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Previewing the Yankees’ new rivals: Washington Nationals

Our preview of the new rivals the Yankees will face in 2020 continues with the defending champion Washington Nationals.

2019 World Series Game 7 - Washington Nationals v. Houston Astros Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB Photos via Getty Images

We’re in the back stretch of previewing the NL East now, and it’s time to look at the team that walked away on top in 2019. Earlier we’ve previewed the Philadelphia Phillies, a team looking to rise from mediocrity to contention, the Atlanta Braves, who want to break through in the postseason, and the New York Mets, who want to get back to October at last.

The Washington Nationals have gone through all of those phases in the past decade, and they enter the 2020s as the defending World Series champions. It wasn’t an easy road for them to make it, and there are doubts that they could repeat their previous success, so let’s break down what we can expect from the champs this season.

The Fundamentals

2019 Record: 93-69

2020 Playoff Odds: 53.3%, per FanGraphs

Manager: Dave Martinez

The Nationals were a team full of promise year after year, and yet they could never break through and win a series in the postseason. Superstar outfielder Bryce Harper was swayed to leave after the team didn’t even make the postseason in 2018 — and after the Phillies offered a gargantuan 13-year, $330 million contract — and there were some who assumed that Washington’s window was closing fast.

Instead, the team loaded up on pitching, signing away Patrick Corbin to form a trio of aces with the three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and franchise icon Stephen Strasburg. An unlikely fourth starter would join them to form a dominant postseason rotation, as Anibal Sanchez revived his career in Atlanta in 2018 and signed on to pitch in the nation’s capital. The four pitchers would carry the team through upset victories over the 106-win Dodgers in the NLDS and the 107-win Astros in the World Series.

It’s hard to keep a championship roster together long-term however, and the Nationals learned this in the offseason. They had enough money to lock down Strasburg for seven years and $245 million, but that priced them out of re-signing third baseman Anthony Rendon. Rendon left in free agency for the Angels, and now the Nationals will have to regroup for the second straight year after losing a key bat.

There’s still some talent in the Nationals’ lineup this year, and that’s thanks in large part to the emergence of Juan Soto. The 21-year-old slashed .282/.401/.548 with 34 home runs and 110 RBI last year, already putting him near the top of the National League after just two seasons in the bigs. Soto headlines the youth in the lineup, with Trea Turner, Victor Robles and Carter Kieboom all projected to start alongside him.

Soto and company are promising, but they’ll need some veterans to step up in order to compete with the other contenders in their division. Adam Eaton finally played in a full season after three years in Washington, but he’s been glove-first throughout his career. Howie Kendrick put up a career year in his first full season as a National, but at 37-years-old he may not be able to repeat his performance. Eric Thames is stepping in to replace Ryan Zimmerman, who opted out of the season over COVID-19 concerns, and the slugger has struggled to produce outside of the KBO. Starlin Castro signed on after a hot-and-cold season with Miami, and depending on which one arrives in Washington he could impress.

The situation at catcher will be a platoon instead of a traditional starter/backup pairing. Martinez wants the veteran Kurt Suzuki to be behind the plate for Scherzer and Sanchez, while Yan Gomes will catch the rest of the staff. Suzuki is the more offensively-gifted catcher while Gomes is the prototypical glove-first catcher, so the Nationals can split the workload as needed between the two.

The rotation, as mentioned, is the core of the team. Scherzer is the mainstay at the top, with Strasburg right behind him for an effective 1-2 punch that few teams can match. Corbin was about as effective as Strasburg was, putting up 238 strikeouts in 209 innings, and it’d be a tough ask to find a better number-three pitcher in the league. Sanchez is expected to stay as the fourth starter, leaving Austin Voth as the inexperienced fifth starter. Voth made just nine appearances (eight starts) in 2019, but he showed promise — he pitched to a 3.30 ERA, striking out 44 in 43.2 innings and collecting a 1.05 WHIP.

The one clear weakness that the Nationals had last year was their bullpen, and they did their best to address it in the offseason. Daniel Hudson was the one reliever they could trust out of the ‘pen in October, and he returns as the setup man to Sean Doolittle. Will Harris swapped sides to his World Series foes, and forms a formidable trio for Washington to rely on. The lower end of the bullpen is still up in the air, however, and a pool of players including Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero, Ryne Harper and Roenis Elias will have to improve to patch up what was the worst bullpen to ever make the postseason.

The Nationals have the pieces to contend for another postseason spot. They won’t give up their crown easily, though they may ultimately be beaten out by the tough competition they’ll face both within their division and from the AL East. That window isn’t closed just yet for Washington, but we’ll see if they can make much more out of it.