Washington Nationals: Bounce-Back Season Derives From Internal Improvement, Not Offseason Reinforcements

Yes, the Washington Nationals need a starting infielder and more arms on their pitching staff, but making such moves is merely supplemental to a bounce-back 2021 season: such a resurgence derives from internal improvement and veterans getting back on track.

Washington came out of the gate slow last season following its 2019 World Series championship and got into a groove too late. Even with eight teams making the playoffs in both leagues, the Nationals finished 26-34, good for fourth in the National League East.

How did this happen? They underperformed.

Sure, Stephen Strasburg making just two starts due to a wrist injury played a role in their rotation taking an enormous step back. Simultaneously, essentially every team in Major League Baseball dealt with substantial injuries, including their divisional foes; health wasn’t an excuse for any ballclub this season.

Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, and Anibal Sanchez each made 11-plus starts. They posted 3.74, 4.66, and 6.62 ERAs, respectively. That wasn’t because of Strasburg’s absence. It was because they labored through at-bats and were hit hard. Outside of Tanner Rainey and sprinkles of Kyle Finnegan and Wander Suero, the Nationals bullpen was turbulent.

The Nationals are built on starting pitching. It’s why they opted to keep Strasburg over star third baseman Anthony Rendon. Albeit their offense was humming, Washington’s rotation is what led them to the postseason and came up clutch when it mattered most in 2019. At full strength and performing to their capabilities, they make for one of the elite rotations in baseball with their big three alone (Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin).

The Nationals offense finished the regular season fourth in MLB in batting average (.264), ninth in hits (519), and 10th in runs (293) and OPS (.769). It’s superficially plausible but entirely misleading.

This offense was a two-man show: Juan Soto and Trea Turner. The homegrown position players combined for 25 home runs and 78 RBIs while hitting .351 and .335 and posting 1.185 and .982 OPS’, respectively. After Soto and Turner, manager Dave Martinez was squeezing fruit for production.

Adam Eaton hit .226; Victor Robles hit .220; Carter Kieboom had one extra-base hit; Eric Thames and Asdrubal Cabrera underwhelmed; Josh Harrison and Brock Holt were savvy hitters in the middle of the season.

This is an offense that can and has to be better. They can’t rely on Soto and Turner to carry the load to the extreme degree they did last season. Robles has speed and pop. If he gets on base at a higher level, more specifically working the count more, he can be an offensive mainstay; Kieboom has to prove he belongs and maybe level out his swing a bit; Luis Garcia has to take the next step; Starlin Castro is a respectable contact hitter.

General manager Mike Rizzo has moves to make this offseason. Adding someone to start on the right side of the infield is a must. If the Nationals feel that two of Erick Fedde, Austin Voth, and Joe Ross can’t get the job done in the backend of the rotation, Rizzo could pursue short-term deals for starters like Jake Odorizzi, Jose Quintana, and Chris Archer.

With Sean Doolittle a free agent and Daniel Hudson coming off a hectic season (he surrendered six home runs and recorded a 6.10 ERA across 20.2 innings last season), the Nationals would be wise to add some bullpen variety. Meanwhile, they declined Eaton’s 2021 option, and Michael A. Taylor is on the open market; they need an outfielder.

All that said, they don’t have to break the bank. There’s premier talent across the board; it’s a matter of execution. The bulk of the Nationals’ depth chart could be set for next season. Jake Noll can be a versatile infielder; Harrison and/or Holt could re-sign and be the gritty players they were last season; outfielder Andrew Stevenson finished the season strong, logging an 1.179 OPS across 15 games; Garcia flashed some leather and power across his 40 appearances.

With further development, one of Fedde, Voth, and Ross could be a rotation staple. Top pitching prospect Jackson Rutledge likely sees the big leagues in the near future. Heck, some of their young starters could come out of the bullpen in the early stages of their career.

The ideal free agent outcome for the Nationals is signing DJ LeMahieu, as the hitting machine would be the closest thing the team could attain to Rendon, who signed with the Los Angeles Angels last offseason. In all likelihood, a Nationals-LeMahieu marriage would be reliant on the infielder agreeing to play first base, which is a challenging securement.

Catcher J.T. Realmuto is the other big positional fish. He’d surely have a profound impact on Washington’s operation. His slugging would give them another impact bat to generate offense, and his presence behind the plate improves them defensively while giving a veteran pitching staff a rock to throw to. He improves them in every way.

But couldn’t Washington also not spend the $150-plus million on Realmuto, run it back with Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, allocate resources elsewhere, and still function swiftly?

The NL East will be stiff next season. While they blew a 3-1 NL Championship Series lead to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the mere fact that the Atlanta Braves made it that far with a depleted pitching staff is remarkable. They’re also loaded around the diamond.

The Miami Marlins might be the next Tampa Bay Rays with their absurd organizational pitching depth. Them reaching the NL Divisional Round was impressive, as was beating out three of their divisional rivals for a playoff spot.

Despite their inconsistencies, the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies are competitive ballclubs that the Nationals can’t take for granted. Last season they were more so like their Northeastern rivals than their Southeastern rivals. That in and of itself is motivation for them to get their hands dirty this offseason.

The Washington Nationals can get back in contention next season. Free agent signees will play a role, but the core in place looms largest.

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