- 2021 Sportsline projection: 81-81
- World Series odds (via William Hill Sportsbook): +3500
- 2020 record: 26-34
- Trea Turner, SS
- Juan Soto, RF
- Josh Bell, 1B
- Kyle Schwarber, LF
- Starlin Castro, 2B
- Carter Kieboom, 3B
- Yan Gomes, C
- Victor Robles, CF
The common sense approach to building a lineup is to bat your best hitters early on. The Nationals didn't have many productive hitters last season (three of their 11 players with 100-plus plate appearances offered league-average production or better), so it made sense for them to hit Turner and Soto first and second (or second and third) down the stretch. Martinez seems likely to do the same in 2021, putting the onus on the new thumpers, Bell and Schwarber, to drive them in with greater frequency.
The Nationals made few alterations to their pitching staff. The main year-to-year differences concern the Veteran No. 4 role (now filled by Lester instead of Anibal Sanchez) and the closer's spot, which should belong to Hand out of the gate. Elsewhere, Joe Ross seems likely to edge out Erick Fedde and Austin Voth for the last starting spot.
Now, onto four pertinent topics about your 2021 Nationals.
1. Is there any gas left in the tank?
You would be right to take this for a grizzled roster. Based on current projections, the Nationals could enter the year with three players who are age 25 or younger (Soto, Robles, Kieboom); comparatively, they could have four players who are at least 35 years old. Rizzo's preference for grays is most evident with his rotation.
Presuming Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, and Lester are locked in, the youngest possible version of the starting five (i.e. with Ross) lowers the average age to … just shy of 33. Rizzo may or may not be neophobic, but he has a lot of Blockbuster stock riding on a rotation that is uncertain for reasons other than their birthdates. In summation: Strasburg was hurt most of last season; Ross opted out; Corbin had a down year; Lester fluctuated between good and bad, with the latter winning in the form of his aggregate numbers; and even Scherzer had his lowest ERA+ (123) as a member of the Nationals.
You can talk yourself into this group being solid. Scherzer was still good; Strasburg and Corbin almost have to be bigger factors this year by default; Lester would have a hard time pitching worse than Sanchez did in 2020; and so on. The catch is that there's probably a greater downside than what meets the eye, too. Recent history is littered with veteran All-Star starters breaking, be it Justin Verlander or Chris Sale. Everyone breaks eventually if they're afforded a long enough timeline.
At absolute minimum, it's realistic to expect some slippage from the trio's 2019 heyday. That could prove to be a big problem for the Nationals, because so much of their rotation hinges on the effectiveness of Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin. The Nationals have limited depth (and nary a chance for impact) beyond their initial five -- unless, for some reason, you're a believer in Rogelio Armenteros, Seth Romero, or Tim Cate.
The Nationals will need their starters to hit on the right side of the tail, because…
2. Slashed defense budget
… it'll be up to the pitching staff to spare the defense and get as many easy outs as possible. The Nationals allowed the third-worst batting average on balls in play last season. Judging by their individual defenders, they may not fare much better in 2021.
Robles is a joy to watch in center field, and he more than merits the right fees the Nationals dole out to play "Smooth Operator" as frequently as they do. Unfortunately, Robles will have to cover even more ground when he's flanked by Soto and Schwarber, a pair of subpar defenders. Martinez ought to be aggressive in subbing in Stevenson for Schwarber late in games, if only as a means of allowing Robles a reprieve.
The Nationals are better staffed on the infield. Turner, Kieboom, and Castro should each be at least average at their positions. That's contrary to Bell, whose defense can be charitably described as "below average." Both Gomes and Avila have good reputations behind the dish, though those might be outdated based on their recent framing data.
3. Can youngsters, new additions stimulate offense?
The Nationals ranked 14th in park-adjusted offense last year, per FanGraphs' wRC+ metric. This may be an oversimplification, but their hopes of finishing higher in 2021 would seem to hinge on four players: Bell, Schwarber, Kieboom, and Robles.
Bell homered 37 times and made the All-Star Game in 2019 with the Pirates. He couldn't build upon that last season, instead hitting for an 83 OPS+ with eight homers in 57 games. The more worrisome aspect of his season was how every indicator went in the direction. He struck out and whiffed more frequently; he walked less often; and his launch angle slipped from around 13 degrees to below six. The Nationals would probably settle for him returning to a slightly above-average hitter if it means he doesn't repeat last year.
Schwarber also followed up a big 2019 with a small 2020 on the north side of Chicago. He had a higher exit velocity (92.8 mph) than OPS+ (88), which would seem to bode well for his chances of bouncing back. There is one catch, and that's how Schwarber's launch angle plummeted from 15.5 degrees to 8.8 degrees. Presumably he'll focus once more on lifting the ball in 2021; if he does, the Nationals could well convert their end of his $11.5 million mutual option.
We recently covered Kieboom in an article about disappointing youngsters. In the name of saving trees, we'll conclude with Robles, who was abysmal last season. He's never going to be one to post pretty-looking walk-to-strikeout rates, but his K rate swelled last season to an uncomfortable level. That plus reduced power output left him in bad shape. Robles won't turn 24 until mid-May, so a return to form should be in the cards.
However those four work out, at least the Nationals can count on one hitter for sure.
4. Is this Soto's year to win MVP?
Soto is an undeniable talent. He's entering his fourth (third full) season in the majors, and so far he's batted .295/.415/.557 (151 OPS+) with 69 homers and 77 other extra-base hits. He's already received MVP consideration in each of the past two years, and it would be fair to ask: is this the year he brings home the hardware?
There is precedent for bold-face talents winning the MVP Award in their year-22 seasons. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper did it; so did Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Johnny Bench, and Cal Ripken Jr. Even if Soto doesn't win in 2021 -- possibly because of the Nationals' record -- he's still likely to remain in good company. Barry Bonds didn't win his first MVP until he was 25, and Alex Rodriguez didn't win his until he was 27.
Soto, then, is the rare National who appears to have time on his side.