Continuing ranking the National League East ahead of the 2021 regular season. Fifth place, I talked about the Miami Marlins and how playing in a shortened season benefited them making their first playoff berth since 2003. Coming in at number four…
The Washington Nationals.
The Nationals surprised everyone in 2019 by winning their first World Series title in franchise history. They did it with great pitching, clutch hitting and just like many other championship teams in the past, getting hot at the right time.
Unfortunately, three key pieces of that championship team didn’t help the Nationals in 2020, as they finished 26-34, a record that placed them fourth in the division. Anthony Rendon hit big playoff home runs and is considered one of the best third baseman in baseball, and he signed with the Angels last offseason. World Series MVP hurler Stephen Strasburg missed most of the ‘20 season due to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. And Juan Soto, who some are now saying is the best hitter in MLB, missed the first two weeks of the season, after testing positive for the coronavirus on Opening Day. Missing two weeks in a two month season is a big chunk. The Nationals were understandably not up to par from where they were the year before.
Looking ahead to this season, Washington has the makings to be a solid team in the National League. They have a three-headed monster in the rotation still in Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin & Strasburg. Strasburg signed a 7-year $245 million extension last offseason, but has proved to be injury-prone throughout his career. So, who’s to say he stays healthy this year? They also signed Jon Lester to a one-year deal about three weeks ago, but Lester is 37 and had ERA+’s of 98 & 86 the past two seasons. There’s a chance the Nationals could have a really good rotation if Strasburg can stay healthy and Lester can be close to what he was in ‘18 when he finished ninth in Cy-Young voting, but you can’t bank on it.
On the other end the Nationals offense was tenth in runs scored in 2020. The lineup is led by 22-year old Soto, who slashed .351/.490/.695 to go along with a 212 OPS+ in 47 games. Shortstop Trea Turner had a mini-breakout year for the Nationals, leading the Majors in hits (78) and NL in triples (4), while slashing .335/.394/.588 and finishing seventh in MVP voting. There wasn’t much after those two names, but they’ve added a few more in free agency. Washington signed outfielder Kyle Schwarber & first baseman Josh Bell to one-year deals. Both players hit just under 40 home runs in 2019 and were brought in to provide some protection for Soto. The offense can be formidable, if: Soto puts up Soto-like numbers, Turner can play at an All-Star level, and Schwarber & Bell can put up the power numbers they did in ‘19.
The bullpen wasn’t very good last year. According to FanGraphs, they ranked 22nd out of 30 in relief pitching ERA (4.68). But the Nationals made a huge upgrade by signing one of the best relievers in the game, Brad Hand, to a one year $10.5 million deal. Hand led the Majors in saves and finished with a 2.05 ERA last season.
In the end there are too many question marks to assume that the Nationals are even a lock for a wild card spot. They have a lot of talent, but too many unknowns and components that need to go their way for that to happen.
2021 Prediction: 78-84
Key players to watch: Juan Soto, Stephen Strasburg & Josh Bell
Featured Image: Mitchell Layton | Credit: Getty Images