Tuesday, July 23, 2024
AnalysisMLBNational LeagueNL EastWashington Nationals

2021 Season Preview: Washington Nationals

Source: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

It’s shaping up to be an interesting season for the Washington Nationals. Unlike some of the years in the past decade, the 2019 champs are now in a really tough division, featuring two legitimate contenders in the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets. The Phillies project to be at least a solid team as well, and the Marlins, while young and inexperienced, have a lot of young talent headlined by a wonderful rotation. In short, the Nats are going to have a lot of competition as they look to put the disappointment that was 2020 behind them.

Not a lot went right for the 2020 version of the Nationals, and that might be an understatement. Stephen Strasburg pitched a grand total of five innings. Patrick Corbin had an alarming velocity drop. Anibal Sanchez got killed out there on the mound. Many of the young players on the roster stalled in development and most off-season signings didn’t work out. There were some good things too, of course: Juan Soto turned into Ted Williams 2.0, Trea Turner had a phenomenal season and Max Scherzer was still very good even at age 36.

Combined with the excitement that surrounds the Mets, it’s logical that the Nats seem to have slipped out of the spotlight and look more like a dark horse candidate than anything else at this point. The team has made a lot of small and medium-sized moves to improve their overall depth this offseason, but they haven’t made the big splashes that get people talking. We’ll take a look at their roster situation from top-down, going through the lineup, the bench, the starting rotation, and the bullpen. But first, let’s take a look at some projections.

What The Projections Say

We’ll go over the two main projection systems out there: Fangraphs and PECOTA, which project the Nats to finish with 82.1 and 84.3 wins respectively. Fangraphs gives the Nats a 7.5% chance to win the division while PECOTA goes to 10.7%, mainly because PECOTA doesn’t like the Braves all that much, so it projects the Nats as the second-best team in the division. Fangraphs does like the Braves, projecting them to finish relatively close to the Mets for second place, relegating the Nats to third place.

It’s important to understand that a projection system doesn’t make one calculation and then it just spits out a number, but rather it runs thousands of simulations and gives you the average number of wins for each team, so there are outcomes where the Nats go 66-96 and there are outcomes where the Nats flip that record. Here’s the range of outcomes for the NL East according to PECOTA:

Source: Baseball Prospectus

As you can see, most projections have the Nats finishing steadily above .500, but standing firmly behind the top teams. Is there a reason for it? Sure there is, but there’s also a chance for more and a chance for less. Let’s take a look at the position player group.

The Lineup

Position player depth was a gigantic issue for the Nats last year, with Trea Turner and Juan Soto combining to produce 5.1 fWAR and the rest of the team’s hitters producing -1.8 fWAR as a group. The team made some moves to fix that this offseason, so how does it look moving forward?

CATCHER: Yan Gomes and Alex Avila are not the most exciting of platoons but they could be a lot better than you would think. Gomes has a 117 career wRC+ against lefties and Avila has a 112 wRC+ against righties. Add that up with solid defensive value from both and you have something pretty nice. You could do a lot worse than this, I guarantee you that.

FIRST BASE: The Nats traded for former Pirates slugger Josh Bell and he figures to get the vast majority of playing time over there, with team legend Ryan Zimmerman likely spelling him against lefties. Bell is not a good fielder but I suspect he’ll be an above-average hitter and a fine contributor. Once again, not exciting, but you could definitely do a lot worse.

SECOND BASE: Starlin Castro was pretty passable in limited action in 2020 and he’s supposedly the starter right now. However, depending on how Luis Garcia and Carter Kieboom perform in Spring Training, he may find himself as a bench piece. I’d say it’s likely Castro ends up playing a bit of second, short, and third base as García hits his way into the lineup. But we’ll see how this goes. This is an open competition as far as I’m concerned.

THIRD BASE: The Nats were counting on Carter Kieboom to cover (at least a little bit) for the loss of Anthony Rendon last season. It didn’t work out, but he was the Nats’ number one prospect for a reason. There’s a lot of power coupled with good plate discipline here. He should get every opportunity to win that third base job for himself and I’m pretty sure the team knows it and will afford him that shot. Look for veteran Josh Harrison to spell him every once in a while.

SHORTSTOP: I’m tempted to simply type “Trea Turner. Next.” here, but I’ll do a bit more. Turner, long one of the most underrated players in baseball, had a tremendous 2020 season (.335/.394/.588 with 12 HR and 12 steals for a team-leading 2.7 fWAR) and he figures to be the rock of the team in the leadoff spot once again. It’ll be interesting to see how the team approaches the final two years of team control they have over him and what their strategy will be in terms of extending him or not. Either way, he’ll be a Nat until the end of the 2022 season at worst, and we should all be grateful for that.

LEFT FIELD: One of the more notable moves the Nats made this offseason was the signing of former Cub Kyle Schwarber. I liked the signing then, I still like it now, and he’ll provide some much-needed pop to the middle of the order. Andrew Stevenson was a pleasant surprise in a small sample size in 2020, but he’s much better suited as a utility outfielder and defensive replacement in late innings when needed.

CENTER FIELD: This is the wild card. I’ve written about Victor Robles in detail before, and the summary is this: if the Nats are going to make that leap from solid team to serious contender, a breakthrough from Robles is a must. He’s about to enter his third full season as the Nats’ everyday centerfielder. While he’s still very young, there has to be some progress with the bat this season. The good news is he has no competition. He is going to provide value no matter what thanks to his elite defense in center, which will be needed more than ever considering who surrounds him in the outfield corners.

RIGHT FIELD: What is there to say about Juan Soto that hasn’t been said already? This is a dude who turned 22 a couple of months ago with his career slash line at .295/.415/.557. He walked 20.9% of the time last year, hit .351, and struck out only 14.3% of the time. Like… what?. I typically believe that pitchers are always the ones who dictate an at-bat, but I never feel that way when I watch Soto hit. He’s an absolute pleasure to watch at the plate, it doesn’t matter that he’s an okay baserunner at best, and it doesn’t matter that he’s an average fielder in a corner at best. This is the 21st-century version of Ted Williams we’re watching. I think he’s about to put up some very special seasons with the bat. We are going to witness them all. What a privilege that is.

That was all the positions. It’s a stronger group than last season with more depth and a more solid floor of performance but still depends on some young guys performing better than expected to truly be an impact group. Don’t expect it to be the strength of the team, but it should be significantly better than it was in 2020.

As a bonus, I’m going to put up my ideal lineup as of right now, because it’s always fun to craft these:

1Trea TurnerRSS
2Juan SotoLRF
3Kyle SchwarberLLF
4Josh BellS1B
5Starlin CastroR2B
6Victor RoblesRCF
8Carter KieboomR3B

The Starting Rotation

Ah yes, the starting rotation, the cornerstone of any quality baseball team. The Nats have relied heavily on their starters in recent years -the rotation has pitched 3127.0 innings since 2017, second-most in baseball behind only Cleveland- and the top of it figures to be the team’s strength yet again this season. There’s more doubt than in previous years, but let’s look at each candidate and figure out where they stand:

SP #1: Max Scherzer figures to get the ball when Opening Day comes, as he’s done in the last three years and in five of the last six. The 36-year-old suffered some bad BABIP luck last season (.355) with some of the underlying metrics worse than in previous years, especially the ones regarding swings and misses, as well as Chase %. Scherzer still put up a 3.74 ERA and a 3.46 FIP with his velocity pretty much intact. The downhill slide will eventually come, it might be happening already, but he’s still the man. Baseball fans can expect him to have another excellent season as the ace of this squad. Just a reminder that for Scherzer, a 4 fWAR season would be considered regression. That’s how good he’s been.

Source: Baseball Savant

SP #2: On a rate basis, Stephen Strasburg has been one of the best pitchers in baseball for years now. The problem, of course, is that the 32-year-old has only pitched a full season twice in ten years. He tossed only five frames in all of 2020 so I’d expect the Nats to be a bit cautious with him as they ease him along, but you know the drill by now. He won’t make 34 starts, he won’t pitch 210 innings, but he’ll be phenomenal when he’s actually out there. The guy is an ace, albeit an unlucky one.

Source: Baseball Savant

SP #3: Velocity drops are never a good thing, as Patrick Corbin can attest. His 92 MPH fastball in 2019 turned into a 90 MPH offering in 2020, with all his repertoire suffering a similar drop. His trademark slider was not only slower, it got swings and misses less often than ever before, which played a big part in him going from a 28.5% K rate in 2019 to a measly 20.3% in 2020. Now, Corbin is still just 31 years old, so there’s a good chance that velocity drop was a result of the lack of ramp-up process heading into the season, so it’s worth monitoring his velocity in Spring Training to see if it returns. If it does, which I’m confident it will, Corbin will be a terrific number three starter behind Scherzer and Strasburg once again.

Source: Baseball Savant

SP #4: The back end of the rotation is more of a question. Veteran Jon Lester will be the team’s fourth starter, likely representing a pretty big drop in performance from Corbin, but he should still be okay nonetheless. Lester is deep into the “crafty left-hander” phase of his career, with his fastball velocity reaching career lows in 2020. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however, because his command is still good and his pitches still have movement. An innings-eater kind of starter is really valuable in a season like 2021 where pitcher workloads are about to double or triple from what they were the year prior but if the team is doing well at the deadline I’d expect them to look for a better option than Lester for that fourth starter role, because relying on 2021 Jon Lester for postseason play is not ideal, even if his cutter still cuts.

Source: Baseball Savant

SP #5: This is where there may be some open competition in Spring Training. Joe Ross opted out of play in 2020, but he figures to be the favorite for that final starter spot. The competition will likely include Austin Voth, Erick Fedde, alongside others. Like I said before, if the Nats trade for another starter mid-season, expect Lester to slide to this spot if he’s performing at a fine level.

Source: Baseball Savant

The rotation headlined that 2019 team that defied all odds and ended up winning a ring, but it will need to perform at that level again to lift the just-okay position player group and bullpen to the next level. Speaking of the bullpen…

The Bullpen

Call me delusional, but I believe the Nats bullpen has a very legitimate chance to be solid this season. Let’s go through the names, remember, bullpen roles can change drastically throughout a season. This is just the picture as it stands right now:

LONG RELIEF: My instinct tells me the guys who don’t win the fifth starter job will be penciled in for the swingman role. That likely means Voth and Fedde, and don’t be surprised if the Nats keep looking for more guys of that style as they aim to control pitcher workloads.

MIDDLE RELIEF: Kyle Finnegan, Wander Suero and Will Harris will likely get the bulk of the innings here, with other guys like Kyle McGowin and others joining in. There’s going to be a lot of relievers used this season, so expect the Nats to keep looking for arms that can get some higher-leverage outs.

HIGH LEVERAGE RELIEF: Not many noticed, but Tanner Rainey was phenomenal last year. The 28-year-old righty struck out 42.7% of batters faced and posted a strong 4.6 K/BB ratio. Daniel Hudson had a rough 2020, but he was outstanding in 2019 and he seems to have the trust of Dave Martinez, so I am including him here.

CLOSER: For those not aware, the Nats signed former Cleveland closer Brad Hand in the past weeks, which gives them a steady hand (ha-ha) in the late innings. Hand has been one of baseball’s best relievers for years, so he should continue to be a quality option.

As you noticed, the bullpen is a bit of a mixed bag, but that doesn’t mean it will be bad. There are quite a few quality arms here, all the Nationals need is a Daniel Hudson and Will Harris bounce-back for this to look like a very steady group. It won’t be the Rays, but it will be solid. At least that’s my prediction.

My Outlook

So what do I think of the 2021 Washington Nationals?

Well, let’s start out with the good. They have two legitimate star position players in Soto and Turner, a terrific top of the rotation, their overall depth has clearly improved compared to last year, and a lot of young players have nowhere to go but up. That is the good news. The bad news is the back of the rotation is pretty sketchy, the rest of their position players aside from Soto and Turner don’t look like difference makers and the bullpen is not going to be a plus unless everyone plays over their heads. Readers also have to remember that they’re going to play in a pretty competitive division with two clear contenders in Atlanta and New York.

I think the 2021 Nats will be a quality team, let’s make that clear. I think they will be in the postseason hunt up until the very last days of the season, but I don’t think they’ll have enough to make the postseason because in order to do so they’re going to have to beat one of Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, or San Diego. Is there a chance one of those four teams underperforms? Absolutely. Is there a chance the Nats overperform? Yup. Those things will have to come together in order for the Nats to get into October baseball, but if they do, they won’t be an easy out because the strengths of their roster (high-end top of the rotation, star position players) are made for the fall. Hopefully, we’ll see them in another deep run, and who knows? Maybe they’ll lift another piece of metal. I still can’t believe Manfred said that out loud.

FINAL PREDICTION: 85-77, 3rd in NL East, no postseason.