The 2021 Washington Nationals will finally be back in action as they will take on the new-look New York Mets on April 1st. They are coming off a disappointing 2020 campaign where they finished the season 26-34, their first season under .500 since 2011. Almost nothing went right for the Nationals last season. Stephen Strasburg missed the majority of the season with carpal tunnel neuritis and their three aces faltered, with Patrick Corbin struggling and Max Scherzer not being at his best for parts of the season. However, with a fully healthy Stephen Strasburg, a revamped lineup, and stellar pitching staff, Davey Martinez’s ball club hopes to win its fifth division crown in 10 seasons in the daunting NL East.
2021 Washington Nationals Season Preview
The Nationals were very strategic yet active in the offseason. Last season, the offense faltered outside of Juan Soto and Trea Turner, who both posted career years. Victor Robles batted .220 last season with 53 strikeouts and nine walks. At the hot corner, Carter Kieboom’s struggles continued and Starlin Castro went down with a broken wrist. Finally, Adam Eaton, who came to terms on a one-year deal with the Chicago White Sox, also had a down year, hitting .226 with a -0.7 WAR.
After the Nationals declined Eaton’s $10.5 million club option, they signed former Chicago Cub Kyle Schwarber to a one-year deal worth $10 million. Like Eaton, Schwarber struggled in 2020 as he batted .188. However, Schwarber did hit 11 home runs in 2020 after slugging 38 long balls in 2019. Schwarber adds a power element to the Nationals lineup that hit 66 home runs last season, 21st in the majors.
Another critical need for the Nationals was a left-handed slugger at first base. Mike Rizzo and Company addressed this by trading for Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Josh Bell. In exchange for Bell, the Nationals sent Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean to Pittsburgh. Again, like Schwarber, the Nationals bought relatively low on a player who had a sub-par 2020 campaign. Bell hit .226 in 2020 with eight home runs. In 2019, Bell was a borderline MVP candidate for the first half of the season. He finished with 37 home runs and 116 RBI, culminating in his first all-star appearance. Thus far, Bell has been exceptional in spring training. He has six home runs in 43 at-bats, a .419 batting average, and a whopping 1.433 OPS.
The only player who has a higher OPS in Spring Training for Washington? Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman returned to Washington on a one-year, $1 million contract after opting out of the 2020 season. He has five home runs this spring along with a .455 batting average. Despite retaining Zimmerman, the Nationals did not retain Michael A. Taylor, who joined the Kansas City Royals on a one-year, $1.75 million contract.
For the starting rotation, the Nationals added even more experience to one of the most veteran rotations in the major leagues. They signed World Series champion Jon Lester to a one-year deal worth $5 million. Lester had a 5.16 ERA last season, his third season in the last four where he posted an ERA over four. However, Lester has been consistent in his innings over his career, which should make him a reliable backend piece for Washington. Finally, Joe Ross re-signed with Washington on another one-year deal.
The final splash for Washington was in the bullpen. After electing not to bring back Sean Doolittle, the Nationals shored up their closer role by adding left-handed pitcher Brad Hand on yet another one-year deal for $10.5 million.
A common theme for Washington in free agency was the flurry of one-year deals. With Trea Turner’s contract on the horizon, Washington chose to keep its financial flexibility this offseason. But, with the various additions, this should be a more complete team in 2021.
Despite their struggles last season, the identity of the Washington Nationals remains their pitching: both the rotation and the bullpen. Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, and Stephen Strasburg are as good as any top three in baseball. In his worst statistical season since 2012, Scherzer still posted a 3.74 ERA along with 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings.
Joe Ross has also looked solid thus far in spring training with a 2.79 ERA and two walks in 9 2/3 innings. The latter is promising as Ross has yet to display his pre-Tommy John command since returning from injury. Finally, Jon Lester should be a reliable second left-handed pitcher for Washington. Since 2008, Lester has started at least 30 games (not including the shortened season). With injury concerns for Strasburg, Lester will be a durable presence in the back of the rotation. The Nationals also have solid depth in the rotation with Erick Fedde and Austin Voth, who will start the season out of the bullpen.
Although this is asserted in some form each year, the Nationals bullpen is finally looking like a strength for Washington. After adding Brad Hand, they have a plethora of late-inning relievers, including Hand, Daniel Hudson, and Tanner Rainey. Hand has not had an ERA over 3.30 since 2015, his last season with the Marlins. Last season, Hand had a minuscule 2.05 ERA, despite a 1.3 mile-per-hour dip in his fastball. This projected bullpen is not even including Will Harris who had numbness in his fingers earlier this spring and will be placed on the IL to start the season. Wander Suero and Kyle Finnegan should also be solid pieces in the middle innings.
In a lineup that is full of questions, there are two certainties for the Nationals: Juan Soto and Trea Turner. Both of them finished top five in batting average last season, with Soto hitting .351 and Turner batting .335. Despite missing 13 games last season, Soto finished first in the major leagues in intentional walks. He also led the league in on-base percentage (.490), slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+. Not to be outdone, Turner led the MLB in hits, with 78, and hit 12 home runs to Soto’s 13. Without question, the Nationals have one of the most dynamic lineup duos in the majors.
Three Questions Heading into 2021
Will the “Big Three” Bounce Back?
Although they were deemed as a strength for the Nationals, the three front-line pitchers are a bit of a question mark after a dismal 2020 season. Stephen Strasburg’s health will be at the forefront as he is coming off yet another surgery. He battled a minor calf issue in spring training, but it was cautionary and he is expected to be ready for the start of the season. Patrick Corbin is another interesting case. In 2020, Corbin led the major leagues in hits allowed with 85. He also posted a sub-par 4.66 ERA. Thus far, Corbin has yet to find his pinpoint command in Spring, walking six batters in 8 2/3 innings. Max Scherzer is a known commodity at this point in his career, but he was also not his best last season. Scherzer allowed more hits than innings pitched for the first time since 2011 last season.
How will Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber Perform after Rough 2020 Seasons?
Mike Rizzo is still attempting to patch the gaping void in the lineup after Anthony Rendon’s departure in 2019. They turned to Eric Thames last offseason, who struggled mightily with a .203 batting average and three home runs. This season, the Nationals are turning to Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber. Both players have similarities. Schwarber and Bell both struggled last season, but offer 30 home run potential for Davey Martinez’s ball club. In 2019, they combined for 75 home runs and have combined for five seasons of 25 or more home runs in their respective careers. These additions could provide a much-needed spark to a lineup that lacks true power bats with Victor Robles, Yan Gomes, and Starlin Castro. On paper, Bell and Schwarber should make a difference, but how much is still to be determined.
The Returning Cast from the 2020 Lineup
This concern for the Nationals isn’t off to the best start in 2021. While Soto and Turner had career-seasons in 2020, this was not the case for the rest of the Nationals lineup. Robles’ slugging percentage dropped 104 points in 2020, while Carter Kieboom’s struggles continued, slugging .212 with one extra-base hit all season. Kieboom has been optioned to AAA after an abysmal spring training where he struck out 17 times in 45 at-bats. Because of Kieboom’s demotion, Josh Harrison will step into a starting role. He played well after signing with Washington, hitting .278 in 2020. Throughout his career, Harrison has displayed flashes of excellence as he was an all-star in 2014. Washington should not need that type of season out of Harrison, but a solid hitter in the number eight spot could go a long way for a thin lineup.
For Washington, the lineup looks much improved last year with the additions of Kyle Schwarber and Josh Bell. Ryan Zimmerman also adds another power bat for Washington and a healthy Starlin Castro should provide stability towards the bottom of the order. The question for the Nationals won’t be whether their lineup improved, but how much. The New York Mets added Francisco Lindor and the Atlanta Braves have a stellar top four, which will be difficult to challenge. However, with Soto and Turner, Washington has the stardom to compete with the top echelon teams in the NL.
- Victor Robles (CF)
- Juan Soto (RF)
- Trea Turner (SS)
- Josh Bell/Ryan Zimmerman* (1B)
- Kyle Schwarber (LF)
- Starlin Castro (3B)
- Yan Gomes/Alex Avila (C)
- Josh Harrison (2B)
- Pitcher’s Spot
- Andrew Stevenson (OF)
- Jordy Mercer (Utility)
- Hernán Pérez (Utility)
- Ryan Zimmerman (1B)
- Alex Avila (C)
* If Zimmerman were to start (presumably against a left-handed pitcher), then Soto and Turner would most likely swap places in the lineup.
The pitching staff is all but set for Washington. With Will Harris’ injury, Washington will have the opportunity to keep all three of their potential number five starters: Ross, Fedde, and Voth on the opening day roster. This is off the heels of Fedde winning his arbitration case last week, eliminating his final minor league option. It means that Fedde would have to pass waivers to be sent to AAA. A slight wrinkle for the rotation is the reluctance of manager Davey Martinez to slot his two left-handed starters in a row. This could either mean that Corbin would pitch behind Max Scherzer, like the order shown below, or Lester could be the fifth starter.
Interesting, also, that Lester openly says without hesitation he thinks it's best to separate lefties in a rotation. So don't be surprised if he and Corbin don't get slotted back-to-back in the pitching order.
— Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) March 28, 2021
In the bullpen, Luis Avilán captured the second left-handed reliever spot over Sam Clay. He had a solid spring training, surrendering two runs in 9 1/3 innings. As a result of Washington keeping Fedde and Voth, Kyle McGowin was optioned to Triple-A.
- Max Scherzer (RHP)
- Patrick Corbin (LHP)
- Stephen Strasburg (RHP)
- Jon Lester (LHP)
- Joe Ross (RHP)
- Brad Hand (LHP)
- Tanner Rainey (RHP)
- Daniel Hudson (RHP)
- Wander Suero (RHP)
- Kyle Finnegan (RHP)
- Erick Fedde (RHP)
- Austin Voth (RHP)
- Luis Avilán (LHP)
Getting Back on Track in 2021
While their .500 or better streak ended last season, the Nationals look to be a much-improved ball club heading into 2021. Nevertheless, with the New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, and even the Miami Marlins gunning for the NL East crown, it will be a tough task for Washington to play October baseball. A healthy Stephen Strasburg and bounce back seasons from Corbin and Scherzer could be an excellent first step. Then, the lineup must hold its own with the offseason additions. Heading into 2021, the Nationals could once again find themselves in contention.
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Stephen Strasburg, Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Patrick Corbin, Max Scherzer, Victor Robles, Carter Kieboom, Starlin Castro, Adam Eaton, Kyle Schwarber, Josh Bell, Wil Crowe, Eddy Yean, Ryan Zimmerman, Michael A. Taylor, Jon Lester, Sean Doolittle, Joe Ross, Brad Hand, Erick Fedde, Austin Voth, Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey, Will Harris, Wander Suero, Kyle Finnegan, Anthony Rendon, Eric Thames, Yan Gomes, Josh Harrison, Francisco Lindor, Alex Avila, Andrew Stevenson, Jordy Mercer, Sam Clay, and Kyle McGowin