Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Washington Nationals Spring Training on February 17th as they hope to bounce back from a down year in 2020. The Nationals finished 26-34 last season, their first season below .500 since 2011. Injuries and inconsistencies throughout the team, from the starting rotation to the lineup, hampered Washington in the abbreviated 2020 season as they finished 26th in the league in ERA, despite being a team built on starting pitching.
In the offseason, Mike Rizzo focused on short-term deals, particularly one-year contracts, to remain flexible moving forward. As a result, they signed Kyle Schwarber, Jon Lester, and Brad Hand. They also traded for Pittsburgh Pirates’ first baseman Josh Bell. The Nationals did not make a “splash” move due to their inflexible payroll and thin farm system after years of contention.
In the daunted National League East, the team should be much improved this season, but there are still multiple questions to be answered entering Washington Nationals Spring Training
Three Pressing Questions Heading Into Washington Nationals Spring Training
1. Will the “Big Three” Remain Healthy and Bounce Back?
If the Nationals have any aspirations of contending in the NL East, then Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin must avoid injuries and revert back to, or close to, their 2019 forms. Strasburg started two games last season after undergoing surgery for carpal tunnel neuritis in his right wrist. The 2019 World Series MVP has battled injuries throughout his career, but he started 33 games in 2019 and led the National League in innings pitched with 209. Strasburg’s health could be even more vital for the Nationals since he is due $35 million per season through 2026.
While it may partly be attributed to the abbreviated Spring Training, there were some troubling signs for Patrick Corbin in 2020. His fastball dipped 1.6 mph in 2020 to 90.2 mph after averaging 91.8 mph in 2019. In turn, Corbin struggled mightily in 2020, giving up an MLB-leading 85 hits and pitching to a 4.66 ERA. Like Strasburg, Corbin is due $108 million through 2024.
Although Max Scherzer had a solid 2020 season, he was far from his usual, dominant self. He posted a 3.74 ERA and allowed more hits than innings pitched for the first time since 2011. This led to him posting the highest WHIP of his career. Some of this could be attributed to Scherzer not having his pinpoint command with 3.1 BB/9, his highest since 2010. Turning 37 in July, Scherzer may not ever be a threat to throw a no-hitter in each outing, like he was earlier in his Nationals tenure, but Washington needs him to return to posting a sub-three ERA, a benchmark he achieved each year with the Nationals prior to 2020.
2. How Will Kyle Schwarber and Josh Bell Perform After Rough 2020 Campaigns?
When the Nationals traded for Josh Bell, in exchange for Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean, it was with the hope that they will get the 2019 version of Bell. This is a similar case with Schwarber, who the Nationals signed to a one-year, $10 million contract. The Nationals need the best form of both these players to not only add protection for Juan Soto, but to even generate some semblance of offensive consistency.
In 2019, Bell batted .277, a career-high, and hit 37 home runs with 116 runs batted in. He also had a good strikeout to walk ratio, at 1.59. 2020 was a different story for the 28-year old first baseman out of Irving, Texas. He posted a .306 on-base percentage, a 62 point drop-off from his 2019 campaign. His slugging numbers also fell off significantly. He hit eight home runs in 57 games, which is 22.7 home runs extrapolated to a 162-game season. In addition to the power numbers, he struck out at a high rate, with a 2.68 strikeout to walk ratio and an average of 1.04 strikeouts per game. Another area of concern for Bell is his defense. For a team whose defense already has other question marks, the Nationals need Bell to hold his own at first.
Schwarber is a similar case study to Bell, as his batting average dropped 62 points in the 2020 season, batting .188. His home runs were still on pace for 39 home runs, an excellent season, but his OPS decreased by 170 points and his slugging percentage decreased by 138 points.
Both of these numbers can be attributed to the oddities of 2020, but they both need to rebound for the Nationals to win the NL East for this first time since 2017.
3. Are Carter Kieboom and Victor Robles Starters Moving Forward?
One of the biggest disappointments for the Washington Nationals in 2020 was the performance of Carter Kieboom and Victor Robles. Kieboom had an abysmal stint in the majors in 2019, where he hit .128 in 11 games with four errors. While he improved his plate discipline and defense in the hot corner, the power never came through for Kieboom. He slugged .212 and only had one extra-base hit last season, despite his .344 on-base percentage. At times, Kieboom seems too patient at the plate, lacking the aggressiveness that he showed in the minor leagues. This may be the “prove-it” year for Kieboom as Luis Garcia had a decent 2020 season, with a .276 batting average.
Victor Robles was a consensus top-five prospect prior to the 2019 season with his five-tool skill set. In 2019, Robles batted .255 with a close-to-league average .745 OPS and 17 home runs. He was also in the conversation for a Gold Glove Award with 25 defensive runs saved. However, 2020 was a completely different story for Robles, who added muscle last summer. Manager Dave Martinez says that might explain his struggles. On the defensive side, Robles had -4 defensive runs saved. On offense, he posted a .220 batting average, and a .608 OPS. This was unexpected, since Robles got off to a blistering start.
With a weak farm system and an aging starting rotation, the Washington Nationals need production out of their two former top prospects. Kieboom’s power to come around, a skill he flashed in the minors, to come around. He hit 16 home runs in Triple-A as part of the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. For Robles, the Nationals need him to regain his stellar defense and cut down on his strikeouts at the plate.
Players Mentioned: Kyle Schwarber, Jon Lester, Brad Hand, Josh Bell, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Wil Crowe, Eddy Yean, Juan Soto, Carter Kieboom, Victor Robles, Luis Garcia, Dave Martinez
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images