The National League East is one of the toughest divisions in baseball this season, and the Nationals enhanced both their rotation and lineup this winter in order to contend.
Washington had holes to address on its roster after missing the 2020 playoffs, one season following its first World Series championship. The Nats made a splash in the trade market by acquiring first baseman Josh Bell from the Pirates in exchange for highly ranked pitching prospects. They got aggressive in free agency, signing starting pitcher Jon Lester, left fielder Kyle Schwarber, closer Brad Hand and backup catcher Alex Avila. Washington also brought back the face of the franchise, Ryan Zimmerman.
With added depth, veteran experience and promising young talents on the horizon, the Nats are looking to be in the mix for a return to the playoffs in a competitive NL East.
What needs to go right? Starting pitchers stay healthy
Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Jon Lester and (likely) Joe Ross -- that’s a strong starting rotation. Now, the key is for those starters to stay healthy all season. Last year, Strasburg was limited to only five games and was shut down for carpal tunnel surgery on his right hand. Scherzer’s ramp-up this season was delayed by a left ankle sprain, and Lester’s spring was temporarily halted to undergo a parathyroidectomy to alleviate hyperthyroidism. Ross had not pitched in a game in nearly a year, after electing not to play in 2020. Manager Dave Martinez is being mindful of the starters' workloads, especially those of Strasburg and Ross, since their baseball activity was limited last season. There is a possibility the Nationals could explore using an opener to pick up some of those innings early on.
Great unknown: Second and third base
When camp opened, the starting third-base job was Carter Kieboom’s to earn. On Saturday, the Nationals optioned him to Triple-A Rochester. Martinez likes Starlin Castro shifting from second to the hot corner, where the veteran played 45 games in 2019 with the Marlins. Though Castro suffered a left hamstring strain last week in his first game of spring at third, he will be tabbed as the starting third baseman. Josh Harrison will start the majority of games at second base. The Nationals will have alternates in versatile veterans Jordy Mercer and Hernán Pérez, who earned spots on the Major League roster. The Nats optioned Luis García, who started 35 games at second last season in place of an injured Castro, to Triple-A.
Team MVP will be ... Juan Soto
Beyond the Nationals’ MVP, Soto is a contender for the NL MVP Award. He finished fifth last year in his third Major League season. While there is tough competition in the NL -- the four vote-getters who finished ahead of him are returning to the same teams -- Soto has the potential to put up even more head-turning numbers than he has before. According to ZiPS, Soto is projected to lead all of baseball in RBIs (141) and slash .305/.420/.595 with a 1.015 OPS, 37 homers and 105 walks. Washington added power around him, as well, to protect his bat in the lineup.
Team Cy Young will be ... Scherzer
Scherzer said he enters every season with two goals -- continue to get better and win the World Series. It’s that mindset that makes him a pitching power as he enters his 14th year in the Majors. Scherzer, 36, is coming off his 11th straight above-.500 season (5-4, 3.74 ERA). He was named the Nationals’ Opening Day starter for the sixth time in seven years, and he will head into Thursday's start having built up to 90 pitches in Spring Training. Over 13 2/3 innings in Florida, Scherzer allowed nine hits (two homers), six runs and three walks, and recorded 20 strikeouts for a 3.95 ERA.
Bold prediction: Victor Robles wins Gold Glove Award
It was only two seasons ago that Robles was a finalist for the 2019 Gold Glove Award in center field. Last year, he added 15 pounds of muscle and his defensive assets were impacted. He went from leading all outfielders in outs above average in ‘19 to ranking 23rd in ‘20. Robles spent the offseason working on his speed and athleticism, and the results already have been evident this spring with impressive plays in center field.