Playing Pepper 2021: Washington Nationals

Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series!  OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter.  It’s Playing Pepper!  Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season.   I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole.  So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!

Washington Nationals
26-34, fourth in the NL East
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

It was a weird year to be a defending champ, I would think.  No big crowd at the home opener.  No ceremonies for the rings (I don’t think).  Strange all the way around.  What wasn’t strange was that the Nationals got off to another slow start, but this time didn’t have the runway to make it up.  So what’s up now for the Nats?  I’m glad you asked.

Blogger Site Twitter
Drew Douglas District on Deck DrewDouglasVT
Blake Finney Federal Baseball FinneyBlake

C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?

Drew: I’m thrilled that we were able to watch some baseball in 2020, but I’m not putting much stock into that season. I think the fact that there was so much uncertainty leading up to the season was detrimental to a lot of guys, especially veterans, which showed in their performance. As for the rule changes, I’m a big proponent of NL rules, so I’m excited to get those back this year. I didn’t think I’d like the runner on second base in extras, but it was a pleasant surprise and definitely makes things more exciting. I wouldn’t mind seeing that rule stick around, but maybe they could have it start in the 12th inning or so instead of the 10th. I didn’t love the three batter minimum rule, but it doesn’t move the needle much for me either way.

Blake: It was certainly a strange experience watching baseball in 2020, but once we got into the thick of the season, it did at least start to feel a bit like a new normal for a little bit.

With the rule changes, some of them felt necessary such as the seven-inning doubleheaders and a runner on second in extras in order to minimize the time that players were on the field in close contact with each other during a pandemic, and while I didn’t necessarily think too much about pitchers not hitting in the NL, I will enjoy that strategic side of the game returning in 2021, even if it’s for its seemingly inevitable swansong.

C70: Max Scherzer is a free agent at the end of the season, at least as of this writing. Will he sign back with the club? If they get off to another slow start, will he be on the trade block?

Drew: I would be shocked if the Lerners let Scherzer finish his career elsewhere. I’m guessing that he’ll end up signing an extension similar to the one that Justin Verlander got from Houston a couple years ago. As for potentially trading Scherzer if the team gets off to a slow start, I guess crazier things have happened but I don’t see them moving him regardless. Scherzer will be the first player to don a Nats cap in Cooperstown, and I don’t see him leaving DC any time soon.

Blake: While it’s far from a certainty, it seems more likely than not that Scherzer will eventually choose to re-sign with the team where he truly ascended to a first-ballot Hall of Fame caliber player and cemented his legacy in baseball, which also makes it unlikely that the Nationals trade him away at the deadline if they stumble into the dog days of summer.

The organization has always valued starting pitching while Mike Rizzo has been at the helm, so as long as the right-hander still performs at a relatively high level in 2021, even if it’s not necessarily his previous Cy Young form, it would seem to line up for a longer stay in the nation’s capital.

C70: The Nationals are one of the few teams that have been somewhat active this offseason. Is there a particular move that you liked or you think might be underappreciated?

Drew: I loved the Josh Bell acquisition. He broke onto the scene in the first half of 2019 but struggled down the stretch and his cold spell continued into 2020. He’s still hitting the ball extremely hard, though, and I think working with Kevin Long will help him return to form. I don’t exactly expect him to replicate his otherworldly numbers from the first half of 2019, but I do expect him to provide some pop in the heart of the lineup and give Juan Soto some much-needed protection.

Blake: It might be the boring choice because it was their biggest splash, but the Josh Bell trade felt like a real steal for the Nationals. As Cardinals fans will know, the first baseman has flashed prestigious power at times in his major league career, though his main issue so far has been finding consistency. If he can put together a season that even vaguely resembles the player he was in the first half of 2019, the Nats will have filled a huge need by adding another big bat who can provide protection hitting behind Juan Soto, something they sorely missed in the shortened season.

C70: Is there a prospect in the system that will come up and make an impact this year?

Drew: I’m high on relief prospect Matt Cronin. The Nats’ bullpen heading into 2021 is their best in quite some time, but you can never have too many arms. I don’t expect Cronin to break camp with the team, but keep an eye on him to debut later this year. I also think Andrew Stevenson is going to surprise some folks. He’s gotten a handful of big league experience over the last few years, but this is his biggest opportunity yet. I expect him to serve as a great fourth outfielder, pinch hitter, and late-game defensive replacement for Kyle Schwarber in left field.

Blake: The cop-out here would be to choose one of the players who spent time in the majors last year like Luis García, Seth Romero, or similar. But someone who I wouldn’t be surprised to be in the second half of the season is Matt Cronin. A dynamic left-handed reliever, Cronin impressed team officials at the Alternate Training Site last season and received a non-roster invite to Spring Training this year. He fits the profile of a power reliever who can move fast through the minor league system, especially given that there will be one this season, and could make an impact in the fall on a bullpen that only has one southpaw in it as things stand.

C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?

Drew: As of this writing, I expect the Nats to be a wild card team. I think the Braves are still the team to beat in the NL East, especially if their rotation pans out. I like the Charlie Morton addition for them and their young arms started to really flourish late last season and into the postseason. If the Nats get another bat, perhaps a third baseman, I think they can easily compete for the division. Right now, the team is counting on development from former top prospects Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom. I think Robles will return to form as an elite center fielder and above average hitter, but Kieboom has not yet been able to translate his minor league success to the big league level. I believe that Kieboom has a bright future, but the Nats really need him to improve quickly. If he gets off to another slow start, expect Mike Rizzo to make a trade for a third baseman this summer.

Blake: This year feels like it could be a pivotal year for the Nationals and determine their direction in the near future. On one hand, their new additions could largely be roaring successes, players who struggled last year could rebound with a normal season as opposed to whatever last year was, and they vault themselves right back into contention. On the other hand, with the amount of high-risk, high-reward moves they’ve made, they could fall flat on their faces and be lucky to finish above .500 for the season. I would probably say the latter seems the more likely of the two as things stand, but I definitely wouldn’t be shocked if they win the division and collect north of 90 wins either.

C70: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?

Drew: I’ve gotta give the organization an A. Mike Rizzo has built a perennial contender since 2012 and that finally culminated in a magical World Series run in 2019. The farm system leaves something to be desired, but I think they’ve got a few underrated prospects in Cade Cavalli, Jackson Rutledge, Cole Henry, Jeremy de la Rosa, and Andry Lara. Look for those guys to shoot up the prospect rankings assuming there’s a minor league season this year. The Nats also have a handful of former top 100 prospects that are still very young in Soto, Robles, Kieboom, and Luis Garcia. If the Nats can find a way to keep Trea Turner around past 2022, I like their chances at continuing to compete for a World Series year in and year out.

Blake: Let’s go with an A- for now. It’s hard not to factor in that the organization won a World Series just two years ago, and the state the team is currently in is partially down to the consistent postseason contention that the Nationals have put themselves in since 2012.

As mentioned above, the major league roster feels a bit high-risk, high-reward right now which was probably the best that the front office could do, given the budget handed down by ownership, without completely draining an already depleted farm system. Even if they end up finishing below .500 and trade away some of their expiring contracts, I still think the organization would be hard-pressed to find someone better suited to building them back up than Mike Rizzo, who has already done it once. So, despite their obvious flaws, the Nationals are still in a good place overall.

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