There’s no replacing Anthony Rendon. With that said, the Washington Nationals have done a savvy job remaking their infield.
The Nationals have signed five infielders this offseason: Howie Kendrick (one-year, $6.3 million deal), Asdrubal Cabrera (one-year, $2.5 million deal), Ryan Zimmerman (one-year, $2 million deal — which can climb to $5 million with incentives), Starlin Castro (two-year, $12 million deal), and Eric Thames (one-year, $4 million deal).
Kendrick, Cabrera, and Zimmerman were part of the team’s World Series run, while Castro comes to the nation’s capital after two years with the Miami Marlins and Thames spent the last three seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Kendrick is coming off one of the best offensive seasons of his big-league career. Posting career highs in batting average (.344), OPS (.966), and OPS+ (142) across 334 at-bats, he was a vital ingredient to Washington’s high-octane offense. He also etched himself into franchise history, launching go-ahead home runs in two elimination games and coming through with timely hits throughout the playoffs.
He’s a steady contact hitter who stills swings for power. In all likelihood, the postseason hero will see playing time at multiple positions and frequently double switch into games.
Cabrera was a midseason godsend for the Nationals. He became a near-everyday player at second base and was exceptional at the plate. Hitting .323, totaling 40 RBIs, and posting a .969 OPS and 143 OPS+ across just 38 games, the switch-hitting infielder was an integral reason for the Nationals clinching a National League Wild Card berth.
He’s adept at smacking pitches down the line from both sides of the plate; Cabrera projects to be the Nationals starting third baseman next season.
Zimmerman, publicly regarded as Mr. National, had a rollercoaster 2019 season, as it was a gray area whether he’d return from an early season foot injury. Fortunately for the lifelong National, he got healthy for the playoffs and came through with some clutch hits and defensive gems.
The corner infielder still has pop in his bat and could play first base against left-handed pitchers in 2020.
From a production standpoint, the 2019 season was arguably Castro’s best piece of work. Totaling a career-high 22 home runs and 86 RBIs while hitting .313 and posting a .909 OPS across his last 80 games, the veteran second baseman was one of the few steady forces in a lackluster Marlins offense.
Castro is the epitome of a professional major-league hitter. Sure, he has never posted an OPS above .800. On the other hand, he’s a line-drive hitter who hits baseballs to all fields and is difficult to strikeout; that hitter is taken for granted. He’ll likely be the Nationals starting second baseman.
Thames had a plausible bounce-back 2019 campaign. Launching 25 home runs, posting an .851 OPS and 117 OPS+, and serving as the Brewers first baseman, he performed more so like his 2017 self, which launched 31 home runs, than his 2018 self, which mostly manned a reserve role.
The left-handed hitter’s power will bode well in the middle of Washington’s order, as he provides balance to a right-handed heavy offense; Thames is likely their opening day first baseman.
What do four of these five players have in common? They’re versatile and have been given up on by multiple teams over their careers.
Kendrick has extensive experience starting at first, second, and third base, as well as left field; Cabrera has started at second, third, and shortstop; Castro started 42 games at third base in 2019; Thames has started at both corner outfield positions.
Meanwhile, Kendrick has been on three teams since 2015, Cabrera has been on four teams over the last two years, the Nationals are Castro’s fourth team since 2015, and Thames wasn’t in the majors from 2013-16.
Are any of them stellar fielders? No, but their ability to start at multiple positions gives manager Dave Martinez a bevy of lineup and in-game switch options; you can’t have enough of that in the National League game.
The Nationals had to make a difficult decision this offseason: re-sign Rendon or Stephen Strasburg? They were each drafted by the organization, going to cost in excess of $200 million to keep (ironically, they each landed a seven-year, $245 million deal), and are two of the best players at their respective positions/niches in Major League Baseball.
The Nationals chose to pay Strasburg, which is in line with their MO of prioritizing starting pitching; they have $614 million invested in Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, and Anibal Sanchez. Part of the reason why this model works is because of their track record with position players.
Kieboom, a natural shortstop, is the Nationals top prospect. Given Turner’s presence at shortstop at the big-league level, Kieboom has seen playing time at second and third base in the minor leagues over the last two seasons. At the plate, he flat-out raked in Triple A last season, hitting .303 and posting a .902 OPS.
Martinez has said that Kieboom is “going to get a shot” to compete for the opening day third base job per MLB.com’s Zachary Silver. If he plays up to the esteem that the Nationals hold him in, it further deepens a well-versed depth chart.
Rendon was a finalist for the NL Most Valuable Player Award last season and was the Nationals’ best player over the last three seasons. His shoes are merely impossible to fill. Josh Donaldson wouldn’t have filled them; Kris Bryant wouldn’t fill them; Kieboom can’t fill them in 2020.
The NL East will be a hassle once more for the Nationals next season. The Atlanta Braves’ nucleus remains in place, the New York Mets are on the rise, and the Philadelphia should be a competitive foe. Simultaneously, the Nationals still have the best starting rotation in MLB, an efficient and opportunistic offense, and they beefed up their bullpen this offseason, re-signing Daniel Hudson and bringing in Will Harris and Ryne Harper.
They’ll be back in contention next season.
You can’t replace an MVP-caliber player; you can only try to improve production from other positions and get a viable veteran to play their position. The Nationals have done precisely that.