It’s the most wonderful time of the year – baseball is almost back! The 2020 season was a bizarre one for baseball, as delayed start, shortened schedule, universal DH, and playoff games played in neutral “bubbles” in the Sun Belt fittingly characterized the craziness of the year as a whole. It was a disappointing season for the Nationals, as they finished in fourth place in the NL East, with a 26-34 record. The 2021 season brings back a sense of normalcy, as the full 162 game campaign will be played. Faced with a challenging and incredibly competitive division, this year will be an exciting one to watch for Nationals fans.
This offseason saw the departure of many key pieces from the 2019 World Series run. Most notably, outfielder Adam Eaton signed back with his former team, the Chicago White Sox. While Eaton provided a lot to the Nationals during his tenure with the team, his return to the South Side of Chicago likely proves the White Sox the winner of the trade that brought Eaton to Washington. Eaton was acquired for Lucas Giolito, who has quickly made a name for himself in Chicago and whose presence on the Nationals would undoubtedly give them the most potent rotation in baseball. Howie Kendrick, who will go down in Nationals history as one of the most clutch hitters the team has ever seen, retired, leaving the Nats without a key bench player. Two players from earlier playoff appearances who recently made their return to Washington, infielder Asdrubal Cabrera and catcher Kurt Suzuki, have also left, signing with Arizona and Anaheim, respectively. First baseman Eric Thames joined the Yomiuri Giants in Japan following a disappointing 2020 season with the Nats. And on the mound, beloved relief pitcher Sean Doolittle signed with Cincinnati. The Nationals chose not to re-sign starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez, and he remains a free agent.
While this year’s Nationals will look very different from the World Series team, the Nats brought in some very interesting pieces to make up for the many losses. Their highest-profile addition was Josh Bell, acquired from Pittsburgh in December for two prospects. Although Bell is coming off a down year for the Pirates, he is a former All-Star and has proved to be a key switch-hitting bat at a key skill position. Eaton’s outfield spot will become Kyle Schwarber’s, the power-hitting former Chicago Cub who the Nationals signed to a one-year contract. Schwarber is a traditional, Adam Dunn-esque power hitter, who hits for a low batting average but hits lots of home runs. In fact, Schwarber had the lowest batting average among all qualified NL hitters in the 2020 season, yet still hit a home run in 5% of his plate appearances. His bat will be happily welcomed in the sixth or seventh spot in the lineup, and brings a decent fielding record as an outfielder to the table as well. The Nationals brought in former Tiger Alex Avila to be Yan Gomes’s backup catcher, who doesn’t bring exceptional offensive numbers; Gomes will likely get the lion’s share of playing time behind the plate.
The Nationals made a big splash in the bullpen, signing free agent reliever Brad Hand after years of endless rumors linking Hand and the Nationals. Hand bolsters the bullpen a significant amount; his addition could finally make 2021 the year where the Nats solve their bullpen woes. Sanchez’s effective replacement as the veteran starting pitcher is Jon Lester, who spent years with the Red Sox and the Cubs. He is definitely looking at improving on an underwhelming 2020 season, where he posted a career-worst ERA of 5.16. Still, he is only three seasons removed from a MLB-leading 18 wins and an All-Star selection, so his signing is low-risk, high-reward for the Nationals.
The main core remains largely intact from 2019. Juan Soto, Trea Turner, and Victor Robles will continue to lead the offense, with Starlin Castro, Bell, and the potential emergences of Carter Kieboom and/or Luis Garcia backing them up. When the Nationals take the field on April 1 at Nationals Park, the lineup will likely look something like this –
SS Trea Turner
CF Victor Robles
RF Juan Soto
2B Starlin Castro
1B Josh Bell
LF Kyle Schwarber
3B Carter Kieboom
C Yan Gomes
This year is an important one for Kieboom, who needs to assert himself as a starting third baseman and a dependable piece in the infield for years to come. If he is unable to, expect the Nationals to turn to Josh Harrison at third base as a temporary solution. Harrison will start the season on the bench, alongside Avila, Andrew Stevenson, Ryan Zimmerman, Luis Garcia, and Gerardo Parra (!). Nationals fans will be glad to see Parra’s return from a year’s long stint in Japan, bringing back Baby Shark for one last hurrah. And after taking last year off, it will feel much more normal to have franchise cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman back on the team, although his role will be much more toned down than in years past.
On the mound, the Nationals sport arguably the best top three starting pitchers in the game – opposing hitters will have to face at least one of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, or Patrick Corbin each series. All three are among the best pitchers in the game at the moment, and are the lifeblood of any chance the Nationals have at getting back to the World Series. Towards the end of the rotation, more questions arise. It’s pretty safe to say that Lester will be the Nats’ #4 starter to start the season, but if he struggles that could change. The #5 spot in the rotation will likely go to either Joe Ross or Erick Fedde, who will battle it out in camp for the coveted position. Austin Voth is also in the running, as is, according to Mike Rizzo, new addition Rogelio Armenteros. However, both are much likelier to start the season either in the bullpen or in Triple-A Rochester. Daniel Hudson will return for another year as the Nationals’ closer, supported by Will Harris as the 8th inning specialist and a plethora of options for earlier in the game. Hand, Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero, Kyle Finnegan, and Ryne Harper will all likely round out the Nats’ bullpen. Look for big years from both Rainey and Suero – they’ve shown promise in past years and they could prove themselves to be valuable late-inning relievers with a breakout year this season.
Even in a year with so many changes to the team, the biggest question to the Nationals’ success lies outside of the team itself. The NL East has the unique distinction of being the most competitive division in baseball this season. All five teams are actively competing for a World Series, a rare sight in today’s age. All talk about the NL East starts with Atlanta, who have won the past three consecutive division titles and are poised to do it again this year. They boast a strong young core at the plate and on the mound, and brought back Marcell Ozuna after an excellent 2020 season. Atlanta has largely remained unchanged from last year, however, something that can not be said about the New York Mets. After years of speculation, the Wilpon family sold the Mets, and unlike the Wilpons, new owner Steve Cohen is not afraid to increase the team’s payroll. Love them or hate them, the Mets have a very, very, very good team – on paper. For no reason other than the simple fact that they are the New York Mets and have a recent history of underperformance, I am not totally sold on this team. That being said, taking an already strong infield, with the likes of Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil, and adding one of the premier shortstops in the league in Francisco Lindor gives New York a compelling lineup. Any rotation featuring Jacob deGrom is going to be deadly; add Carlos Carrasco, Marcus Stroman, Taijuan Walker, and a healthy Noah Syndergaard, and you have what is probably the best rotation in baseball. This team is either going to be a boom or a bust, and if they boom, they are instantly World Series contenders. The strength of the Braves, Mets, and Nats put the Philadelphia Phillies in a tough spot. While they are desperately trying to improve their team and win, the Phillies are simply not as strong as their division rivals. Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler are strong to head the rotation, and they have some weapons in their lineups, including J.T. Realmuto, Rhys Hoskins, and, of course, Bryce Harper. If you put the Phillies current roster in the any other division, they’re contending for a division title. Yet in their current situation, they’ll be fighting for fourth or fifth place. Unfortunately, this puts the Miami Marlins in a pretty deep hole. They shocked the entire world by making the playoffs in 2020, something they weren’t even supposed to come close to – and then, they swept the Chicago Cubs in the Wild Card Series. They boast a strong young core of budding stars, like Sandy Alcantara, Lewis Brinson, and Brian Anderson. While they won’t be an easy win like they have been in years past, don’t expect the Marlins to shock the world for a second season in a row and make it back to the playoffs. Once their young core develops further and top prospects like Victor Victor Mesa crack the MLB, they will be a formidable team and will be in a serious position to compete for a World Series.
Regardless of what team you root for, all baseball fans should be excited to watch the NL East this year, and I think we are going to be treated to an exciting season with outstanding baseball being played. I don’t think the Nationals are going to win the division – I’m taking Atlanta in first place, followed by the Mets, the Nats, the Phillies, and the Marlins. This would mean that the Nationals would miss out on the playoffs for another season – I’m taking Atlanta in the NL East, St. Louis in the NL Central, and the Dodgers in the NL West, with San Diego and the Mets taking the two Wild Card spots. In the American League, I have the Yankees winning the East, the White Sox in the Central, the Astros winning the West, and Oakland playing Toronto in the Wild Card game.
I hope my predictions are wrong, and the Nationals end up making the playoffs this year. But whether or not the Nats play into October, I’m looking forward to what is going to be an incredible 2021 season.