2020 Record: 26-34
Last Place, NL East
Team ERA: 5.09 (26th)
Team OPS: .769 (10th)
What Went Right
The Nationals won the 2019 World Series, and that has nothing to do with the 2020 campaign, but it’s worth pointing out. The Nationals won’t win it again this fall -- more on that in a second -- but there were some things that went right over this truncated campaign. Juan Soto missed the first couple weeks of the season due to a positive test for COVID-19, but he was as good as any hitter in baseball from August on with a .351 average, 13 homers, 1.187 OPS and six steals for good measure. Trea Turner was nearly as good, slashing .335/.394/.588, homering 12 times and stealing that many bases as well. Both players will likely rank relatively high on MVP ballots this fall, and for good reason.
On the pitching side, Max Scherzer posted his highest ERA since 2012 with a 3.74 mark, but he was his usual bat-missing stuff with 92 strikeouts in 67 1/3 innings. Tanner Rainey also carried over from his flashes of brilliance in the 2019 postseason with a 2.66 ERA and 14.2 K/9 ratio in 20 appearances.
What Went Wrong
Well, the Nationals did not win the 2020 World Series, for one, and they really weren’t in playoff contention in this shortened season. That may have changed if Washington had a full 162 game schedule -- remember, the 2019 Nats started 19-31 -- but, they didn’t. Things got off to a poor start pretty much immediately, as Stephen Strasburg was only able to make two appearances before suffering a carpal tunnel injury that required surgery in August. As you can see from that ugly team ERA, they weren’t able to even kind of replicate his potential production, and Patrick Corbin struggled to a 4.66 ERA with a 1.51 WHIP. Anibal Sanchez was even worse with a 6.62 mark in his 53 frames, and the only pitcher who had an ERA below 4.50 that started more than four games -- Erick Fedde, 4.17 -- did so with a K/BB rate of 28/22. Long story short, the Nationals’ pitching was awful in 2020.
And despite Turner and Soto having sensational campaigns, the offense wasn’t consistent this summer in large part due to the production around those two starts. No other hitter in the lineup who had more than 100 plate appearances had an OPS above .800, and five that reached that amount registered an OPS below .700. Adam Eaton and Victor Robles both couldn’t hit above .230 -- .226 for Eaton, .220 for Robles -- and Eric Thames was not an effective replacement for an opted-out Ryan Zimmerman with a slash of .203/.300/.317 in 41 games.
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** Carter Kieboom was given a chance to be a regular to begin 2020, and for the most part, it didn’t go well. The 22-year-old hit just .202 with a .556 OPS, and he had just a single extra-base hit -- a double -- in his 122 plate appearances. Having said that, there’s still reason for optimism. For one thing, it’s a sample size of about a month. He also was able to get on at a solid .344 click thanks to 17 walks, so the approach was solid despite the struggles. There’s still reason to believe Kieboom can provide fantasy relevance, but it’s hard to imagine he’s going to be worth a pick in anything but NL-only formats to begin 2021.
** Eaton was a solid -- if unspectacular -- performer in his time with the Nationals before 2020, with a .288 average, OPS of .802 and an average of 17 homers with 16 steals in those three campaigns after the trade with the White Sox. Will the Nationals decide to move on over a sample of 41 games? Washington can bring back Eaton for $10.5 million with their club option, but they could choose to explore the free agent market, give Andrew Stevenson or Michael A. Taylor a chance to play everyday, or look to bring the 31-year-old back at a reduced salary. If Eaton goes somewhere else, he could be a decent late-round option. Same would be said if he sticks in D.C.
** The Nationals turned to Luis Garcia to play second base relatively early in this 60-game campaign, and despite being just 20-years-old, he was able to hit .276 in his 40 games with the Nationals. The left-handed hitting infielder was not able to hit for much power, however, slugging .366 and registering an OPS of .668; good for an OPS+ of just 79. Garcia is clearly talented, but one can’t help but wonder if Washington will decide to let him open the 2021 season in the minors -- remember, there was no minor league season this summer -- rather than giving him the job at the keystone to begin the spring. Like Kieboom, he’s more of a long-term play than someone who helps much next year.
** The starters for the Nationals -- outside of Scherzer -- were bad. The bullpen was worse. Sean Doolittle was only able to make 11 appearances because of injuries and is now a free agent. Daniel Hudson is back for 2021, and while he was able to procure 10 saves and struck out 28 hitters in 20 2/3 innings, he also had an ugly 6.10 ERA. Hudson likely opens the year as the closer if there’s no free agency moves, but Rainey has the best stuff among the returning relievers. It seems possible the Nationals may give him a chance as a stopper, and he still has some appeal because of his ability to miss bats.
** Let’s talk about Turner and Soto again, because we like to end things on a positive note. Going by Yahoo rankings, Turner was second in fantasy production, and Soto was 14th. Keep in mind that Soto did that despite not playing in a quarter of the Nationals’ games. So,just how good can these guys be in 2021? The scary thing is that Soto will spend all of next season as a 22-year-old, so we still might -- emphasis on might -- not have seen the best from him. Turner probably isn’t slugging .588 again, but he’s still just 27, and likely entering the prime of his career as well. Long-ish story short, you are going to have to spend a high draft pick on either, and while the 2021 season was a disappointment for the Nationals, they have two cornerstones to build around. They also won the 2019 World Series.
Team Needs: Even if the Nationals decide to bring back Sanchez -- and that seems unlikely -- they’re likely going to need to add a starter. No matter who Washington brings back, they’re going to need to explore the bullpen market heavily. On the offensive side, the Nats likely need a bat or two, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if they were players for free agents like J.T. Realmuto and George Springer.