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5 questions facing the Nats in 2021

@jessicacamerato
December 31, 2020

After returning most of their roster from 2019 for this past season, the Nationals have significant roles to fill as they build their team for next year. From the corner outfield to the hot corner, pitchers to catchers, there are vacancies to address. Let’s look at five questions facing the

After returning most of their roster from 2019 for this past season, the Nationals have significant roles to fill as they build their team for next year. From the corner outfield to the hot corner, pitchers to catchers, there are vacancies to address. Let’s look at five questions facing the Nats as they enter 2021.

1. Who will be in the starting rotation?
The Nationals can check off the first three spots in the starting rotation with the returning arms of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. Strasburg, whose 2020 season was limited to five innings to undergo carpal tunnel neuritis surgery in his throwing hand, is expected to be ready for Spring Training.

“He's coming along great,” general manager Mike Rizzo said.

That leaves the fourth and fifth starter spots -- previously filled by free agent Aníbal Sánchez and Austin Voth, who struggled his first year in the role -- as question marks. It is likely for Joe Ross to land one when he returns for 2021 after electing not to play in ‘20. The interest to be named a starting pitcher is mutual between the right-hander and manager Dave Martinez, who said, “I want Joe to be in the rotation.” Voth isn’t ruled out as a returning starter, but the Nats also could explore their options in the trade/free agent market.

2. Will the Nationals add a right or left fielder to the starting lineup?
There is a gap in the Nats’ lineup after they declined their club option on right fielder Adam Eaton and he signed with the White Sox. The team has flexibility as to how they fill that vacancy thanks to the defensive versatility of Juan Soto. The 22-year-old has experience playing both corners of the outfield, and Martinez experimented with him in right for six games in 2020.

“There was a method to Davey’s madness last year when he put Soto into right field for the last couple of games of the season to see how he would adhere to that,” Rizzo said.

Martinez checked in with Soto, who played right field in the Minor Leagues, after the defensive experiment and got a thumbs up.

“He likes it, he loves it over there, he wants to stay there,” Martinez said of Soto. “I feel comfortable leaving him there. But he said he’s willing to do anything to help this team win. If we got another outfielder that played right field, he’d go back to left field. He’s open to do whatever we need him to do.”

3. Could Ryan Zimmerman return to the Nationals for 2021?
The Nationals acquired Josh Bell from the Pirates to be their starting first baseman, but that move does not rule out a 16th season in Washington for Zimmerman. The 36-year-old elected not to play in 2020, and he became a free agent this offseason. There still is a need for a backup at first to complement the switch-hitting Bell.

“I think that the acquisition of Josh Bell isn’t going to prohibit us from looking for a good right-handed hitter that either comes off the bench or plays multiple positions or something like that,” Rizzo said last week. “We certainly haven’t ruled out a Zim reunion, and that skill set still fits on our roster.”

Zimmerman most recently appeared in 52 games (40 starts at first base) in 2019, when he hit .257 with six home runs.

4. Will Victor Robles have a bounceback season?
A year removed from being named a Gold Glove Award finalist in center field and leading all of baseball in outs above average, Victor Robles’ production dipped in 2020. His quickness was affected by a gain of muscle mass, and his burst -- a way to measure acceleration, the feet covered in any direction in the second 1.5 seconds -- dipped from 1.2 in ‘19 to 0.1. Offensively, he hit .220 in ‘20 compared to .255 a season earlier. Robles is participating in Winter Ball in the Dominican Republic while focusing on improving his agility and speed.

“At his age, I don’t see [him] regressing that quickly,” Rizzo said. “I’m going to put a little bit on preparation, as far as the game plan going into the season. I think the COVID stop-and-go had a lot to do with how he came into camp. Believe me when I say that it’s been a conversation that we’ve had with our strength and conditioning coordinator, our manager and our center fielder on several occasions.”

5. What are the expectations of the rookies in Year Two?
The Nationals' top prospects in 2020 per MLB Pipeline, third baseman Carter Kieboom and second baseman Luis García, saw significant playing time last season. Kieboom was given the opportunity to earn the full-time starting third base job, and he ended up platooning it with veteran Asdrúbal Cabrera as he got acclimated to the role. García’s big league experience was fast-tracked when Starlin Castro underwent season-ending wrist surgery. He started in 35 games after making his Major League debut on Aug. 14 at 20 years old.

Martinez said the hot corner, once again, is Kieboom’s to earn. García’s playing time is likely to be impacted when Castro, who Martinez described as “full-go,” returns to the field.

“I think that they just have to show a year more experience,” Rizzo said. “I think that was their big flaw -- as it is with many, many rookies -- is that you’re a rookie, and you can’t get experience playing in the big leagues other than playing in the big leagues.

“The speed of the game, the length of the games and how focused you have to be for such a long period of time is something that’s a learned experience, in my opinion. I think that it was a big step for both of them -- eye-opening, I think, for both of them -- just to see what the speed of the games are and how difficult it is to grind it out on a daily basis, even though it was a very short season last year. That’s something that they’ll have to build upon for next year.”

Jessica Camerato covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessicacamerato, Facebook and Instagram.