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2021 Season Preview: Washington Nationals

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Did the Nationals do enough this offseason to get Juan Soto back to the postseason?

MLB: Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

After winning the 2019 World Series, the Washington Nationals saw Anthony Rendon leave to sign a big free agent deal with the Los Angeles Angels and then limped to a 26-34 record in the shortened 2020 season. That finish tied them with the New York Mets for last place in the NL East which was not what many people were expecting.

The Nationals went to work this offseason in hopes of addressing its roster. The team picked up first baseman Josh Bell in a trade with the Pirates. They also signed outfielder Kyle Schwarber to a one-year, $10 million deal and brought in veterans Brad Hand and Jon Lester in hopes that they can provide some depth for the pitching staff.

Washington Nationals projected lineup

CF - Victor Robles
RF - Juan Soto
SS - Trea Turner
1B - Josh Bell
LF - Kyle Schwarber
2B - Starlin Castro
C - Yan Gomes
3B - Carter Kieboom

When looking at the Nationals’ lineup it is hard to start anywhere other than the top with Juan Soto and Trea Turner. Soto was outstanding again in the shortened season posting a career-best 201 wRC+ while posting an eye popping .490 OBP in 196 plate appearances. He is one of the best young hitters in the game and only seems to be getting better.

Turner has been kind of under appreciated for a while but he turned in a banner season in 2020 as well posting a .335/.394/.588 line with a 158 wRC+. Washington knows what they have in Soto and Turner, it is a matter of filling in the pieces around them.

One player that will be looking to bounce back after a sub par 2020 season is outfielder Victor Robles. After a solid campaign in 2019, Robles took a step backwards at the plate posting a 65 wRC+ while also struggling defensively in terms of DRS and UZR.

The Nationals are also counting on bounce back seasons from Bell and Schwarber who both found themselves available this offseason. Bell looked like a budding star in 2019 when he slugged 37 home runs and put up a 135 wRC+. That total dropped to just eight homers and a 77 wRC+ in 2020 and with Pittsburgh entering into a rebuild, the Pirates elected to save some money and sold low on Bell. Per Statcast, Bell’s launch angle dropped from 13.1 in 2019 all the way to just 5.9 in 2020. Washington will be hoping that they can tweak his swing again and unlock some of that massive power.

Schwarber also had his career-worst season for the Cubs in 2020 and was non-tendered by the club during the offseason. Schwarber hit just .188/.308/.393 with 11 home runs and a 91 wRC+ in 59 games for Chicago. The Nationals will be hoping that last season was an aberration and that his bat recovers enough to warrant his subpar defense in left field.

Rotation

Washington will again boast a veteran rotation, but also one with a few question marks. Max Scherzer saw his FIP jump a full run in 2020 while his walk rate also took a sizable jump. Scherzer is still dominant, but at age 36 and with over 2,300 innings on his arm, maybe not quite as dominant as we are used to seeing.

Stephen Strasburg was World Series MVP in 2019 but made just two starts and threw five innings total in 2020 before undergoing carpel tunnel surgery on his right wrist. The hope is that he will be fully recovered and ready for Opening Day, but again there is always concern when a pitcher is coming off of surgery.

Patrick Corbin was the third part of the Nationals’ “Big Three” in 2019, but he also fell on hard times in 2020. Corbin saw the effectiveness of his slider dip and his strikeout rate went along with it. As a result, his ERA jumped by more than a run while his FIP increased from 3.49 to 4.17.

Washington acquired Lester in hopes that he can provide some depth and eat some innings at the back end of the rotation. Joe Ross is probably the favorite for the final rotation spot.

Bullpen

The Nationals’ bullpen has been a sore spot for a while now and their relievers ranked 23rd in the majors in fWAR in 2020. Sean Doolittle moved on to Cincinnati but was replaced by the addition of Hand on a one-year deal. The back half of this group includes Tanner Rainey, Daniel Hudson and Will Harris as well. Jeremy Jeffress is also in camp as a non-roster invite and should figure into the picture somewhere provided he is healthy.

Season Prediction

A lot of people were picking the Nationals to compete again for the NL East crown last season despite the loss of Rendon. Perhaps they would have had their starting pitching held up. Washington bought low on guys like Bell and Schwarber in hopes of plugging some of the holes in the lineup. If they bounce back, then they are a lot closer to competing. If they don’t, then more help will likely be needed.

Prediction: I will go with 82-80 and a third or fourth place finish in the division.