By Kari Lakes
From being the worst team in baseball with an unpleasant record of 19-31 in May to winning the franchise’s first World Series title, the Nationals 2019 season was a marvel. Head Skipper Davey Martinez started the season urging his team to “Go 1-0 today”. After winning the NL Wild Card game against the Brewers with an unanticipated ninth inning comeback, they adopted the phrase, “Finish the Fight”. They accomplished all of this while having the oldest roster in baseball, and will keep that title for the 2020 season.
New roster pick-ups and returning vets all will have a part to play the delayed and highly anticipated 2020 season. From Juan Soto’s newly found fame, to a pitching rotation that should make any batter shudder, what lies in store for this team?
Oldies but Goodies
As mentioned, there are plenty of well-seasoned veterans on the active roster. More specifically, there are six players that are 35 and older and they all will play a role in the upcoming season. Ryan Zimmerman, aka Mr. National, has never worn any other Major League jersey besides a Washington one. His free agency ended last season, but the Nationals resigned him in January. He will be a duo with 33-year-old Eric Thames, who was also signed in January. These two rotating at first will help keep both vets healthy and sharp on the corner.
Speaking of duos, let’s talk Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki. Gomes, who saw 93 games and Suzuki who saw 75, helped prove the theory that splits are a great approach to keep that position fresh. Respectively, Suzuki hit the first homer in the 6th inning of Game 2 of the World Series, where they bested Houston 12-3. Since a lot of these guys are in their mid to late 30’s, playing every day isn’t viable.
Then there is Howie Kendrick; the Nationals secret weapon. You can find him basically anywhere in the infield, whenever a spot needs filling, although on the roster he is listed as a second baseman. Then there’s his plate presence. He became a Washington legend when in Game 5 of the NLDS, he launched a go-ahead grand slam against the Dodgers in the 10th inning, erasing all of the scars of disappointment associated with word “playoffs”. That swing helped him earn the 2019 NLCS MVP, after the Nats swept the Cardinals. Bottom line, this guy is the epitome of a team player, and we are going to see a lot of him in 2020.
If It Isn’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
Washington has an outfield algorithm that mustn’t be tampered with. In right field, there is lead-off hitter Adam Eaton with a .279 batting average. Eaton became a starter after Bryce Harper signed with the Phillies towards the end of Spring Training in 2019. Although devastating at first, Eaton’s consistency at the plate and “play smarter not harder” approach in the outfield made us almost forget the Harper loss all together. What was there to miss? His batting average is higher, he makes less mistakes, and he wouldn’t be caught dead not running it all the way out to first base.
In centerfield, you will find the duo of Victor Robles and Michael Taylor. Robles saw about 100 more games than Taylor did in 2019, while in 2018 it was Taylor who saw the field more. Both appeared in the post season and did their part. We are likely to see a mixture of these two again in the upcoming season.
Then there is Juan Soto. While Eaton replaced Harper position wise, it was Soto who filled in at the plate. When called up in 2018, he became the youngest player in the majors at 19 years-old. Soto was already a star by the end of the 2019 season, but his performance in the post-season is what made him a household name. He led the team in post-season home runs with five and came in second in RBI’s with 14. His determination to get better hasn’t gone away since helping Washington win the World Series. During Spring Training, he said he never wants to get comfortable on the team, and that he wants to keep playing baseball the right way. This post-season hero is the pure kind of superstar we never knew we needed.
On the Bump
The Nationals started the 2019 season with a very special ranking: Worst Bullpen in the MLB. Reliever Trevor Rosenthal helped shape that title after being unable to record an out for his first four outings, giving him an ERA of infinity. On May 13th, NBC Sports Washington released an article called “How Bad is this Nationals bullpen? It’s worse than you thought” where it claimed simply that this bullpen was the worst in the organization’s history. It even gave a short breakdown of the bullpen ERA since 2012 to visually show how different this season’s bullpen was; bad different. Article after article was released, questioning and laughing at how could Davey Martinez let it get so bad? Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist was fired in early May, and replaced by Paul Menhart.
How will 2020 be different? Martinez has said he wants to limit pen walks, getting ahead of hitters and putting them away early. He wants his starters to get in the mindset of getting a batter out in four pitches or less. To him, it isn’t about a flawless pitch, but rather avoiding walk-induced situations.
The rotation this season will be basically the same as last season’s. In first is Max Scherzer, with his terrorizing growl and mesmerizing different colored eyes. Following him we will see 2019 World Series MVP, Stephen Strasburg, where fans have specialized these appearances as #Strasmas. Coming in third will be Patrick Corbin. On almost any other team, you would find him first or second in rotation while finishing 11th in the CY Young voting last season. Fourth will be Anibal Sanchez, who despite being overshadowed by names like Scherzer and Strasburg, has continuously given notable outings. He pitched game one of the NLCS, and allowed only one hit in 7 2/3 innings. The fifth spot will likely be left open to guys like Austin Voth and Joe Ross, both familiar faces from last year’s rotation.
Coming out of the pen you will see Star Wars super-fan Sean Doolittle, post-season savior Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey and newbie RHP Will Harris, from the Houston Astros. The upside is that he didn’t have to travel very far for the spring, just a hop and a skip away from the Astros’ facility lies the Nationals’ one. In 2019, he played in 68 games and held a tight 1.50 ERA. He is known for his cutter and his curveball, and noted for performing better against lefties.
Who the Hell is Going to Play Third Base?
Nationals fans, while their stint of celebration of the WS outcome was a long one, all came to a halt when esteemed third baseman Anthony Rendon signed a 7-year, $245 million deal with the Angels. Rendon crept his way into the hearts of Nats fans, and his animosity with the media helped him fly under the radar while having similar numbers to the Nolan Arenado’s and the Manny Machado’s of baseball.
It is unclear still who will be the main starter at third base. The Nationals have given themselves a few options, though, starting with Carter Kieboom. Kieboom was called up early last season after SS Trea Turner injured his finger during an at-bat against the Phillies. In his first at-bat as a major leaguer, Kieboom launched a solo home run into centerfield, but had a slow decline afterwards. Defensively, he was not quite ready to be a starter for the Nationals. After Turner’s return, he spent the rest of the season with Triple-A Fresno, and acquired 82 2/3 innings at third base. Manager Mike Rizzo thinks he is very close to major league ready, and is ready to give him the chance.
Next there is another split method with 34-year-old Asdrúbal Cabrera and 30-year-old Starlin Castro. Cabrera came to Washington early August of last year after being released by the Rangers, and Castro was signed in January after spending two years with the Marlins. Both have had plenty of experience at the hot corner, and with first base being treated very similarly, I could see this being a very likely possibility for the Nationals. This opens up 2B for Keiboom to play, and of course Turner at SS. Personally, this setup is my favorite, but there is one more option that could likely play out.
Although a little late now, if we assume that the 2020 season will not be played, a trade is likely to occur. The Nationals had their eyes on Josh Donaldson before he re-signed with the Twins earlier this year. This option doesn’t come easy, though, as players like Kris Bryant or Corey Seager will likely require money and more than one player.
During this pandemic it is hard to say whether or not there will even be a 2020 baseball season. While that is an ominous way of thinking, I can’t help but be comforted by the thought of the Washington Nationals being the World Series winners two-years in a row.