Thursday, July 23, 2020

Washington Nationals 2020 Season Preview

From Getty Images

       The bullpen has become arguably the most important part of an MLB team. Teams have found a lot of success on the shoulders of a great bullpen, but the Washington Nationals proved that a bullpen isn't as necessary as we all thought. With a pretty thin relief core, the Nationals used their starters as relievers, and they won their first World Series. While they have improved on their weak points, it will be very hard to recreate the magic of last year after an awful start and an amazing comeback.

       Offseason additions: RHP Will Harris, 2B Starlin Castro, 1B Eric Thames, RHP Ryne Harper, LHP Sam Freeman.

       Offseason subtractions: 3B Anthony Rendon, 2B Brian Dozier, 1B Matt Adams, OF Gerardo Parra, RHP Hunter Strickland, LHP Matt Grace, RHP Jeremy Hellickson, RHP Fernando Rodney.

       Rotation
The Nationals have the best top-3 starters in the league. While he only made 27 starts last year, his least since his rookie year of 2008, Max Scherzer had another great season. He had a 2.92 ERA with 243 strikeouts in 172.1 innings, for a league leading 12.7 K/9. However, it was the first time since 2015 where Scherzer wasn't the league leader in strikeouts. His 1.027 WHIP also didn't lead the league for the first time since 2015. Scherzer finished 3rd in Cy Young voting, and he has finished top-5 for that award the last seven seasons. Scherzer's slider had a .168 wOBA against and a 50.6% whiff rate. Forced to choose between Stephen Strasburg and third baseman Anthony Rendon, both big ticket free agents, the Nationals brought back Strasburg, the first overall pick in 2009, giving him $245 million over seven years, while Rendon got the exact same contract from the Angels. Strasburg pitched a league leading 209 innings last year, with a 3.32 ERA and 251 strikeouts. With a 2.51 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 14.1 innings over two World Series starts, Strasburg brought home the title of World Series MVP. The Nationals signed Patrick Corbin to a six year deal before the season. Corbin finished 11th in Cy Young voting, with a 3.25 ERA and 238 strikeouts in 202 innings. Corbin allowed 7.5 hits per nine innings, but he had an 8.4 percent BB rate, his highest since 2016. Anibal Sanchez's first season with the Nationals saw him pitch in 166 innings, his most since 2013, but he struck out 134 batters for a 7.3 K/9, tied with his 2014 season for his lowest since 2010. Sanchez had a hard hit percentage against of 28.1%. After Joe Ross opted-out, the 5th starter competition was between Erick Fedde and Austin Voth. Fedde pitched in 78 innings last year, but he only struck out 41 batters with a 4.50 ERA. Voth pitched in 43.2 innings, but had more strikeouts than Fedde, with 44, and he had a 3.30 ERA.

       Bullpen
Sean Doolittle lost closing privileges in the playoffs after the worst season of his career, but he should retain the job for 2020. Doolittle had a career high 29 saves last year, but he had a 4.05 ERA with 66 strikeouts in 60 innings. Doolittle's WHIP jumped exactly 700 points. He allowed an average exit velocity of 90.9 mph, after it was 84.4 mph in 2018. Daniel Hudson recorded the final out of the World Series, and he converted six saves in 24 regular season games after coming over from Toronto. For the Nats, Hudson had a 1.44 ERA and 23 strikeouts, plus a 0.880 WHIP. The Nationals signed Will Harris, who blew Game 7 of the World Series for Houston, allowing the Nationals to win. Harris had a 1.50 ERA in his age 34 season, a career best. He struck out 62 in 60 innings, with 26 of the Ks coming versus his curveball. That curve had a .151 average against. Tanner Rainey came over from the Reds for Tanner Roark before the season, and dominated strikeout-wise, with 74 Ks in 48.1 innings. Rainey had a 3.91 ERA and only allowed 32 hits, but somehow walked 38 batters. Rainey throws a fastball that can reach 100 miles per hour. Ryne Harper debuted for the Twins last year, four days after his 30th birthday. Harper was decent for Minnesota, with a 3.81 ERA and 50 Ks in 54.1 innings. Harper only walked 10 batters, for a 4.4% BB rate. Injured list placements put Roenis Elias and Wander Suero's statuses in question. The left-handed Elias had a 3.64 ERA with 14 saves for the Mariners last year before being traded to the Nats. Elias made just four appearances in Washington thanks to a hamstring strain. Roenis' change-up, sinker and curveball, combined for about 50% of his pitches, all had an average against under .200. Suero made 78 appearances out of the 'pen last year, and struck out 81 batters in 71.1 innings. While he had a 4.54 ERA, Suero's FIP of 3.07 was much better. Suero throws a cutter with a 2554 rpm average spin rate. After being claimed off of waivers in May, Javy Guerra pitched in 53.2 innings for the Nationals. Guerra had a 4.66 ERA with a 7.6 K/9 if you combined his Nationals stats and his stats with the Blue Jays early in the season. Sam Freeman has a very good chance of making the team as a non-roster invitee. While he only pitched in one game last year, Freeman struck out 58 batters in 50.1 innings in 2018, with a 4.29 ERA, and he has a 3.62 career ERA. In 2018, Freeman had a 2.4 barrel percentage.

       Catchers
Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes split catching duties last year, and Suzuki produced at the plate more, earning the job in the postseason. Suzuki hit 17 home runs with a .264 average plus an OPS of .809 in 2019, the first season of his second stint with the Nationals. Suzuki only struck out 11.7% of the time. Gomes, a native of Brazil, was an all-star in 2018, but he only had a .704 OPS last year, with 12 home runs. Gomes is quick to throw to second base, and will be one of the best back-up catchers in the league, although he will play more than a back-up.

       Infielders
Howie Kendrick won the Nationals the World Series. After a surprisingly great regular season, with a .344 average, a .966 OPS and 17 home runs (the first two were career highs, the home runs were his most since he hit 18 in 2011), Kendrick hit a Grand Slam against the Dodgers to win the NLDS, and a two-run home run against Harris to win Game 7. Kendrick has mostly played second base in his career, but he moved to first when Ryan Zimmerman was hurt. With Zimmerman opting-out of the season, Kendrick can split first base and DH with Eric Thames, signed from Milwaukee. Thames improved defensively last year, with two outs above average. He hit 25 home runs with an .851 OPS, which are both better than his 2018 numbers. Starlin Castro, who was coached by Manager Dave Martinez in Chicago, is the new second baseman. Castro just turned 30, but he already has over 1,600 hits. Castro played in all 162 games for the Marlins last year, and hit a career high 22 home runs with a .270 average. Castro has 11 outs above average between second base, third base and shortstop last year. Trea Turner might be the fastest player in baseball. In each of his five seasons, Turner has had a sprint speed of at leats 30 ft/s, at 30.3 last year. Turner stole 35 bases, and hit 19 home runs, with a .298 average plus an OPS of .850. With a .596 slugging against fastballs, Turner has become an ideal lead-off hitter. After Rendon left, Carter Kieboom will take over at third base. Kieboom, a natural shortstop, is the Nationals' top prospect and the 21st best prospect in baseball, per MLB Pipeline. Kieboom had an 11 game debut last year, although it was less than stellar, with a .128 average. For AAA Fresno, Kieboom had a .303 average, a .902 OPS and 16 home runs in 109 games. Veteran infielder Asdrubal Cabrera was the second baseman last year, but will move into a utility role. In 38 games after being released by Texas and signed by Washington, Cabrera hit six home runs with a .323 average and an OPS of .969. Cabrera had seven outs above average combined at three different positions. Wilmer Difo will make the team as a back-up infielder and speed threat. Difo had a 27.8 ft/s sprint speed last year, which was a decrease of 1.8 ft/s from 2016, which is a big gap.

       Outfielders
The outfield from last year remains intact. Now entering his third season at age 21, Juan Soto hit 34 home runs with 110 RBIs, 12 stolen bases and a .949 OPS. Soto finished 9th in MVP voting, and helped Nats fans forget about Bryce Harper. Soto had an average exit velocity of 92 mph. Another former top prospect in Victor Robles also had a great season. While he wasn't spectactular at the plate, with 17 home runs and an OPS of .745, Robles stole 28 bases, and cemented himself as potentially the best defensive player in baseball, with a league leading 23 outs above average, 22 of them in center and one in right. However, Robles had an average exit velocity of only 83.3 mph. Adam Eaton, who the Nationals traded Cy Young candidate Lucas Giolito for back before the 2017 season, hit a career high 15 home runs with 15 stolen bases. Eaton hit .279 with a .792 OPS. Eaton has had an OPS+ of over 100 for six consecutive seasons. Michael A. Taylor played in only 53 games last year, his lowest since 2014. Taylor stole just six bases, with a .669 OPS. With a 29.1 ft/s sprint speed and two outs above average, Taylor is still a good fourth outfielder. Emilio Bonifacio has not played in the majors since 2017, but he can play all over the field, so his versatality is valuable. Bonifacio has played for eight teams in his eleven year career (including the Nationals, who he played for in 2008), with a .256 average and a .645 OPS. Andrew Stevenson can be used as a pinch-runner, and he had a 28.5 ft/s sprint speed last year. In 37 MLB Plate Appearances last year, Stevenson had a .953 OPS.

       Projected Opening Day Lineup
SS Trea Turner (R)
RF Adam Eaton (L)
LF Juan Soto (L)
DH Eric Thames (L)
2B Starlin Castro (R)
1B Howie Kendrick (R)
3B Carter Kieboom (R)
C Kurt Suzuki (R)
CF Victor Robles (R)

       Projected Rotation
Max Scherzer (R)
Stephen Strasburg (R)
Patrick Corbin (L)
Anibal Sanchez (R)
Austin Voth (R)

       Projected Bullpen
Sean Doolittle, closer (L)
Daniel Hudson (R)
Will Harris (R)
Tanner Rainey (R)
Roenis Elias (L)
Wander Suero (R)
Sam Freeman (L)
Ryne Harper (R)
Javy Guerra (R)
Erick Fedde (R)

       Projected Bench
C Kurt Suzuki (R)
IF Asdrubal Cabrera (S)
IF Wilmer Difo (S)
OF Michael A. Taylor (R)
UT Emilio Bonifacio (S)
OF Andrew Stevenson (L)

Baseball-Reference OOTP Simulator Stats
64-39 record, 1st in NL East
Most home runs: Juan Soto (30)
Highest batting average: Juan Soto (.345)
Highest OPS: Juan Soto (1.122)
Best ERA, starters: Max Scherzer (2.63)
Best ERA, relievers: Wander Suero (2.51)
Most innings pitched: Max Scherzer (143.2)
Most strikeouts: Max Scherzer (216)
Best K/9: Max Scherzer (13.5)

Record through 60 games, last five seasons:
2019: 27-33
2018: 35-25
2017: 38-22
2016: 36-24
2015: 31-29

       Prediction
The Nationals are really good. While their lineup isn't as deep as other teams, and their bullpen is not what you would call "amazing", their rotation makes up for it, and so do stars like Turner and Soto. The Nationals will finish 1st in the NL East in 2020, but get knocked out in the NLDS.

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