MLB Team Roundup: Washington Nationals

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WASHINGTON NATIONALS

2021 Record: 65-97

Last place, NL East

Team ERA: 4.80 (24th in MLB)

Team OPS: .754 (tied - eighth in MLB)

WHAT WENT RIGHT

Juan Soto was Juan Soto, which is to say that he continues to have one of the best starts to a career in major league history. In his age-22 season, he put up a monster .313/.465/.534 batting line with 29 home runs and 95 RBI over 151 games. Soto led the National League with 145 walks while striking out just 95 times in 654 plate appearances. While his first half wasn’t quite up to his usual lofty standards, he slugged 18 homers in 72 games after the break while posting an incredible .525 on-base percentage. With his insane finish, Soto could very well win his first NL MVP Award. We’re witnessing history right now, people. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t much else to be positive about with the Nationals this season. Most of the players who were having good seasons were shipped out at the trade deadline, including the likes of Max Scherzer, Trea Turner, and Kyle Schwarber. Josh Bell had a solid bounceback season and Alcides Escobar was a nice story down the stretch. Acquired from the Cardinals in the Jon Lester deal, Lane Thomas showed that he has a chance to be a part of the future with this club.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Enough went wrong that the Nationals decided to go into a sudden rebuild. With a historic power surge from Kyle Schwarber, the club looked like a contender at one point during the first half — they were 19-9 in June — but the slugger injured his hamstring in early July and the club went just 8-18 that month. The Nationals’ rotation has long been a strength, but there wasn’t a lot there this year outside of Max Scherzer. Stephen Strasburg threw just 21 2/3 innings, Patrick Corbin had a brutal 5.82 ERA over 31 starts, and Joe Ross showed some flashes before going down with an elbow injury. The Nationals finished with a 4.64 ERA from their rotation, their worst showing since 2009. Victor Robles continues to disappoint and Carter Kieboom has yet to show that he can be an impact player in the majors.

FANTASY SLANTS

** Yay, more Juan Soto talk! Listen, we all know that he’s great, but the question here is where does he find himself in fantasy drafts next year? Soto is a first-round talent, for sure, with the baseline expectations around a .300 batting average with 30 homers, 100 RBI, and 100 runs scored, but he’s also shown that he’s capable of stealing close to double-digit bases. In OBP leagues, he deserves to be the No. 1 overall selection, but it’s tougher in standard mixed formats. As of now, Soto likely finds himself behind his former teammate Trea Turner and Padres phenom Fernando Tatis Jr., but that’s hardly an insult. Chances are you’ll be quite happy if you end up with Soto at No. 3 overall. Here’s hoping the supporting cast is at least respectable, as Soto needs people to drive in and people to drive him in, as well. It all adds up when you are talking about a top overall fantasy option.

** Josh Bell can offer the sort of protection I’m talking about here, at least if the Nats don’t trade him too. Early on, it didn’t look like Bell would be able to rebound from his disappointing 2020 season with the Pirates. After coming down with COVID-19 to begin the year, he went 6-for-53 (.113) with a .464 OPS to finish out April, but he put up an .865 OPS the rest of the way. And he was pretty consistent too, hitting at least four home runs with 15 RBI and a .795 OPS in every month. Bell got better as the year moved along and actually had more walks (42) than strikeouts (40) during the second half. By the way, teammate June Soto and former Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper were the only other qualified hitters to do this. The big question is how much of this was due to the lack of quality bats around Bell. Still, he’s back on the map as a respectable first base option in standard fantasy leagues. And chances are you won’t have to pay up to get him.

** How soon the Nationals contend again will largely depend on the progress of their young players. Mike Rizzo is banking a lot on Keibert Ruiz and Josiah Gray, who came over from the Dodgers in the blockbuster deal involving Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. Ruiz made impressive strides with his power in the minors this season and batted .284/.348/.395 with two homers, 14 RBI, and a 4/6 K/BB ratio over 23 games with the Nationals down the stretch. He has the goods to be a starting catcher option in standard mixed leagues and maybe as soon as next year. Gray also drips potential. The 23-year-old (24 in December) posted a 5.48 ERA and 76/33 K/BB ratio over 70 2/3 innings between Los Angeles and Washington during his rookie campaign. While his command was problematic at times, he racked up a bunch of swinging strikes, especially with his beautiful curveball and slider. There’s breakout potential here.

** Is Victor Robles running out of chances? It really looked like the Nationals wanted Robles to be their leadoff man this season, with a great spring making him a trendy pick in fantasy drafts in the spring, but he failed to take advantage of the opportunity. The 24-year-old was near the bottom of the order by mid-April and stumbled in another chance out of the leadoff spot post-trade deadline before actually finishing the season in the minors. It’s worth noting that his numbers in Triple-A were very good (.301/.370/.566 in 93 plate appearances), but that just makes him more confusing, not less. The fact is that Robles has a brutal .209/.304/.302 batting line with five home runs in 159 games dating back to the start of the 2020 season. He’s been near the bottom of the league in quality of contact during that time. Making matters worse, he’s lost a step since bulking up prior to 2020. He was just 8-for-14 in stolen base attempts this season. Youth is still on his side and maybe the Nationals will keep running him out there as they rebuild, but he’s going to have to earn his way back on mixed league rosters.

** What can reasonably be expected from Stephen Strasburg moving forward? Since signing his seven-year, $245 million deal with the Nats coming off the 2019 World Series title, the 33-year-old has thrown just 26 2/3 innings in the majors. He required surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome last year before having his season end this year with a procedure to alleviate neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome. The track record for pitchers coming off thoracic outlet syndrome is checkered to say the least, so there’s real reason for concern moving forward. Fantasy managers should watch Strasburg closely in the spring to get a sense of his health and effectiveness.

** When will we see top prospect right-hander Cade Cavalli in the majors? The 2020 first-rounder progressed quickly in his first professional season this year, pitching at three different levels while posting a 3.36 ERA with a minor-league best 175 strikeouts over 123 1/3 innings. The results weren’t nearly as impressive upon his promotion to Triple-A, as he had a 7.30 ERA over six starts, but we’re still talking about a pitcher who throws in the high 90s with his fastball to go along with a power slider, a changeup and a curveball. The control is a work in progress, so more time in Triple-A is needed to begin 2022, but it might not be long before he arrives at Nationals Park. The rebuild could bare fruit in a hurry if pitchers like Cavalli and Gray are the real deal.

Key Free Agents: Ryan Zimmerman (who might be retiring)

Team Needs: The Nationals aren’t winning anything next year, but look for them to secure veteran help for the rotation and bullpen and a respectable stopgap or two for the lineup. The club also needs to sell Juan Soto on their rebuild plan and lock him up for the next 15 years or so. Seriously, keeping Soto long-term should be at the top of their minds every darn day until they get it done.