The Nationals finished the 2020 season 26-34 and fell short of making the playoffs to defend their World Series championship. Following a year marked by injuries and noticeable absences, the team will look to rehab and restructure its roster to contend in '21. Here's a look at five questions the Nats are facing this offseason:
1. Will Stephen Strasburg be healthy?
The World Series MVP Award winner pitched just five innings over two starts before undergoing season-ending surgery to alleviate carpal tunnel neuritis of his right (pitching) hand. Strasburg began experiencing discomfort during Summer Camp, and it carried over into his outings. He last pitched on Aug. 14, exiting after only two-thirds of an inning.
So what does this mean for the 32-year-old as he prepares for his 12th season? The Nats are anticipating a healthy Strasburg to be ready for 2021.
"I expect Stras to come back, make a full recovery,” manager Dave Martinez said on Sept. 22. “He feels really good right now.”
2. Who will pitch in the starting rotation?
After having a 2020 starting rotation of Max Scherzer, Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Aníbal Sánchez and Austin Voth, the Nationals will have to figure out how to fill the fourth and fifth spots for '21.
The Nats declined their team option on Sánchez, who had expressed his desire to return. The 36-year-old posted a 15-13 record and 4.52 ERA over his two years in Washington. He went 4-5 with a 6.62 ERA after encountering ups and downs this year, his 15th big league season on the mound.
After implementing a combination of Joe Ross, Erick Fedde and Voth as the fifth starter in 2019, the Nats wanted to identify one person for the role this past season. Ross was the top candidate, and after he elected not to play this year, Voth beat out Fedde for the job. The 28-year-old struggled in his first year in the full-time role. Voth often had trouble pitching late into games, and he didn't earn his first win of the year until his second-to-last start on Sept. 22. He finished 2020 at 2-5 with a 6.34 ERA.
It remains to be seen how many changes the Nats make to the starting rotation, and if they bring in new talent via free agency, trades or the prospect pool.
3. How many from the World Series team will return?
Washington kept its team largely intact from its 2019 championship run. Next season, though, the roster likely will have a different look. Of the members from the World Series team, infielders Asdrúbal Cabrera and Ryan Zimmerman, outfielder Michael A. Taylor, catcher Kurt Suzuki and relievers Aaron Barrett, Sean Doolittle, Roenis Elías and Javy Guerra are free agents. On top of Sánchez, the Nationals also declined a team option with right fielder Adam Eaton and mutual options with infielder/designated hitters Howie Kendrick and Eric Thames.
Washington will think ahead to the future of the organization while considering who to bring back.
"I think you look at each person individually and separately,” general manager Mike Rizzo said at the end of the season. “I wouldn't put a whole lot of weight into if they were with us in 2019 or not. To me, 2021 is a different season.
“The players have responded differently. What type of injuries do they have? What's the long-term prognosis of those injuries? What does the system look like at that particular position to take over for a veteran player? I think that we take all that into account when we create rosters. We will do the same this year.”
4. Who will be the closer?
The Nationals signed Will Harris to a three-year deal last offseason to bolster their bullpen and add a late-inning option to Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. This season, Hudson led the team in saves (10 in 21 appearances), while Doolittle and Harris battled with injuries and closing out games. Harris made 20 appearances (one save); Doolittle made 11 (no saves).
During that time, Tanner Rainey emerged in his second full Major League season. The 27-year-old posted a 0.738 WHIP and 14.2 strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate over 20 1/3 frames. In 20 appearances, he went 1-1 with a 2.66 ERA. Martinez has referred to Rainey as “potentially our future closer.” The question is, if so, when?
Doolittle is entering free agency for the first time in his career this offseason; Harris and Hudson are under contract for 2021. This could be a decision that pans out during Spring Training.
5. How will third base be manned?
Carter Kieboom began the year as the Nationals' No. 1 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, and he was given the opportunity in Spring Training to earn the starting third base job. After Summer Camp, Martinez decided to platoon Kieboom and the veteran Cabrera on the hot corner.
Kieboom struggled offensively (.202/.344/.212) this year, but he was looking to find a rhythm after a stint at the alternate training site. His first full Major League season was cut short when he sustained a left-hand contusion on Sept. 21. Upon Kieboom’s recall from the alternate training site on Sept. 5, Martinez said Kieboom would be the everyday third baseman the remainder of the season. Will that game plan carry over into 2021?
The Nats have Kieboom on the books, while Cabrera is a free agent. The Nationals re-signed utility man Josh Harrison, who played seven games at third base in 2020, to a one-year contract on Thursday. Brock Holt also could serve as a backup if he returns. He manned third in five games this season for Washington. For the second year in a row, this could be Kieboom’s starting role to earn.