Baseball is back! We think. Each day, SportsIntel’s Matt DeSaro will take a look at two of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball as we head toward MLB Opening Day in late July and we continue today in the NL East with the Washington Nationals.
The owners and players agreed in late June to stage a 60-game season, beginning July 24. There are still many hurdles to overcome in this COVID-19 landscape, but for now, the teams are gathering for “Summer Camp,” a Spring Training reboot crammed into three weeks.
MLB Opening Day – Washington Nationals
Washington Nationals | O/U 33.5 Wins | +1800 to win World Series
The Washington Nationals capped off an epic 2019 by winning the first World Series in franchise history. And, yes, I am counting their time as the Montreal Expos (1969-2004) back when Canada had two MLB teams. It was also the first World Series win by a team from Washington since way back in 1933 when they were the more The Senators.
The Nationals exceeded all preseason expectations for a team that just lost Bryce Harper, their offensive superstar. This was a team that did not win their division, ranked eight best in wins, were a dozen games below .500 in late May and at times looked like the third best team in the National League East.
But they managed to claw their way into the Wild Card game against the Brewers, which they won. Washington then proceeded to take down the Dodgers, Cardinals and finally, the Houston Astros to win the 2019 World Series. They won five elimination games to become just the seventh Wild Card team to win the world series.
So, can they find repeat success in 2020?
I think that depends a lot on the front end of their rotation; Max Scherzer, Steven Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. Scherzer was banged up for most of the season and even missed time in the World Series due to his neck spasms. This led to them finishing just 13th in ERA (4.27) and winning ‘just’ 93 games. They will need to succeed more in the early game with a bullpen that is solid, but far from lights out. The only notable addition to the pitching staff was RP Will Harris, who will give Washington another option out of the pen.
The exit of 3B Anthony Rendon, who hit .319 with 34 HRs and 126 RBIs, is their biggest off-season loss after landing a huge deal in LA. The Nats pivoted quickly and reacted by signing 1B Eric Thames & 2B Starlin Castro. This not only makes up for some of those lost hits, but also strengthens their infield defense.
Offseason Acquisitions: 1B Eric Thames, 2B Starlin Castro, RHP Ryne Harper, RHP Will Harris, RHP Kyle Finnegan, LHP Jonny Venters.
Offseason Losses: C Spencer Kieboom, 1B Matt Adams, 2B Brian Dozier, 3B Anthony Rendon, OF Geraldo Parra, RHP Hunter McMahon, RHP Koda Glover, RHP Jeremy Hellickson, RHP Fernando Rodney.
What The Nationals Do Well
The Nationals excel in two very important areas. Those being infield depth and starting pitching.
Imagine how well you would sleep at night if your favorite MLB team had this infield. Ryan Zimmerman (or Kendrick/Thames) at first, Starlin Castro at second, Asdrúbal Cabrera manning the hot corner and Trea Turner at short. A group of guys who can not only hit for average and power, but are also strong on the defensive side of things.
Bringing Eric Thames in makes things interesting at 1B with Zimmerman and Kendrick already on the roster. Since coming back to the MLB in 2017 after taking four seasons to play Venezuelan league, his wRC+ of 118 ranks him 19th among qualified 1B while his wOBA ranks 11th. He has hit .241 with 72 long balls and 161 RBIs in that span, making him a valuable left-handed batter to have on the roster. He also has the ability to play the outfield if need be, totaling 1,790 innings playing there in his five seasons in the bigs.
Heading over to the mound ahead of opening day, the Nationals hope starters Scherzer, Strasburg, Crobin and Sanchez can dominate again after a combined 21 WAR last year. On paper, their 1-2-3 starters are the best in the Major Leagues. Both Scherzer and Strasburg were Cy Young candidates while Corbin received some votes as well and Sanchez is a strong arm in the fourth starting spot. While they don’t have a great option for a No. 5 starter with Joe Ross and Austin Voth expected to compete, they won’t be asked to pull too much weight at the end of the day.
As long as Scherzer and Strasburg remain healthy enough to be the inning eaters Washington needs them to be, things will go smooth on the mound in 2020. They would do well to add another veteran arm with guys like Andrew Cashner, Ervin Santana, and Matt Harvey still free agents.
Where Can They Improve?
The Nationals’ biggest concern as we countdown to the MLB Opening Day has to be their bullpen after their core of relief pitchers almost ruined what was to be their most historic season to date. True, they did step up a bit in the playoffs, but this is still a bullpen that needs work before it can be trusted. They finished the season 25th in wins above average, 25th in ERA and posted the worst win probability in the modern era.
Frankly, it’s amazing to me that the Nationals even made it into the playoffs with such a garbage fire in the bullpen.
To combat this, they relied heavily on their starting pitching when the calendar turned to October. But this is not a strategy that can be used in the regular season. Despite some handy additions, their current relief pitching depth chart is still nothing to be too excited about. Behind FA signee Will Harris, guys like Tanner Rainey and Hunter Strickland are the best options the Nationals have to turn to in relief.
Another concern the Nats have heading into the season is who will fill the offensive void left by Anthony Rendon. Last year, Juan Soto more than made up for the loss of Bryce Harper, but can Castro or Thames do the same this year? The short answer is no. These two guys are a welcome addition, but few players could make up for such a loss in the batting order. Veteran bats like Soto, Robles, and Eaton will help, but the Nationals are still just that less intimidating when stepping up to the plate in 2020.
Nationals Season Prediction Ahead of Opening Day
After winning 93 games last year, bookmakers have the reigning champions taking a small step back in 2020 and have the Nationals projected to win 33.5 games, before opening day. Most World Series winners do have a bit of a hangover in the following year so historically, this number makes sense. As we do with all other teams in the league, we have to examine whether or not this team is worse than last year.
It’s an interesting question considering that their bullpen was historically bad and they lost many high-quality starts due to injuries in the MLB.
Much like the Mets, I do not expect the Nationals bullpen to be as bad as they were in 2020. Sean Doolittle is still a very strong closer and now, with Harris under contract, they have two guys who have proven able to save games on the regular.
As stated above, the loss of Anthony Rendon is significant, but this team has already proven able to shake off the loss of a superstar hitter. I think Soto is even better this year and Castro does enough to mitigate the loss of their starting third-basemen.
Taking all of this into consideration as we countdown to the MLB season opening day, I think it would be a strong bet on the over for the Nationals. I see their additions and subtractions to be almost equal and expect their bullpen to at least be average this year. And average is good enough considering they won 93 in a year when their bullpen was historically terrible.
C – Kurt Suzuki
1B – Eric Thames
2B – Starlin Castro
3B – Asdrubal Cabrera
SS – Trea Turner
LF – Juan Soto
CF – Victor Robles
RF – Adam Eaton