WASHINGTON -- The Nationals have the chance to become the first team to repeat as World Series champions since the 1998-2000 Yankees. Rather than chasing a title, they are chasing a win -- one game at a time.
Washington's "go 1-0 every day" mentality has not changed. In fact, manager Dave Martinez wants his players to compete at that pace rather than rush through a condensed 60-game regular-season schedule and try to sprint to the playoffs.
Most of the title-winning team is back for the 2020 season, and the Nats are looking to carry the momentum from last October into the next three months.
What needs to go right?
Health is of the essence in a shortened season, especially on a veteran-heavy team. Martinez has noted how an injury that would sideline a player for two months in a traditional season could force them to miss the rest of the 2020 season. Versatility and depth will play major roles in trying to avoid this. The Nationals could have gone with a four-man rotation; instead they will name Erick Fedde or Austin Voth the fifth starter to alleviate the workload of their pitchers, who threw 153 innings last postseason. The roster also was constructed with players who can defend multiple positions, providing flexibility if someone needs rest or an extra day to return from a setback.
The Nationals' bullpen recorded a National League-high 5.68 ERA last regular season. Relievers will be key to their success, and the 30-man roster format for the first two weeks gives them options to carry more pitchers this year. Washington bolstered the back end of its 'pen this winter by adding Will Harris to the duo of Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Whoever does not get the fifth-starter's job between Voth and Fedde could be utilized to address its need for a long reliever. The Nats also went with a pitcher-heavy group at their alternate training site, and they are expected to call upon prospects to contribute out of the bullpen this season.
Prospect to watch
Carter Kieboom, the Nationals' No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline, was tabbed to man the hot corner. This is expected to be Kieboom's first full big league season after he played 11 in the Majors last year, all at shortstop. The Nats tasked the 22-year-old with improving his defense -- specifically his footwork -- during the shutdown. As Kieboom continues to get acclimated with the game on this level, he is expected to share time at third base with veteran Asdrúbal Cabrera. Their assignments could be determined by the opponents' pitching matchups.
On the schedule
The Nats close out the regular season with 10 games in a row against NL East opponents. They begin on the road against the Marlins (Sept. 18-20), then return home to host the Phillies for three games (Sept. 21-23) and Mets for the final four (Sept. 24-27). In a shortened season when every game counts, this stretch of contests vs. fellow playoff contenders could have an impact on the standings.
Team MVP will be …
Twenty-one-year-old Juan Soto is poised to build off a breakthrough sophomore season in 2020. He slashed .282/.401/.548 and hit a team-high-tying 34 home runs in last year. Soto made his mark on the biggest of stages when he belted five homers -- including three in the World Series -- with 14 RBIs and a .927 OPS in the playoffs. More than just an offensive threat, Soto was an NL Gold Glove Award finalist in left field in '19. He has a .992 fielding percentage in hist first two Major League seasons.
Team Cy Young will be ...
Stephen Strasburg is coming off one of the most memorable pitching performances in baseball history. Last year, he became the first player to go 5-0 in the playoffs, and he won the World Series Most Valuable Player Award for his historic accomplishment. Strasburg went 18-6 with a 3.32 in the 2019 regular season, and he led NL pitchers in wins and innings (209). The 32-year-old right-hander is entering his 11th Major League season, all with Washington.
Soto paces the NL in home runs. Statistical leaders could come down to which players fall into slump and which players get into the rhythm of a streak. In only his first postseason experience, Soto proved he was capable of heating up under the pressures of the playoffs -- and winning along the way. If he could hit three homers in the World Series, what's to say he couldn't hit his stride as well this season.