Playing Pepper 2020: Washington Nationals

If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper!  For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear.  It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about.  It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.

These answers were obtained very soon after spring training was halted and Opening Day was delayed.  Obviously, things may be very different when baseball returns but my hope is that this gives you a good feel for the Nationals, even if some specific items may be affected.

Washington Nationals
93-89, second in NL East, won World Series
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

World Champions.  The team that could never get out of the first round finally did and then continued to win.  It’s hard to believe that the Nationals trailed in the eighth inning of the Wild Card, the eighth inning of Game 5 of the NLDS, and in the sixth inning of Game 7 of the World Series.  (Funny how they didn’t have to play the NLCS–not sure how that happened.)  There’s no doubt the Nats earned their title, but what can they do for an encore?  Let’s see what some very happy fans have to say.

Blogger Site Twitter
James Moynihan District on Deck Jcmoynihan15
Justin Howard Half Street Heart Attack HalfStreetHeart
Drew Douglas District on Deck DrewDouglasVT

C70: World Champions. Has that sunk in yet? How much memorabilia did you pick up?

James: It has definitely been a wild ride. With the parade, and celebrations around the city, spring training definitely comes a lot faster than after a first round playoff exit. I’m all stocked up with merch. Between myself my wife and two kids i may need to take out a second mortgage, but we are all geared up.

Justin: No. October was an out of body experience. It felt like a strange dream. That, of course, is why we buy the merchandise—to remind us it’s real. Most people go for t-shirts and hats, but I favor the everyday items—keychains, refrigerator magnets and mugs. You can’t wear a World Series champ t-shirt to work, but you can set a coffee mug on your desk to rub it in to your Atlanta Braves fan coworkers. 

Drew: The fact that the Nats finally got over the hump and won it all last year is still surreal to me. The way the team battled back from 19-31 to miraculously fending off elimination in several postseason series, it was an unforgettable season that is still setting in with me. After years of waiting for a World Series in DC, I bought quite a few pieces of memorabilia and am still soaking it all in.

C70: While Stephen Strasburg stayed home, Anthony Rendon did not. What were your thoughts about those moves and the rest of the Nationals’ offseason?

James: I wrote a lot about the moves this offseason and while it is tough to see Rendon walk, the Nats have been pretty successful giving pitchers long term deals. Everyone has a tendency to think it’s riskier to give pitchers massive long-term contracts but historically that hasn’t been the reality. A-Rod’s second deal is really the only massive long term contract for a position player that has turned out a single World Series. Meanwhile, Max Scherzer, David Price, Clayton Kershaw, Zach Grienke have all either won or been in a World Series the last few seasons. The Nats will absolutely miss Rendon’s bat in the middle of the lineup and there’s no replacing it, but I do think this team has a chance to do a lot with matchups. Eric Thames, Zim (Ryan Zimmerman), Howie Kendrick and Starlin Castro can create a lot of tough matchups for opposing pitchers. The Nationals won’t lead the league in long balls but their pitching should keep them in games and I think the offense will be innovative in the way they score runs. It’ll be interesting to see who hits third. If Victor Robles can handle the pressures of leading off, I think an interesting lineup would see Trea Turner, Juan Soto and Kendrick hitting 3,4,5.

Justin: Rendon is a huge loss and there’s no way to sugarcoat it. He and Juan Soto anchored that lineup—almost every big postseason moment ran through those two. The lineup won’t be the same.

Say what you want about the Strasburg contact—it’s very big—but the guy actually wanted to be a National for life and ownership made it happen. After all his postseason heroics, he’s already a DC baseball legend. Everything after this is a bonus.

Drew: As hard as it is to see Anthony Rendon in another uniform, I think the Nats had a solid offseason. Last year, Mike Rizzo and co. let Bryce Harper walk but improved the team by filling several holes with the money that would’ve gone to Harper. That worked out pretty well, and Rizzo did something similar this offseason. The Nats still splurged on Stephen Strasburg, but made several smaller moves to address various holes instead of splurging on two superstars. Many of these moves brought back members of the championship team from a year ago, such as Howie Kendrick, Daniel Hudson, Ryan Zimmerman, Yan Gomes, and Asdrubal Cabrera. Rizzo also did a great job of adding veterans that I think will make an enormous impact, such as Will Harris, Starlin Castro, and Eric Thames.

C70: What are the expectations for Carter Kieboom in his first full season?

James: The general thought is that Kieboom will make the opening day roster, but personally I think he may be held back for service time reasons. He has had an up and down spring and at times looks like he’s only played third a handful of times. That’s mainly because he has only played the position a handful of times. I could see them keeping him in the minors for a month or so to make sure he doesn’t get a full year of service time, get more reps at third and then bring him up. I think when he makes it to the big leagues he’ll be productive, but there will be growing pains. Offensively, I expect similar numbers to what Robles did last year .250-.260 15-20 homers. I’d call that a successful rookie campaign.

Justin: None. He has talent but it’s simply unfair to expect much from a player that inexperienced. He’ll have an opportunity though, and the Nationals’ “hit rate” on top prospects—Harper, Rendon, Soto, Robles—has been abnormally high. They need this one too because the farm system is pretty thin behind him. 

Drew: Carter Kieboom got off to a hot start in his MLB debut last year, but quickly fizzled out and struggled through an underwhelming first couple weeks in the majors. He wasn’t quite ready to play at the highest level, but injuries forced the Nats’ hand. I think that failure was a good experience for him, though. This year, with Rendon out of the picture, the third base job is Kieboom’s to lose. He has gotten off to a rough start to the spring on both sides of the ball. If the season started today, I think Kieboom would be starting the year in AAA, with some combination of Kendrick and Cabrera manning the hot corner. Third base is new to Kieboom, so I would probably have him start the season in AAA, at least for a few weeks just to get game experience at the position. With a plethora of veteran infielders in the majors already, they can get by without Kieboom for a while. Once Kieboom finally joins the Nats for good, I expect a solid offensive campaign, probably hitting in the .250-.275 range. Nats fans may be underwhelmed based on the historical numbers Juan Soto has produced at such a young age, but that would be a solid season for a rookie.

C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?

James: Rizzo always designs a team that they feel can win 90 games. I’d say give or take a few, they should be between 87-92 wins. This division is tough though. The Nats have a lot of vets and they’ll need to stay healthy. At the end of the day if the pitching is as advertised they should be in the thick of things.

Justin: Anything is possible. We may not see live baseball until June, maybe later. Perhaps a short season benefits a guy like Max Scherzer who is aging and struggled to finish 162 games. Whatever happens we’re looking at one of the strangest seasons in baseball history. When baseball comes back, the Braves will be good again. I’d expect them to win the division. But Nationals have the pitching to challenge.

Drew: Assuming the 2020 season eventually gets underway, I think the Nats have as good of a chance as anyone to win the division. I think it comes down to the Nats and Braves again, with the Nats coming out on top. Losing Rendon hurts, but Washington may have the best pitching staff in the league. If the Nats can avoid the World Series hangover and make it back to the postseason, anything can happen.

C70: What’s the main topic Nationals fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?

James: Michael A. Taylor is an interesting guy for the Nats. He’s been with the club for several years, and is a bit of a fan favorite, but he split time with the Nats and in the minors last season. He signed for about $3.3 million this offseason, which could be saved to bolster the bullpen or get a power bat toward the deadline. It’ll be interesting to see what his role is entering the season or if they try to move him.

Justin: Since 2012, Mike Rizzo has done an remarkable job keeping the Nationals’ “window of contention” open long after it should have closed. He’s done this through smart trades and using his free agent money wisely. But given the age of their pitching staff and very little in the minor league pipeline, it’s fair to ask how many more years this team can contend without a full rebuild. Then again, while the rest of MLB has been chasing youth, the Nats won the World Series with age and experience. Maybe that’s their “thing” and the trend can continue.

Drew: Although the Nats’ bullpen has never been as bad as it was in 2019, when it was historically bad, it is usually a weakness of the team. Since the team first made the postseason in 2012, they have had to address the bullpen at nearly every trade deadline. This year, for the first time in a long time, the bullpen looks good entering the season. Sean Doolittle, Hudson, and Harris form an outstanding trio at the back-end of the bullpen and can all close games when necessary. None of the three deal with platoon struggles either, so they will be unaffected by the new three batter minimum rule. Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero, Roenis Elias, Ryne Harper, and Austin Voth all also have the potential to produce outstanding seasons. They have each shown flashes of brilliance and just need to put it all together. If the Nats can get one or two from this group to really step up this year, the bullpen is in great shape. Losing Rendon’s offensive production is big, but the improved bullpen can make up for some of that. The 2019 bullpen blew countless leads, which shouldn’t happen this year. With an outstanding starting rotation and an improved bullpen, the Nats should not need to score as many runs each night to have a chance to win.

C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?

James: To begin, I’m looking forward to the opening few games as a final celebration of the World Series title. It’ll be great to relive it again and put a cap on an amazing run. For 2020 I’m interested to see how both Juan Soto and Victor Robles grow as players. Soto is on the verge, or maybe he has already entered, superstardom. With Rendon gone, it’ll be interesting to see how he manages the pressures of being THE guy in that lineup. Robles I have big hopes for this season. He’s already a Gold Glove Center fielder but with a full year under his belt, I am hoping to see a big jump offensively.

Justin: At this point, I’ll be happy to see any baseball this year. We are in uncharted territory, so I’ll take this opportunity to say that in my job I’ve been working on the front lines of COVID-19 the past few weeks and this virus is not a joke. It’s not the flu and it’s not the common cold. Iran didn’t take precautions and now they’re digging mass graves. Italy didn’t take enough precautions and now they have citizens dying in the hallways of hospitals because there aren’t enough beds. Follow the CDC’s advice and isolate yourself for a while. Do it for your family and your neighbors. Life, and baseball, will eventually return to normal. 

Drew: The thing I am most looking forward to this season, whenever it starts, is the World Series festivities. I can’t wait to get back out to Nats Park and celebrate being the defending champions. This is the first World Series championship in DC since 1924, so we have quite a bit of celebrating to do. Obviously this is a new year and the Nats have to turn the page, but we get to enjoy raising a banner and a ring ceremony early in the season. Regardless of what happens this year, the Nats will always be the defending champions.

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