Nats return to action in West Palm Beach

By: Joe Pohoryles

Daniel Hudson launched a low, inside slider, causing Michael Brantley of the Houston Astros to swing and miss. With a victory toss of Hudson’s glove and a fist-pumping Yan Gomes, the Washington Nationals were officially world champions. That was Oct. 30. Today is Feb. 22, and the Nats and Astros meet once again, this time in the first spring training game of the year at 6:05 pm EST.

The Astros are dominating the headlines with the fallout of their sign-stealing scandal, but the Nats have their own things to watch leading up to the season. I have been writing all winter about who will replace Anthony Rendon at third base, and it appears the entire infield will be a mixed bag until the best combination is found. Looking elsewhere, here a few things to look out for, not necessarily today, but by the time the season opens in about a month from now.

With Rendon out, there’s a huge hole left in the lineup. A possible change is Juan Soto being bumped up to the third spot after batting cleanup last year. Howie Kendrick would be a solid fourth batter, but he won’t be playing full time, so someone else will have to fill that role more often. Eric Thames will be platooning at first with Ryan Zimmerman, and he’s a power bat who could do damage in the fourth slot. A lineup that would be the most similar to last year (substituting in this year’s starters) would look something like this:

  1. Turner
  2. Eaton (L)
  3. Soto (L)
  4. Thames (L)
  5. Cabrera (S)
  6. Castro
  7. Gomes
  8. Pitcher
  9. Robles

With the departure of Rendon, however, other players will have to step up at the plate. The biggest X-Factor will be Victor Robles. He was good for the tail end of the line up, but a player with his potential will have to produce toward the top of the lineup sooner than later.

With Thames batting fourth, there could also be issues with three left-handed bats in a row, with Adam Eaton and Soto at 2-3. If Robles can get his batting average up, he could help pick up the slack from Rendon’s absence.

My proposed lineup:

  1. Eaton (L)
  2. Robles
  3. Turner
  4. Soto (L)
  5. Thames (L)
  6. Cabrera (S)
  7. Castro
  8. Gomes
  9. Pitcher

Robles could be a solid lead off option, but I don’t trust him in that spot quite yet. Eaton is a solid hitter and has experience leading off, so I’d place him there. Giving Robles experience at the top of the order should help, but he probably shouldn’t be handed the third spot, so second seems to be a good place for him until he can prove he’s a good enough lead off or third spot option. While having Trea Turner lead off is great when it comes to stealing bases and creating better RBI opportunities, he has the hitting ability to bat third. It’s early enough in the order, and his speed should make driving in runs a lot easier for Soto batting in his usual clean up spot. 

From there, rotating Thames and Kendrick in the fifth spot gives the team great hitting ability in the middle of the lineup. Rounding it out is any combination of Asdrúbal Cabrera, Starlin Castro, Carter Kieboom, Zimmerman, Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, which gives the team a lot of solid options to experiment with at the bottom of the order. There’s no Rendon, but Dave Martinez still has plenty to work with as he constructs the best lineup.

While finding the right combination on offense will be a major step for this team in 2020, it’s the starting rotation that is key to this team’s success. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez make up a killer top four, but the fifth spot in the rotation is still up for grabs. Among the guys in the running for the fifth spot are Erick Fedde, Joe Ross, and Austin Voth. Perhaps someone else will enter the mix, but those three have prior starting experience.

Ross started Game 5 of the World Series on short notice after Scherzer was scratched due to neck problems, and while he did not put up a great performance, it was decent considering the circumstances, plus it is not easy for anyone to beat Gerrit Cole. In any case, he is likely the front-runner for the fifth spot unless someone else wows in spring training. It’ll be interesting to see who gets the spot — and how long a leash he’ll have — but whoever it is has to be able to keep the team in games during his starts. It’s not the most crucial decision, but it’s one that needs to be good to get through the season.

The starters should have some extra help this year, though. Along with 2018 All-Star Sean Doolittle, Hudson, the 2019 postseason hero, returns. Another instrumental figure from the World Series is in the bullpen, but he won’t be remembered in the best way. Will Harris, the former Astros reliever who allowed Kendrick’s go-ahead home run in Game 7 (albeit on a good pitch that Kendrick just happened to hammer), signed a three-year, $24 million contract over the offseason and should strengthen the Nats’ bullpen despite entering his age 35 season.

Add in two developing guys in Wander Suero and Tanner Rainey, who can top 100 mph on his fastest pitches, and the bullpen should improve significantly from their 5.66 ERA last season. The Nats blew plenty of leads throughout the year, especially earlier in the season, and they still won 93 games.

Though they started the season 19-31, the team could have been 32-18 if the bullpen had not blown any games where the Nats led or the score was tied. Realistically speaking, the team should have been right around .500, perhaps better. If the team can hang on for more games, and the offense can make up for Rendon’s departure, then 100 wins may not be so far out of the question, and they’ll need as many wins as they can get in this year’s NL East.

The Atlanta Braves won the division last year, and come in to 2020 with one of the league’s best farm systems to go with returning stars like Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr., Mike Soroka and more. They also inked two of last year’s top relievers in Will Smith and Shane Greene, so Atlanta is back and ready to pounce.

The New York Mets also look capable doing damage similar to their 2015 team, which won the NL Pennant. Already with two-time reigning Cy Young winner Jacob DeGrom, and fellow studs Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman, the team made up for the loss of Zach Wheeler by adding former Cy Young winner Rick Porcello along with Michael Wacha. With 2019 NL Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso leading the charge at the plate, the Mets could be scary if they work things out.

Philadelphia will get their second season with former Nats’ star Bryce Harper, and after adding Wheeler and Didi Gregorius to help push this team into the playoffs, the Phillies could pose as another threat in the division. The Nats should be well in the mix, but it certainly won’t be a cake walk.

The season opens officially on Mar. 26 at Citi Field against the Mets, followed by a series in Miami before opening at home against the Mets a week later on Apr. 2. The fact that the World Series champion does not open the season at home just boggles my mind. The other three major US sports leagues have the previous season’s champion open the season at home, often unveiling the banner in a celebration to kick off the new season.

In baseball, the next season’s schedules are released in August, before the World Series is decided, but it still makes no sense that the returning champions must open the season on the road. Stadium scheduling can be complicated as many venues host other events besides baseball, but they could not flip the locations of the two series against the Mets? They can’t open Mar. 26 at Nationals Park then play the Apr. 2 series in New York?

A swap like that would not work perfectly every year, but there has to be a better way to go about this. The World Series champion deserves to open the season at home. I guess Major League Baseball has bigger problems on its hands right now, but that has to be addressed at some point.

If that is my biggest complaint about the Nats’ upcoming season, then the team must be in a pretty good spot. There is still a long way to go before baseball truly returns, but DC will be gearing up for the next month to try and defend their crown.

(Cover Photo Credit: Jeff Roberson/AP Photo)

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