WASHINGTON (AP) — With the significant exception of Anthony Rendon’s departure in free agency, and one key addition to what was a shaky bullpen for much of last season, the Washington Nationals head to spring training with mostly the same squad that won the World Series.
Once again, they are counting on being led by a star-studded rotation featuring Max Scherzer, the re-signed Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, and they’re hoping that young slugger Juan Soto can continue on the trajectory that has him on the verge of stardom at the age of 21.
When the Nationals hold their first workout for pitchers and catchers on Feb. 13 in West Palm Beach, Florida -- at a facility they share with the team, the Houston Astros, they beat for the championship last October -- there will be plenty of familiar faces. The lone key exception: Will Harris, a righty reliever who just so happened to give up Howie Kendrick’s go-ahead homer in Game 7.
“The core of this team is still back. We can all look each other in the eyes and know, when it counts, we can all count on each other,” Scherzer said, “and we’re a bunch of winners.”
Losing Rendon is a big deal. He was one of the top all-around players in baseball and the fulcrum for Washington’s lineup. He was an All-Star and third in NL MVP voting in 2019, when he batted .319 with 34 homers, a majors-leading 126 RBIs, 44 doubles and an OPS of 1.010. He left for a $245 million contract with the Angels, and now there will be some mixing-and-matching at third base, it looks like. Rookie Carter Kieboom and veterans Starlin Castro and Asdrúbal Cabrera all should be involved. As for the batting order, Washington will need young outfielders Soto and Victor Robles and shortstop Trea Turner to help provide the power the team got from Rendon. Another noteworthy offseason loss -- not because of numbers, but because of presence -- was Gerardo Parra, the backup outfielder who started a craze with his “Baby Shark” walk-up song and helped transform the clubhouse. He signed with a team in Japan.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
Kieboom could either establish himself as the team’s no-doubt-about-it third baseman of the future or show that, while the future might hold great things, the present is a problem. The 2016 first-round draft pick is still just 22, with a mere 39 at-bats in the majors. When he got a chance to play briefly last season, the results were a .128 batting average and 16 strikeouts. The other issue is figuring out which infield position he should play in the long run. Still, Washington has a good track record when it comes to knowing when kids are ready for the bigs -- Harper, Soto, Turner come to mind -- and Kieboom will get every chance to show he belongs.
Hard to be more set at any position than the Nationals are at the top of their rotation. It was, after all, three-time Cy Young Award winner Scherzer, World Series MVP Strasburg and lefty Corbin -- with contributions out of the bullpen, in addition to starts -- who were as responsible as anyone for the success in 2019. Those three all return, including Strasburg with a $245 million contract. The No. 4 spot belongs to Aníbal Sánchez, whose variety of offspeed stuff worked so well after he got off to a poor start in 2019.
There is some doubt as to who will be the fifth starter -- Erik Fedde and Joe Ross would appear to be the likeliest candidates -- and how the infield puzzle will come together, but the expectation is that neither of those are going to determine success or failure. The main area folks will be keeping an eye on is the NL-worst bullpen, which got a boost from midseason pickup Daniel Hudson, in particular, and figures to improve with Harris around.
The division of infield playing time will be fascinating during camp. How much does “face of the franchise” Ryan Zimmerman play? How will Kendrick’s starts be divided between first and second base? What about Castro and Cabrera, everywhere in the infield other than first? And how does Kieboom do -- at the plate and in the field? It also will be interesting to see how Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin are brought along, given how many extra pitches they threw in the postseason. Washington opens the regular season at the New York Mets on March 26.