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The champs are back.
After the shortest offseason in franchise history and the first where jubilation trumped the normal wintertime heartbreak, the Washington Nationals are getting ready to defend their title as World Series champions.
That sentence is as fun to write as it is to say.
It’s worth taking a look at how the Nationals won their first World Series before dissecting the team they bring into the 2020 season. Arguably the biggest storyline of the Nats’ World Series run was the way in which they actually did it. The Nationals went from an injury-struck team with high expectations yet poor performance through mid-May to the dominant World Series Champions spiritually led by a journeyman reserve outfielder, Baby Shark, and rose-colored promotional sunglasses. The 2019 Nationals sported a historically bad bullpen; only the lowly Orioles had a worse bullpen ERA than the World Series champion Nationals. Remember Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, and Matt Grace? They won it all with only four “real” starting pitchers; the fifth spot became a revolving door of rookies and journeymen. They did it with an unproven outfield, starting Victor Robles in center field on Opening Day although he hadn’t played a full season in the majors yet. Why did they have to start Robles? The man who made the Nationals a formidable World Series threat, Bryce Harper, left the team for the archrival Phillies, who offered Harper a 13 year contract worth an eye-popping $330 million. How ironic was it that the Nationals finally made it over the hump in Harper’s first pro season away from the team.
For all the flaws that the 2019 Nationals had, they were still a really good team. The left side of the infield was undoubtedly baseball’s best, with young shortstop Trea Turner and hitting machine Anthony Rendon leading the offensive charge. Juan Soto, the 20-year old phenom outfielder, played his first full season as a National. Ample production came out of second base, where Brian Dozier, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Howie Kendrick platooned for nearly the entire season, and catcher, where Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki gave the Nationals their best backstoppers since the departure of Wilson Ramos. The Nats got the biggest fish on the starting pitching free agent market in the 2018 offseason, Patrick Corbin, to join with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg to make one of the league’s most dominant starting pitching rotations. It takes serious talent to go from 19-31 to the World Series champions, and these Nationals definitely had the talent the whole time.
General Manager Mike Rizzo did a very good job of “keeping the gang together” during this offseason. However, keeping the exact same World
Series-winning team for the next year seldom rarely works – you can ask the 2019 Boston Red Sox about that one. Let’s start with the subtractions from the 2019 team. The first, and most notable difference, from the 2019 Nationals is Anthony Rendon. The mild-mannered third baseman signed a mega contract with the Anaheim Angels paying him $245 million over the next seven years. Rendon, who is considered as one of the top third basemen in all of baseball, left a big hole at the hot corner and in the #3 spot for the Nationals to fill. This will sting the Nationals. They will have to rely heavily on another rookie, Carter Kieboom, to take the bulk of playing time at third base. He may platoon with Asdrubal Cabrera, but for the most part, Kieboom will have to step up his game to become an everyday player. Personally, I think he will be up to the challenge. Kieboom, who is ranked as the 21st best prospect in all of baseball, showed signs of pop in his bat during the brief time he spent in Washington last season. He’ll need to work on his fielding as it was a weakness of his during his big league stint last season, but if he is able to hone his skills in that facet of his game, Kieboom should be able to pick up Rendon’s slack. The Nats also (probably) lost Brian Dozier to free agency, who has yet to sign with a team but is almost certainly not returning to a Nationals team with four second basemen by trade. Dozier is a hard worker and a great teammate, and Nationals fans will never forget his shirtless “Calma” karaoke sessions in the locker room following playoff wins. Although he will be missed in the locker room, it doesn’t make any baseball sense for the Nats to sign him back at this point. Losing Gerardo Parra, the Nationals’ morale booster and fan favorite, though, might be as sentimentally devastating as any other free agent loss this offseason. Parra wasn’t only the fun-loving replacement outfielder with the earworm walk-up music; he served as a valuable bat off of the bench. He brought his baby shark and talents across the Pacific to the Yomiuri Giants of Japan.
The Nats also made their team a lot better in the offseason, firstly by re-signing lots of 2019 Nationals who were free agents after the 2019 season. Most notably, Mike Rizzo made the very important decision to re-sign Stephen Strasburg, the World Series MVP, to a contract friendly to both sides. Strasburg will make the same as Anthony Rendon in Anaheim, with a 7-year, $245 million contract. This was a fantastic decision from the front office, as the Nationals couldn’t afford (from a baseball standpoint) to lose Strasburg and be forced to look elsewhere for a fourth starter. Strasburg is a very valuable arm for the Nationals; he will be able to give Davey Martinez seven innings each night he pitches and leave just two innings to the bullpen. The Nats also did a lot to improve their bullpen in an attempt to improve the ghastly performance of the back end last year. Daniel Hudson, who was the closer down the stretch and made the famous final pitch to end Game 7 of the World Series, is back for the 2020 season, as is Sean Doolittle, Tanner Rainey, and Wander Suero. Hudson will likely be out of the closer role in the 2020 season, a role which Hudson is quoted saying he did not enjoy. Still, Hudson provides a solid bullpen arm that Davey Martinez will make liberal use of. Will Harris, who is famous in Nationals lore for giving up the home run in Game 7 to Howie Kendrick that turned the tide of the final game, is now a National himself, adding an elite bullpen arm to a bullpen that desperately needed one. The Nationals, like last year, also added some prospects and projects in an attempt to find a diamond in the rough. Kyle Finnegan is a young reliever acquired from Oakland and Ryne Harper was acquired recently from Minnesota who should add depth to the bullpen and should be more productive in the position than Trevor Rosenthal or Kyle Barraclough last year.
In the field, the Nationals have moved some pieces around to make up for the loss of Anthony Rendon. As mentioned earlier, Carter Kieboom will step into a role as the starting third baseman on Opening Day. The outfield will remain the same, patrolled by Adam Eaton, Victor Robles, and Juan Soto. At catcher, a position which the Nationals have historically struggled at, the Nats re-signed Yan Gomes to platoon with Kurt Suzuki behind the plate. This combination worked very well for the team last year, and should continue to be very successful. First base was another position in question for Rizzo and the Nationals. They went with an aging Ryan Zimmerman for the majority of the 2019 season, with Matt Adams and Howie Kendrick filling in for Zim on his off days. Along with bringing back Zimmerman, the Nationals signed Eric Thames from the Milwaukee Brewers on a one year contract. The Thames signing gives the Nationals a pure power hitter in their lineup – someone like Matt Adams but with a little more upside. I really like this signing – even if it means that this year will be a farewell tour for Zimmerman. Elsewhere in the infield, the Nationals signed Starlin Castro for second base. Castro will serve in a similar position to Brian Dozier last season, as he will split time with Howie Kendrick and Asdrubal Cabrera at second base. If he produces at the level he did in the second half of the 2019 season for the Miami Marlins, expect Castro to be more of an everyday second baseman. Kendrick and Cabrera, the most versatile players on the active roster, were both respectively re-signed this offseason. The Nationals hope that the two can replicate their effectiveness displayed during the entire 2019 playoffs.
As it stands right now, the Nationals will look roughly like this when they take the field on March 27 at Citi Field in Queens.
Catcher – Kurt Suzuki
First Base – Eric Thames
Second Base – Starlin Castro
Third Base – Carter Kieboom
Shortstop – Trea Turner
Left Field – Juan Soto
Center Field – Victor Robles
Right Field – Adam Eaton
Bench – Ryan Zimmerman, Howie Kendrick, Asdrubal Cabrera, Yan Gomes, Andrew Stevenson
Starting Pitching – Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, Erick Fedde/Joe Ross/Austin Voth
Relief Pitching – Sean Doolittle, Will Harris, Daniel Hudson, Kyle Finnegan, Ryne Harper, Wander Suero, Tanner Rainey, Hunter Strickland
This roster is very competitive. Washington’s starting pitching is the best in all of baseball with a 3-time Cy Young award winner, the reigning World Series MVP, and one of the top five left handed starting pitchers in all of baseball. Not to mention Anibal Sanchez, who almost no-hit the St. Louis Cardinals in the first game of the National League Championship Series. The bullpen is greatly improved thanks to the addition of Harris, as he’ll join Hudson and Doolittle for a back end capable to shut down opposing hitters after facing a Scherzer or Strasburg start. The speedy Trea Turner and productive Adam Eaton will go one-two in the lineup, followed by Juan Soto, Starlin Castro, and Eric Thames. Over the season, Carter Kieboom should become more reliable to hit in the five or six spot in the lineup, but he will likely start towards the bottom like Victor Robles did last year. This team is very well-rounded and has the talent to make another run at the World Series.
All that stands in their way is a very talented NL East. Aside from the Miami Marlins, you could make a good argument for any team to go ahead and
win the NL East. Atlanta, last year’s division champions, feature a deep lineup with many young stars. The Braves sport a five-tool talent in Ronald Acuna, an elite power hitter in Freddie Freeman, and a true ace in Mike Soroka. This team is really good, and it keeps getting better; they picked up Marcell Ozuna in free agency to team up with Acuna and Ender Inciarte this offseason. The New York Mets, regardless of the tire fire in the front office, still sport a very good baseball team. Jacob deGrom is probably the best pitcher in baseball right now, and he makes up part of a deadly rotation with Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman. The bullpen has starpower, with Dellin Betances, Edwin Diaz, and Jeurys Familia being lights-out relievers if they return back to their prior form. They’ve got the reigning rookie of the year and bonafide slugger in Pete Alonso, and have other young talent like Jeff McNeil and J.D. Davis rounding out their lineup. In Philadelphia, the strength of the team lies within its lineup. Led by Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins, the Phillies’ lineup is a nice balance between power hitters and consistent average hitters. J.T. Realmuto is the best all-around catcher in the league, and the middle infield is strong with Jean Segura and new addition Didi Gregorius. On the mound, their bullpen is a liability (but we said the same about last year’s Nationals). Still, they have a dominant top three in the rotation, with Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta, and Zack Wheeler. The poor Marlins are going to have a tough time building for the future with this talent in their division. While it’ll be a dogfight, I think the Braves will win their third consecutive division title, with the Nationals in the Wild Card game for a second straight year. The top four in the division will be within no more than seven games of each other when the season ends, so really, it’s anyone’s division.
I really like the team that the Nationals are going into the new year with. Will they be able to replicate the magical season of last year? Probably not. But as Davey Martinez says, if the Nationals can just go 1-0 every day, who knows what could happen.
Missing the championship run of last year? Check out my interviews and posts from the magical playoff run –
The Nationals’ League
A Nationals Parade
Navy Yard Businesses See Boom In Business During World Series
Meet the Nationals’ Youngest Fans from All Things Considered, WAMU NPR Radio
Fox 5 Interviews Before Game 1 of World Series