The story of the last year's World Series champion Washington Nationals, in and of itself, is excellent. But if you include the full backstory on the franchise's October shortcomings, it's even more amazing.
- The 2012 Nationals had the best record in baseball, but lost in the NLDS.
- The 2014 Nationals had the best record in the NL and again lost in the NLDS.
- The 2016 Nationals tied for the second-best record in baseball and, yes, lost in the NLDS.
- The 2017 Nationals won 97 games, good for second-best in the NL. You know the drill: Lost in the NLDS.
There's more in between, like falling apart in 2015. There's more afterward, too, like losing Bryce Harper to free agency after the completely disappointing 2018 season in which they hosted the All-Star Game (and Harper won the feel-good Home Run Derby).
Then we come to the pair of numbers that has become familiar to die-hard baseball fans: 19-31.
The post-Harper Nationals started 2019 with that record. Speculation about firing manager Dave Martinez was rampant. The sky was falling. The works.
All they did was go 74-38 (a 162-game pace of 107 wins) the rest of the way. Then they took down the Brewers with a dramatic eighth-inning comeback to finally win a playoff "series" for the first time in franchise history before slaying the mighty Dodgers in the NLDS, sweeping the Cardinals in the NLCS and taking down the Astros in an incredibly dramatic World Series.
What a story! What happens next, though?
Well, they retained a lot of major free agents, including Stephen Strasburg. But they lost Anthony Rendon. That's a gigantic roster subtraction. Rendon being out is going to leave a mark on the lineup. He finished third in NL MVP voting last season and had some of their most important plate appearances in the playoffs. The attempt to replace him is a bit suspect, too. Let's dive in to the Nationals outlook for 2020.
Win total projection, odds
2020 Sportsline projection: 35-25
World Series odds (via William Hill Sportsbook): 18/1
2019 record: 93-69, World Series champion
Projected lineup, rotation
- Trea Turner, SS
- Adam Eaton, RF
- Juan Soto, LF
- Eric Thames, 1B
- Howie Kendrick, DH
- Victor Robles, CF
- Starlin Castro, 2B
- Yan Gomes, C
- Carter Kieboom, 3B
Players opting out of the season: Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross
5 key storylines
Replacing Rendon: Instead of shelling out top dollar, the Nationals lost out on retaining thir star third baseman. Last season, he hit .319/.412/.598 with 44 doubles, 34 homers, 126 RBI, 117 runs and 6.4 WAR. Only superstars Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich got more MVP votes. These are big shoes to fill. The Nationals elected to try and fill them by adding some marginal players. It looks like top prospect Carter Kieboom will get the nod at third base while the Nats signed slugger Eric Thames and veteran infielder Starlin Castro. They brought back Ryan Zimmerman and Howie Kendrick, though Zimmerman has opted out of this season, so he isn't in the mix.
Let's not forget about them letting Bryce Harper walk, either. They didn't win the World Series because Harper left. That's an outrageous fallacy. They won for many reasons, but it most certainly wasn't addition by subtraction with Harper.
Losing the production of Harper and Rendon in back-to-back offseasons puts a huge burden on what's left offensively.
In order for the Nationals' offense to function without Rendon, they need Soto to carry a huge load, Eaton to stay healthy and productive, Kendrick to fight off Father Time, Thames and Castro to produce, Kieboom to develop and Robles to take a big step forward. It's possible, but it's a lot.
The rotation problem? With a shortened second spring training, starting pitchers won't have the ability to get fully stretched out before the regular season starts. That means we're looking at things like three-inning outings in the first few weeks of the season. That hurts the Nationals disproportionately due to how heavily reliant they are on the rotation, particularly the three aces (Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin) and even Sanchez. Joe Ross was the prospective fifth starter, but he has opted out of the season and it's unclear who can be productive now in that spot.
There is a silver lining here, however. With starters only making about 12 starts, once they are stretched out they can completely empty the tank. Might we see some 130-pitch complete games from Schezer? Why not? Starters in relief the way Martinez used them in the playoffs? It's possible.
Bullpen emphasis: As implied above, at least early in the season, bullpen depth is going to be put to the test across baseball. Starters can't go deep into games and the best relievers (Hudson and Doolittle) can't pitch every single game. There will only be six days off in 66 days. That means the depth of the bullpen is going to be a big deal, at least for the first month or so. That's not good here. One of the reasons the Nats leaned so heavily on their stud starters in the playoffs is because their bullpen depth is bad. They did add Harris and he's good, but otherwise it's the same group. Seeing Wander Suero and Ryne Harper and Javy Guerra in the middle innings instead of a big-name starter in July and early August isn't good.
Robles and Kieboom: As noted in the discussion on replacing Rendon, a lot of the burden will fall on the development of two young guys with high upside.
Robles was actually a higher-regarded prospect than Soto in some circles, but he's yet to flash his full offensive potential. Of course, he's still only 23. In his first full season, he hit .255/.326/.419 (88 OPS+) with 17 homers and 28 steals. In lower minor-league levels, he showed promise to hit .300/.400/.500 (he never slugged .500, but power often develops at the big-league level, especially with players debuting so young). Now with more experience, can he start to flash that upside?
Kieboom is a highly regarded prospect who hit .303/.409/.493 in 109 games in the notoriously-hitter-friendly PCL (Triple-A) last season. He flopped in 11 games at the big-league level, but it was his first go -- even Mike Trout stunk in his first MLB try -- and a small sample. Is he up to the task?
If not, that means a lot more Starlin Castro and Asdrubal Cabrera and I'm not sure that's palatable in 2020.
Juan Soto: The biggest stars here are Strasburg and Scherzer, to be clear, but they don't play every day. With Harper and now Rendon gone, the everyday superstar here now is unquestionably Juan Soto. He's 21 years old and not even close to making nine figures this season. He also hit .333/.438/.741 in the World Series and gained fame for his Soto Shuffle. In the regular season, he hit .282/.401/.548 with 32 doubles, five triples, 34 homers, 110 RBI, 110 runs, 12 steals and 4.6 WAR.
Is he ready to be the superstar on the defending World Series champions? We're about to find out. He can't sneak up on anyone anymore. If we had to bet on it, the answer would be an emphatic yes. Nothing has phased this kid to this point.