The Nationals are next up as we discus what could be going down in the capital during the dog days of 2021. Washington made a few moves this offseason in hopes to be a bit more competitive. Will they work out?
Key Additions: Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber, Brad Hand, Jon Lester
Key Subtractions: Sean Doolittle, Adam Eaton, Michael A. Taylor, Eric Thames, Kurt Suzuki
The Nationals are in a bit of an odd place right now. Despite losing two MVP-caliber players in two consecutive years they still have a pretty good team. Hardly ever can you afford to lose players of Rendon and Harper’s status, but Washington has due to Juan Soto. Juan may be the best hitter in all of baseball right now. I’m not talking for his age or position; I’m talking the entire league. The guy has averaged an All-Star season through his first 300+ games. Juan puts up the kind of numbers that makes him an bonafide MVP candidate year in and year out. I don’t know how much better he can get, but I’m excited to see him try.
The Nationals are working with much more than just Soto, though. They still have a great pitching rotation with Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin while the bullpen has made strides. Even though everyone talks about Soto, Trea Turner is no slouch as he has really come into his own since 2019, finishing seventh in MVP voting in 2020. Turner has averaged a 20 homer, 50 steal season over his career and has hit for an OPS above .870 since the start of 2019; he’s a legitimate second star. Adding in some of the new talent makes this team very interesting going forward.
The first addition was Josh Bell. After the dismal 2020 campaign from Eric Thames, Washington needed someone else to man first. Bell became available due to Pittsburgh’s desire to tank and the Nationals apparently put in the best bid for the switch-hitting slugger. While the package going back to the Pirates isn’t nothing, Washington definitely got the better end of the deal. Bell had a pretty tough year in 2020, but the three full seasons before indicate it was nothing more than a fluke. Josh whiffed a whole lot more last season and he also had a tough time hitting off-speed stuff compared to years past. There needs to be an adjustment, but I’m confident he’ll bounce back.
Schwarber is the other big name Washington added to their position player pool. Kyle will play mostly left field, pushing Soto to right. Defensively, it’ll be one of the worst outfields in the league. Offensively, it has a chance to be great. Schwarber’s numbers were down last year, but he did what you expect him to do. He hit the ball hard, walked a lot, and swung and missed plenty in 2020. Kyle should anchor the middle of the order and get plenty of RBI chances with Turner, Soto, and Bell hitting before him. In many ways, Thames and Schwarber are the same guy so I guess fans who didn’t enjoy Eric won’t enjoy Kyle either.
Brad Hand may be the biggest addition out of all of these guys. Hand has been consistently one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball over the course of the past five seasons. He’s made three All-Star appearances since 2016 and was well on his way to another if it hadn’t been for Covid-19. Sean Doolittle had been the go-to lefty out of the pen for Washington over the past few years, but he’s fallen off a bit and bringing in Hand seems to solidify that spot once again. Washington’s bullpen had a few pretty solid performers last year and if that repeats itself in 2021 to go along with Hand’s presence, the Nats may not need to worry about the late innings.
Washington figures to be in the middle of the mix for a playoff spot with an outside chance to win their division. If they wish to move past teams like the Mets and Phillies, they need to have their young players perform like stars. Carter Kieboom has only had 138 at-bats to this point in MLB career, but someone touted to be a great hitter shouldn’t be hitting for an OPS+ of 47. Kieboom has a chance to fill the MVP-sized hole at the hot corner Anthony Rendon left pretty well. Carter may never be a perennial All-Star, but he’s got real talent. Since he was drafted, Kieboom has hit for a .287/.378/.469 slash line, showing how productive he can be at the next level. People in Washington have been salivating over this kid for quite some time and he needs to become one of the better players on the team if they wish to makes some noise in the NL East.
The other young guy that needs to step up is Victor Robles. There was a time where people were questioning who would be better between Robles and Ronald Acuña. That’s obviously been answered. Robles hasn’t produced at the Major League level consistently like people have hoped. There’s still time (he’s only 23) but some of his numbers have been a bit alarming. Despite showing some power in the Minors, Victor hasn’t impacted the ball since reaching the Bigs. He’s hit for one of the lower hard hit rates in each of the past two seasons and has a well below average hard hit rate for his career. He doesn’t necessarily need to kill the ball given his speed, but the absolute lack of power is concerning. The other concerning tidbit is his defense. Robles has been a Gold Glover-caliber player since coming into the league but that dissipated last season. All of his defensive metrics were way down last season. If that continues, he has very little value overall. Defensive value has fluctuated given the different tools people use from one year to the next so it may have just been an anomaly. Nats fans certainly hope so. This guy was pegged to be a star and Robles needs to start showing that if Washington has any hope to be at their best.
The NL East may be the best division in baseball so there is a real chance that the Nationals find themselves in fourth or fifth place at season’s end. I don’t think they’ll bottom out completely. More than likely, they’ll be fighting all year long for a playoff spot. Whether or not they get it will only be answered in time.