From a Championship to joint bottom of the disappointing NL East, the Washington Nationals were in conversation for most disappointing team in 2020. Despite their ring, the future does not look especially promising in DC. There’s a top heavy roster and payroll, coupled with the economic impact of the pandemic and their poor farm system, suggesting a period of retooling.
Of course, whilst top heavy, the top of the roster is still special. Juan Soto is in the discussion for best hitter in the game at 21, Trea Turner has broken out and Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Stephen Strasburg make up a fearsome trio at the top of the rotation.
Beyond that there are huge question marks surrounding multiple former top prospects, thin starting depth and a bullpen that’s been bad for years.
What will their priorities be in the offseason?
Sign a bat
It goes without saying, but the Nationals really missed Anthony Rendon‘s bat in 2020.
The offense other than Soto and Turner were mostly league average or below. Asdrubal Cabrera and Howie Kendrick, both around league average hitters, could be found hitting in the top 5 for most of the 60 games.
Juan Soto’s 20.9% walk rate led the league, which is partly a reflection of his unbelievable eye. However, there was a reluctance to challenge him from opposing teams knowing the next batter would be far less dangerous. This is also shown by the league leading 12 intentional walks, four more than Bryce Harper in 40 fewer games.
If there was another dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup, the option of pitching around Soto would be less attractive. A right handed bat should be top of the list. Free agent George Springer would be a perfect fit to replace Adam Eaton in right field, although he will not be cheap and the Nats already have $140 million on the 2021 payroll.
There is also plenty of young talent on the roster, with Victor Robles, Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia all being former top prospects who haven’t quite worked it out at the big league level. A breakout from even one would help alleviate this issue.
Acquire pitching depth
The Nationals’ top three starters may be the best trio in the game when healthy. They are also paid like that, which has led to a top heavy pitching staff – they got through the playoffs using essentially five pitchers in 2019.
Back end starters Austin Voth and Anibal Sanchez had ERAs over 6, and Erik Fedde’s ERA was 4.29, but almost every underlying metric suggested that was due to luck. Will Crowe was the number 4 prospect, but had an era over 11 in his first taste of the big leagues.
All this shows the Nationals needing multiple new starters in the offseason. With a number of expected non tenders due to financial pressure, it is probably a good year to need depth starters. The Nationals will hope for some hidden gems in free agency to supplement the returning big three.
They will also need a new closer. The bullpen was not as bad as it was in 2019, but Daniel Hudson was the closer with a 6+ ERA. They may entrust Tanner Rainey or Will Harris, but they should be contenders for Liam Hendriks or Alex Colome at the top of the relief market if they plan on contending in 2021.
Start thinking of the future
MLB Pipeline’s farm system ranking has the Nationals dead last. As a contender for close to the last decade, this is to be expected. A championship gives sufficient cover to a front office to make difficult decisions to be able to construct another winning team.
With so much invested in the rotation, there is very little chance of a full teardown. Juan Soto, Trea Turner and the rotation trio give the Nationals plenty to work with in 2021, and the Lerner’s have typically been aggressive in free agency and are among the wealthiest owners in the sport.
A higher draft place next year will help the farm system, and if 2021 goes wrong, there is scope to change direction with players like Scherzer and Turner being very sought after at the deadline.