On July 23rd, the shortened 2020 MLB season kicked off in our nation’s capital with the New York Yankees visiting the defending World Series Champion Washington Nationals. Unfortunately, the game ended in a rainout in the 5th inning while the Yankees were ahead 4-1, resulting in the win being given to New York. After arguably the greatest postseason run in MLB history, the Nats now find themselves 0-1, without their best hitter from last year in Anthony Rendon. They are also without their current best hitter Juan Soto, who tested positive for the coronavirus. With all of these obstacles ahead of them, is it possible for this Washington Nationals team to repeat as World Champions in 2020? In this article, I’m going to be breaking down the team’s hitting, starting pitching, and bullpen and give my prediction for how the defending champs will fare in the shortened MLB season.
When comparing last year’s team to this year’s team, it is apparent that the Nationals hitting might take a slight dip in production. Washington lost star 3rd baseman Anthony Rendon in free agency to the Angels. Rendon batted a career-high .319 and hit in a league-high 126 RBIs on route to an All-Star appearance and a Silver Slugger. His presence will certainly be missed in the Washington dugout. The Nationals received some bad news ahead of Thursday’s opener and revealed that star OF Juan Soto had tested positive for COVID-19. Losing Soto is a huge blow for the Nats, as he was batted cleanup on a World Series Champion team and was set to be the star of the team’s offense this season. Given that he eventually passes protocols, Soto will be able to return. However, the Nats will have to manage without him for now.
Despite a few key losses to open up the season, there are still some bright spots in this Nationals lineup. The team is returning lead-off man Trea Turner, who has been with the franchise his whole career. Turner hit .298 last season and is one of the best base runners in the MLB. If the guy gets on base, there’s a good chance that he will steal some bases. Adam Eaton also returns as the 2nd man in the Nationals lineup. Eaton was an average hitter in the regular season but came alive in the postseason. He hit .320 in the postseason last year and contributed greatly to the Nats World Series run. He also hit the first home run of the season for the Nats against Gerrit Cole on Thursday. The other key returning batter for the Nationals is DH Howie Kendrick. The 37-year old was perhaps the most important role player in the Nationals run last year. Not only did he hit a Game 5 grand slam to upset the Dodgers in the NLDS, but he also was the NLCS MVP and hit the go-ahead two-run bomb against the Astros in Game 7 of the World Series. Kendrick was clutch in the postseason for the Nationals, and the team is hoping to see the same production out of him in the shortened season. New to the Nats lineup this season are Starlin Castro and Eric Thames. While Thames is more of a role player, Castro is a four-time All-Star. Although he hasn’t been as productive the last two seasons in Miami, he is still a talented player whom the Nationals are hoping can return to form. There are certainly some questions surrounding this Nationals offense, and they certainly are going to need it to perform if they wish to repeat as champions.
The Nationals’ starting rotation is easily the strongest position group they have. Much of the success of last year’s World Series run can be attributed to Washington’s starting pitchers’ play. Max Scherzer is the team’s ace pitcher and is one of the best pitchers of all time. In addition to throwing 11 strikeouts in the season opener, Scherzer also has a bevy of accomplishments under his belt. He is a seven-time All-Star, three-time Cy Young Award winner, and has finished top ten in MVP voting three times. He certainly has himself a Hall of Fame resume and is continuing to play well now entering his 13th season in the MLB. Although Scherzer is technically the ace, the Nats #2 man might be better. Stephen Strasburg dominated in the postseason, posting a 2.51 ERA and took home the World Series MVP Award. Strasburg is a three-time All-Star and won a Silver Slugger in 2012. He signed a massive contract extension with the Nationals this offseason, so it looks like Strasburg won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. The final star pitcher that the Nationals have is Patrick Corbin, who they signed before the 2019 season. He also was instrumental for the Nationals in the postseason, posting a 3.60 ERA and was solid in relief in the World Series. He is a two-time All-Star who could be the ace pitcher on many teams in the MLB. The Nationals rotation is rounded out by Aníbal Sánchez and Joe Ross. Sánchez is a reliable starter who played well in the postseason, and Ross is only 27 years old and has time to improve. Overall, these players make up the best rotation in baseball and certainly keeps the Nationals in the conversation to bring home the pennant again.
The bullpen is easily the weakest point on the entire team for Washington. The Nationals still won the World Series last year despite having the worst bullpen statistically in the entire MLB. The fact that Fernando Rodney was getting time in the postseason and World Series should tell you everything you need to know about this team’s bullpen last season. Despite the bullpen’s shortcomings, there were two bright spots for Washington in the postseason. Sean Doolittle, who was acquired from the A’s in 2017, has been a reliable bullpen pitcher since he was acquired. Daniel Hudson was also great for the Nats in the postseason, even striking out the last batter in Game 7 to win the World Series. The Nationals acquired reliever Will Harris from the Astros this offseason, who had a 1.50 ERA for Houston last year. He will certainly help bolster a Nationals bullpen that needs improvement after last season.
When looking at this team objectively, it is clear that the Nationals have gotten worse on offense. The loss of Rendon will prove costly for Washington, and the loss of Juan Soto will also be devastating, depending upon how long he will be out this year. The one saving grace for the Nats this year is both their starting rotation and their bullpen. The Nationals are returning the best starting rotation in baseball. Even though Scherzer is getting up there in age, he will still produce at a high level for the team this year. The bullpen also will benefit greatly from the addition of Will Harris, giving the Nats more than just one reliable relief pitcher. The fact that this is a shortened season is the one key factor in why I think the Nats may still have a chance to repeat. With fewer games to play, teams will be playing their best starters more consistently. Having three ace pitchers in Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin bodes well for Washington in 2020. Although they did lose the first game thanks to a rain delay, time will tell what these defending champions can do in the 2020 season.