Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has done his usual spectacular job of roster building, and in doing so, he has positioned his team for one of the sweetest and most unique World Series victory laps of all time. Nothing succeeds like success, right?
So if some of you Nats fans are feeling a bit cheated that your team hasn’t gotten the traditional coronation of regular-season standing ovations and raucous ring ceremonies, don’t sweat it.
No franchise has won back-to-back World Series since the 1998-2000 Yankees. The Nationals are nicely positioned to do just that, and wouldn’t Opening Day 2021 be one to remember?
Here’s the larger point: The Nats are plenty good enough to win again. Let’s count the ways:
1. Starting rotation
There’s no better front three than Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. In prioritizing re-signing Strasburg over third baseman Anthony Rendon last offseason, Rizzo stuck to the power-pitching philosophy that has produced the second-most regular-season wins of any MLB club over the last eight seasons. If Strasburg, Scherzer and Corbin are healthy in October, the Nationals could not be in a better spot.
This is the area that tortured the franchise much of the last decade, and that was true last season until Rizzo’s Trade Deadline acquisition of Daniel Hudson stabilized things. Now with Sean Doolittle healthy and Rizzo’s signing of former Astros setup man Will Harris, the Nationals should be able to lock down the leads that once got away so frequently.
3. Superstar Soto
One great player can change an entire lineup, and Juan Soto is on the fast track to greatness. He was comfortable the moment he stepped onto the field at 19 years old in 2018, bringing not just production -- although there was plenty of that -- but the kind of swagger teammates feed off of. Soto's two-year .937 OPS is the National League’s fourth highest, trailing only Christian Yelich, Rendon and Nolan Arenado. That’s the company he’s keeping at 21.
Rendon’s departure via free agency leaves a hole in the lineup, and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s decision to not play this year has thinned the depth at first base. This is where organizational depth -- and confidence -- has to take over. Top prospect Carter Kieboom will start at third after compiling an .847 OPS in four Minor League seasons, and considering the success of homegrown players like Soto, shortstop Trea Turner and outfielder Victor Robles, the Nats have enough of a track record to believe the new kid will do just fine. Veteran Asdrúbal Cabrera can hold down the position if Kieboom struggles. As for first base, manager Dave Martinez’s plan is for a platoon between Eric Thames and World Series hero Howie Kendrick.
This is a significant factor. Beware of the team that suddenly finds out it really is good enough to win a championship. Until last season, the Nationals thought they could win in October even though they had never won a single postseason series despite all that regular-season success. Now, they know they’re good enough after winning clinching games on the road in Los Angeles (NL Division Series) and Houston (World Series).
6. Dave Martinez
With an avalanche of information supplied from front offices, managing a Major League baseball team -- perhaps more than ever before -- is about dealing with people, building relationships and creating the right environment. Martinez is perfect for this era. His decency, honesty and communication skills play well with players. Martinez didn’t know it at the time, but last season’s 19-31 start turned out to be his finest hour because he never lost his composure, constantly reassured his players things would turn out OK if they kept doing the right thing and was not rattled on the postseason stage.
7. Their time
Even with Rendon gone, the Nationals’ strengths far outweigh the areas of concern. But this season’s challenge is different. Besides the unknowns -- some of them frightening -- of this season, the competition has changed, and dramatically. In a 60-game season, a single cold streak can kill a team’s chances, while the kind of hot stretch that virtually every team has at some point in a normal season could completely change the postseason outlook.
Because the Nats have more pitching than almost anyone, because they have one of the game’s best players in Soto and because they crossed a huge psychological roadblock last October, their window for winning remains wide open.