5 key questions facing the Nationals

October 12th, 2021

Between injuries, megatrades and Minor League callups, the Nationals concluded the 2021 season looking drastically different than they did on Opening Day. After finishing the year 65-97 and fifth place in the National League East, the Nats have key areas of their roster to address this offseason. Let’s take a look at five questions facing Washington.

How will the starting rotation be completed?
The Nationals opened the 2021 season with a starting rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Jon Lester and Joe Ross. Scherzer and Lester were traded at the Deadline, Strasburg and Ross were sidelined by season-ending injuries and Corbin posted a league-high ERA. Erick Fedde and Paolo Espino stepped into the rotation before the Nationals acquired Josiah Gray, turned to Sean Nolin for five starts and added Josh Rogers into the mix in September. They ended the season with Joan Adon, their No. 22 prospect per MLB Pipeline, starting in his Major League debut.

The key to the Nationals’ starting rotation in 2022 will be health. Strasburg is slated to begin throwing the first week of November, and he and Ross are expected to be ready for the start of Spring Training. The Nats will have to be mindful of their innings, given how little both have pitched in the last two seasons combined. At the same time, Washington needs its starters to go deeper into games. Its bullpen was taxed this season as starters were often pulled after the third or fourth frames.

“For 11 years when we were a championship-caliber club, we had starting pitchers that led the league in innings pitched and strikeouts and wins,” general manager Mike Rizzo said on the final day of the season. “And that’s how we built our championship-caliber clubs, and that formula’s not changing.”

In addition to free agent targets, Rogers will compete for a spot, and Adon offered a glimpse of what he’s capable of in the Majors. All eyes will be on the trajectory of Cade Cavalli after the Nats’ top prospect led all Minor Leaguers in strikeouts this season.

“I think it’s a reasonable expectation that Strasburg and Patrick and Ross have to pitch more effectively and more often for us to quicken this reboot,” Rizzo said. “But this thing is built on starting pitching, starting pitching depth, and that’s what we’re trying to obtain via free agency, the Draft, trades and that type of thing, like we have in the past.”

How will the bullpen be enhanced?
Like the starting rotation, the bullpen had a major shakeup: Daniel Hudson and closer Brad Hand were traded, Will Harris was shut down for the season in May, Tanner Rainey struggled amid injuries and Kyle Finnegan was appointed as closer.

After the Trade Deadline overhaul, the Nationals juggled needing to cover innings (220 2/3 of the bullpen’s 566 2/3 innings were thrown in the last 30 days of the season alone) with working in players who still were developing on the Major League level. Their relievers led all of baseball with 42 losses and tied with the D-backs for a NL-high 5.08 ERA on the season.

Some of the questions the Nationals will address in regard to the bullpen are the roles of Fedde and Espino (starter vs. reliever), how much Harris will be able to contribute (he has been throwing and is expected to be ready for Spring Training) and who will earn the role of closer, which could come from free agency.

“I’d love to run a guy out there in the ninth inning where you know that when he comes in, the game is over. I think that’s the goal of every team,” Rizzo said. “But I think that the bullpen as a whole is more important than one specific person to pitch one specific inning. … It’s always part of the puzzle that you have to put together, and oftentimes it’s the most difficult.”

Who will play center field?
Two years ago, Victor Robles was a Gold Glove Award finalist in center field. This season, he finished the year in Triple-A after struggling to find consistency. The Trade Deadline acquisition of Lane Thomas gave the Nationals depth at the position, and Thomas earned the starting role by impressing with his defense, speed and bat in the leadoff spot.

Manager Dave Martinez has said several times that Robles is part of the Nats’ future. Robles finished the season strong by batting .301 with 25 hits, 14 runs scored, four homers, eight doubles, eight RBIs, six stolen bases and a .936 OPS across 23 games with the Rochester Red Wings. That was a boost from slashing .203/.310/.295 with a .605 OPS in 107 games for Washington. Thomas, meanwhile, slashed .270/.364/.489 with 48 hits, 33 runs scored, 14 doubles, seven home runs and 27 RBIs after joining the Nats.

“Lane has been terrific for us,” Rizzo said. “His skill set was as advertised by our scouts when we scouted him. … As far as Victor goes, Victor’s a terrific player with a great skill set himself. He’s a young player that we feel has got his best days ahead of us. What does Lane Thomas’ success mean for Victor Robles? Just that we have another good player on the roster.”

Who will start at third base?
The future of the starting third-base job remains to be seen heading into 2022. Carter Kieboom could have the opportunity in Spring Training to retain the role, but the Nationals could also pursue other options this offseason. Kieboom, 24, slashed .207/.301/.318 with a .619 OPS, six home runs and 20 RBIs in 62 games in 2021. Defensively, he posted a .958 fielding percentage at the hot corner.

“I think he’s shown flashes offensively of power,” Rizzo said of Kieboom. “He knows his strike zone very, very well. It’s a matter with him of making adjustments. He started off with six quick home runs, the league made an adjustment with him. Now it’s time for him to make an adjustment to the league, and the great ones do it and the average ones don’t.

“So the jury’s still out if he can make those adjustments, but he’s got the skillset and the tools to be a good everyday player in the big leagues. And again, we have to have patience with a player that was a high school Draft [pick].”

Will Ryan Zimmerman play in 2022?
Zimmerman, 37, plans to take time to consider returning for a 17th Major League season. He embraced his job as a backup first baseman this year, batting .243 with 14 homers and 27 runs scored while staying healthy enough to appear in 110 games.

“Do I want to keep playing? I think I can keep playing,” Zimmerman said after the final game of the season. “I think I had a really good year with the role that I was supposed to do. Now it’s a decision of whether I want to keep doing that, or do I want to be around my family a little bit more.”

If Zimmerman opts for retirement, the Nationals will have to address a backup to Josh Bell at first base. Catcher Riley Adams began learning the position, but that was intended for in-game situations this season. If Zimmerman chooses to return, there is a built-in spot for him on the Nats.

"Ryan Zimmerman has a place on this roster as a player as long as Mike Rizzo is the GM,” Rizzo said. “Whenever he wants to take a Major League contract, just call me up and we'll give him one."