The Positive for the Washington Nationals? The Youth is Playing

To say the 2020 Major League Baseball season has been underwhelming for the Washington Nationals would be an understatement: it has been a complete disappointment. With that said, there’s one fluid factor working in their favor: youth.

The Nationals are 17-28, good for last place in the National League East and 13th in the NL. That’s not exactly what you expect from a team coming off a World Series championship.

All three aspects of Washington’s roster have been disconcerting. While they’re seventh in MLB in batting average (.263), they’re 18th in runs (214). They’re getting runners on base but doing close to nothing with them.

The bullpen has once again been shaky. Outside of Tanner Rainey, there’s no consistent hurler coming out of the bullpen. Meanwhile, their starting rotation has been a mess. Yes, the team who has built a reputation for starting pitching has struggled mightily in its organizational strong suit.

Stephen Strasburg has made just two starts this season due to a hand injury; Patrick Corbin has been up and down, sporting a 4.10 ERA and a 1.44 WHIP; Anibal Sanchez has been hit hard, as he sports a 6.81 ERA and a 1.75 WHIP. As a whole, the Nationals pitching staff owns a 5.19 ERA.

Despite all these shortcomings and them likely missing the playoffs, the Nationals are winning and losing games with the precise players you’d want on the field: young players.

The premier youngsters playing on a consistent basis around the diamond are infielders Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia.

Kieboom appeared in 11 games for the Nationals last season but was playing because shortstop Trea Turner was injured. The 2020 season projected to be Kieboom’s time to shine, as he made the opening day roster. Unfortunately for the 23-year-old, he has struggled to find his footing this season.

Defensively, he has botched groundballs at third base and under thrown first base a handful of times. Offensively, it has been a struggle. Kieboom is hitting .184 while sporting a .527 OPS and having just one extra-base hit to his name.

Kieboom has an uneven swing that has led him to miss badly on pitches all over the strike zone. Moving forward, he has to clean up his swing if he’s going to get on base at a reliable clip. The good news? He’s getting the at-bats to work it out.

Kieboom toured the facility for a couple weeks in 2019 and is finishing up a summer internship as a continued face in the team’s depth chart. The 60-game 2020 season has offered Kieboom a glimpse of what it’s like to start at the MLB level and what he needs to improve on if he’s going to start at the hot corner in a 162-game season.

Garcia, 20, has been among the Nationals top prospects. A wrist injury to veteran Starlin Castro vacated second base, leading the Nationals to call up Garcia. It has been trial and error for the young infielder.

Across 87 at-bats Garcia is hitting .276 while sporting a .656 OPS. He started off hot but has gone cold over the last two weeks. The second baseman has some pop in his bat, but he tends to pull away when he swings, leading to whiffs.

It didn’t seem like Garcia would get extensive playing time in the big leagues back in spring training. Then the season was suspended due to COVID-19, leading teams to expand their roster, and Castro got hurt. Garcia got impromptu MLB experience, both at the plate and in the field.

Strasburg’s injury opened up a rotation spot for Erick Fedde, and Austin Voth, a quiet development in 2019, was already set to be the team’s number-five starter. Neither starter has been able to garner consistency, as they’ve surrendered a lot of baserunners and provided minimal length.

Meanwhile, hurlers in their late 20s who haven’t been able to crack the 25-man roster in years past have gotten reps out of the bullpen and, in some cases, impressed. These individuals include Kyle McGowin, James Bourque, Kyle Finnegan, and Dakota Bacus.

For better or worse, the Nationals are seeing where their young players are regarding being big-league ready, which holds value with positions up for grabs in the offseason such as backend rotation and bullpen spots and all but one infield position (shortstop). Perhaps the Nationals move a couple of the players they’re not sold on for an upgrade? They have options.

The Nationals have the roster and upside to bounce back in 2021. Turner and Juan Soto are lacing baseballs all over the place. Turner, 27, is hitting .348 while sporting a 1.016 OPS and totaling nine home runs and 28 RBIs. Soto, 21, is hitting .354 while sporting an absurd 1.217 OPS and totaling 11 home runs and 31 RBIs.

A healthy Strasburg joins a rotation with Corbin and Max Scherzer. With Sanchez, Sean Doolittle, and a handful of one-year deals coming off the books this offseason, the Nationals have some payroll flexibility. Maybe they make a play for a starting pitcher like Marcus Stroman or Masahiro Tanaka in free agency? Perhaps they throw the bag at All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto?

The Washington Nationals can absorb a rough year; they just won the World Series. They have a positional core, accompanied by budding players who can only improve.

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