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In 2019, the Washington Nationals brought home a World Series ring.
Last year in a COVID-shortened season, the team didn't make the playoffs, and just went home early.
So where is the 2021 edition of the Nationals going, starting with Opening Day tomorrow?
Although their core remains largely the same, the Nationals have gone through their fair share of roster turnover since the end of last season, not to mention their World Series championship season in 2019. They’ve lost veterans like Anibal Sanchez, Kurt Suzuki, Howie Kendrick and Adam Eaton; but also added thumpers like Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber, along with a potential Hall of Fame pitcher in Jon Lester. And don’t forget about that savvy veteran who wears No. 11 and played his college ball in Charlottesville! He’s back too, after taking a year off.
The team appears on the surface to be stronger than it was for most of last season. So where should fans’ expectations fall in 2021, and what will be some of the key factors towards how successful the season will be?
State Of The Division
There’s no way around it; the NL East has improved since the Nationals’ title run. The Braves remain a powerhouse of the division, the Phillies and Mets have each added one of the best players at their respective positions (J.T. Realmuto and Francisco Lindor), and the Marlins are very much on the rise, even earning a Wild Card bid last year, thanks in part to rookie flamethrower Sixto Sanchez.
On paper, the Nationals are neither at the top nor the bottom of the divisional hierarchy. They might boast the best starting pitching, as well as maybe the best hitter (Juan Soto), but there are also some questions about their depth and – as is a yearly tradition – the bullpen.
New Faces, New Places
Nats fans will see numerous new players take the field in key roles this season. They added two imposing left-handed pitchers to fill their voids at No. 4 starter (Lester) and closer (Brad Hand). They also added two former consensus top 50 prospects to the heart of their lineup; one (Bell) who will start at first base, and another (Schwarber), whose humorous personality and circuitous routes in left field will become a staple in the nation’s capital.
There are some other names further down the roster that Washington fans may not recognize. Veteran Luis Avilan will serve as the team’s left-handed specialist out of the bullpen, likely taking the mound regularly against Bryce Harper and Freddie Freeman. Twelve-year veteran Alex Avila will frequently find himself stationed behind the plate this season, especially when Lester and Opening Day starter Max Scherzer take the mound. A pair of veteran, right-handed infielders (Jordy Mercer and Hernan Perez) also made their way onto the roster – you’ll see more about their surprising inclusions and the interconnected fallout shortly.
As for folks in new places, “Childish Bambino” will find himself stationed in right field on a regular basis for the first time since his time in the minor leagues. Starlin Castro, whose 2020 season came to an abrupt halt due to a broken wrist, will be transitioning from second base to the hot corner. He will be replaced by Josh Harrison, the utility man who primarily played third base after signing with the Nats midseason of last year.
There are also a few more players who will find themselves in new roles this season. Erick Fedde and Austin Voth, two former upper-tier prospects in the organization, will find themselves shifting from the starting rotation to middle-inning relief roles. Also, Ryan Zimmerman will be more of a bench bat this season, with the slugging Bell from Pittsburgh commanding most of the first base reps. There may also be a heavier dose of Andrew Stevenson, who is currently the only backup outfielder on the roster.
Down On The Farm
The talk of the spring was whether Carter Kieboom – and, to a lesser extent, Luis Garcia – would crack the Opening Day roster. Neither of them managed to do so, and will subsequently be starting this season in the minor leagues. Dave Martinez, however, has been quick to state that the demotions do not mean they’re outside of his equation in 2021. In fact, he seems to expect that both of them will be back in an impactful role before too long.
The organization’s pitching depth is somewhat lacking, but recent first-round selections Cade Cavalli (MLB Pipeline’s No. 99 overall prospect) and Jackson Rutledge both made appearances in Spring Training and may have a chance to debut in the big leagues this season.
As is the case for all MLB teams, the Nationals will open this season with 26 players on their roster – a departure from the 25-man units that were required as recently as 2019. They’ll be carrying 13 pitchers and 13 hitters, specifically those as follow.
Starting Pitchers: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Jon Lester, Joe Ross
Relief Pitchers: Brad Hand, Tanner Rainey, Daniel Hudson, Wander Suero, Kyle Finnegan, Luis Avilan, Erick Fedde, Austin Voth
Catchers: Yan Gomes, Alex Avila
Infielders: Trea Turner, Josh Bell, Starlin Castro, Josh Harrison, Ryan Zimmerman, Jordy Mercer, Hernan Perez
Outfielders: Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Kyle Schwarber, Andrew Stevenson
Right-handed reliever Will Harris will open the season on the Injured List.
The Guys The Fans Care About
For the third straight year, the Nationals will open up their season with Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin as their top three starters. Although it’s purely speculation and certainly unconventional, Ross may wind up making his 2021 regular-season debut before Lester does. The primary Nationals beat reporters have all suggested, based on the words of Martinez, that Washington may split up its two left-handers, sandwiching Ross – and possibly start No. 2 for Scherzer – in between them.
As far as the lineup goes, expect to see Robles near the top much more frequently. He’s primarily been the team’s leadoff hitter this spring, followed by either Turner or Soto, and then Bell, Schwarber, Castro, Harrison, and whoever the catcher has been on a given day – typically in that order. For what it’s worth, Martinez has hinted at batting Soto second and using Turner to split up an otherwise lefty-dominant middle of the order.
For a more in-depth look at how Spring Training progressed and roles specific players may find themselves in, you can check out my personal blog site by clicking here.
Washington’s roster is admittedly somewhat incomplete. Ideally, some of their weak spots will self-correct if/when Kieboom and/or Garcia get the young careers onto the right track. Some of their pitching prospects may get fast-tracked to the Major League bullpen if they have strong early-season performances. But most likely, D.C. fans will see another round of Trade Deadline activity to address those holes.
Still, the Nationals will have to at least keep within striking distance of a playoff spot leading up to the deadline. Let’s face it, going 19–31 puts you in a precarious situation, and miracles like that rarely occur more than once.
Most projections – including PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm), expect the Nationals to win between 82–85 games. That’ll keep them in the hunt, but it likely won’t get them over the hump and into the playoffs. But hey! That’s why the games are played. They should at least be contenders, and that’ll give them at least a puncher’s chance.
I really enjoyed this article a lot! It provides the casual Nat's fan like me a whole lot of pertinent facts about this year's roster, and gives me a starting foundation for following this year's team. It was like a summary report of the month of Spring Training. My compliments to Mr. Newman.
I greatly appreciate your generous feedback. I'm looking forward to keeping you and all fellow Nats fans informed about the team throughout this season.