The Nats will open the 2020 season on July 23 against the New York Yankees and their prized free agent acquisition Gerrit Cole, the 2019 AL Cy Young runner-up whom the Nats defeated in the World Series back in October while he was with the Houston Astros.
While the reigning World Series champs will be taking the field, a few key members of the team will not. First baseman Ryan Zimmerman and pitcher Joe Ross have both announced that they will not take part in the 60-game season.
The 35-year-old Zimmerman was expected to platoon at first base with free agent signing Eric Thames, while Ross was a contender to earn the fifth starting spot in the rotation. This will be the first season in team history that the Nationals will play without Zimmerman.
With a young child at home and a mother with health issues, Zimmerman felt the risk of playing wasn’t worth it. He signed a one-year/$2 million contract this offseason, which will be pushed to 2021, but it’s still entirely possible that we don’t see Zimmerman take the field ever again. He mulled over retirement this offseason, so there remains a chance that he doesn’t come back in 2021.
If that’s the case, then it would be a great story: the team’s first ever draft pick, who struggled through 90- and 100-loss seasons early in his career, then early playoff exits later on, played his final game with the only major league franchise he’s ever known in Game 7 of the World Series, walking away a champion.
If he does return in 2021, however, it will be a welcome sight. He is not an everyday starter anymore, but he proved multiple times in 2019 that he can still produce big plays at the plate and in the field. Now it appears Thames will get much more playing time at first base. Howie Kendrick is also a candidate to spend time at first, but with the National League adopting the Designated Hitter for 2020 (and possibly beyond), Kendrick is the favorite to land that role.
Thames hit 25 home runs and 61 RBI last season with the Milwaukee Brewers, and he slashed .247/.346/.505. He’s a hard-hitting lefty batter that should complement the rest of the lineup nicely, as Adam Eaton and Juan Soto were the only left-handed batters in the Nats’ regular lineup last season. Thames was already the expected starter at first, so Zimmerman’s announcement mainly affects the bench.
As mentioned, Kendrick is expected to be the DH, but if Thames goes down and Kendrick needs to slot in at first, that could open a wide range of possibilities for DH. The most intriguing option would be Carter Kieboom, the Nats’ top prospect who should be a full-time major leaguer this year. Kieboom struggled in 10 games in The Show last season, but the infielder will be vying for the starting spot at third base in 2020.
Veteran Asdrúbal Cabrera will probably start at third initially, so if the team wants Kieboom to focus on his batting without having to worry about defense, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him slide in at DH at some point. At the same time, with just 60 games to play, these regular season games will hold higher stakes, and if Kieboom can’t figure things out at the plate, the team can’t afford to leave him out there. Besides Kieboom, outfielder Michael A. Taylor is another probable candidate to slot in at DH occasionally.
On the mound, meanwhile, Ross will be out of the running for the fifth rotation spot. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez have the first four spots on lockdown, and it will now be Erick Fedde, Austin Voth and perhaps one or two dark horse candidates fighting for the last spot. Ross was probably the favorite, as he replaced the scratched Scherzer to start Game 5 of the World Series, and has a few years of experience starting in the back end of the rotation.
Fedde made 12 starts and pitched in 21 games total in 2019, posting a 4.50 ERA and 1.462 WHIP, striking out 41 batters while walking 33. Voth started eight games, playing nine total, and put up a 3.30 ERA and 1.053 WHIP while striking out 44 batters and walking just 13. Both pitchers will see their fair share of action, especially with Ross out of the picture, so they very well could end up just splitting time at the back of the rotation.
While the absence of Zimmerman and Ross are not the most crucial losses, it makes you wonder if any more players will sit out as well. It would not be surprising if Sean Doolittle, a very important piece in the bullpen, decides to opt out. His wife has a lung condition that may prompt the closer to sit. With all three of these players looking out for themselves and their families, you can’t blame them for being cautious. It just means manager Dave Martinez will have to be more creative with the personnel he can work with.
Be on the lookout over the next few weeks, as more blows could be coming for the Nationals’ chance at repeating.
Cover Photo Credit: Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP; Mark Brown/Getty Images