Washington Nationals Enter Spring Training 2020 With Voids to Fill

Rendon Infield
The Nationals enter life post-Anthony Rendon, which means reconfiguring the infield and top of the lineup. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Well that was fast! The Washington Nationals are back, and it’s time for them to begin their title defense. With that said, here’s a look at what’s changed since they last took the field and the questions they’ll need to answer.

The Outgoing

Including 2019 statistics with Nationals

  • SP Jeremy Hellickson: 2–3, 6.23 ERA, 9 games (8 starts), 39 innings, 30 strikeouts
  • RP Fernando Rodney: 0–3, 2 saves, 4.05 ERA, 38 games, 33.1 innings, 35 strikeouts
  • RP Jonny Venters: 0–1, 5.40 ERA, 3 games, 3.1 innings, 5 strikeouts
  • 1B Matt Adams: 111 games (310 at bats), .226 average, 20 home runs, 42 runs, 56 RBIs
  • 2B Brian Dozier: 135 games (416 at bats), .238 average, 20 home runs, 54 runs, 50 RBIs
  • 3B Anthony Rendon: 146 games (545 at bats), .319 average, 34 home runs, 117 runs, 126 RBIs
  • OF Gerardo Parra: 89 games (188 at bats), .250 average, 8 home runs, 30 runs, 42 RBIs

Hellickson and Venters fell to injury early in their tenures, but the rest played important roles at various points in the season. However, Rendon was the only player from this group to contribute on much of any level in the postseason, and his loss will loom large more on that later.

The Incoming

Including 2019 stats

  • RP Ryne Harper: 4–2, 1 save, 3.81 ERA, 61 games, 54.1 innings, 50 strikeouts
  • RP Will Harris: 4–1, 4 saves, 1.50 ERA, 68 games, 60 innings, 62 strikeouts
  • 1B Eric Thames: 149 games (396 at bats), .247 average, 25 home runs, 67 runs, 61 RBIs
  • 2B Starlin Castro: 162 games (636 at bats), .270 average, 22 home runs, 68 runs, 86 RBIs

I’d expect all four to receive considerable playing time this season. None of them replace Rendon, but they’ll almost certainly get more out of Harper than Venters, Harris is a major upgrade over Rodney, Thames is a better version of Adams, and Castro will at least be more consistent at the plate than Dozier and I’ll explain later why he has a chance to be a major contributor.

The Up and Coming

Including 2019 minor league stats

  • SP Ben Braymer (AA/AAA): 4–10, 4.53 ERA, 26 starts, 139 innings, 116 strikeouts
  • C Tres Barrera (AA): 101 games (357 at bats), .249 average, 8 home runs, 42 runs, 46 RBIs
  • C Raudy Read (AAA): 82 games (306 at bats), .275 average, 20 home runs, 52 runs, 60 RBIs
  • INF Carter Kieboom (AAA): 109 games (412 at bats), .303 average, 16 home runs, 79 runs, 79 RBIs

There’s a good chance that Kieboom will be the Nationals’ most widely-discussed and closely-analyzed player during spring training. The current plan is for him to take over Rendon’s third base job, and since he’s the team’s top prospect, the bar is set high. In his brief debut early last season, he didn’t live up to those expectations, but let’s face it; he was only three years removed from high school and hadn’t even played a full season in the upper minors (AA and AAA). Not everyone develops as quickly as Juan Soto.

Aside from Kieboom, the Read/Barrera duo might be the most intriguing prospect tandem on the 40-man roster. Consider Read a very, very poor man’s Gary Sanchez, whereas Barrera is the prototypical defensive-minded backup catcher. That comp for Read is admittedly a stretch, but the general skill set decent hitting for average, significant power potential, a strong throwing arm, and underdeveloped pitch framing/blocking ability matches up, even if not to the same extent. As for Barrera, if he can hit, he’ll play.

Non-Roster Invitees

I won’t bore you with analysis of players that find themselves stuck between AAA and the big leagues for whatever reason, but as always, this year’s crop will get plenty of run during spring training games. Here’s this season’s group of players who are looking to make names for themselves:

There are a lot of players with at least some major league experience in this group. However, aside from a breakout performer that might emerge, the guy to watch is definitely Luis Garcia the organization’s unanimous top prospect, excluding Kieboom. He’s coming off a somewhat disappointing AA campaign offensively, but he’s only 19 years old and already an advanced defender up the middle of the infield he was awarded as Washington’s minor league defensive player of the year. Of equal importance, he had a cameo appearance in the Arizona Fall League this offseason in which he fared much better at the plate, to the tune of a .276 batting average and .345 on-base percentage.

On the pitching side, the top prospect of this crop is Wil Crowe. According to the most updated MLB.com rankings, the 2017 second-round draft pick is Washington’s fourth-best prospect just behind Garcia and sandwiched between the team’s first-round pitchers from the last two years. He features four average-to-above pitches, including a fastball that tops out at 95 MPH and average-to-above control. He hit his first rough patch during his late-season elevation to AAA, but his initial struggle after a promotion isn’t atypical of his minor league track record. In many respects, he’s very similar to Austin Voth, and most experts believe that he should become a fourth or fifth starter in the near future.

Historically, there has been at least one minor league invitee every year who wound up making the team’s Opening Day roster. Last year, that was Jake Noll. This year, it seems like that player would have to be a relief pitcher — barring an injury or the possible yet unforeseen decision to move on from Michael A. Taylor. My early prediction is right-hander Kevin Quackenbush, who struck out 85 batters against 16 walks over 58.2 innings for AAA Oklahoma City (Dodgers). However, Emilio Bonifacio provides extreme versatility that could become valuable, especially if concerns about the infielders rise.

Fifth Starter

Frankly, this has been a fairly unresolved hole for the last few years. Guys like Hellickson have been marred by injuries and often unavailable, while the A.J. Coles of the world haven’t lived up to their billing.

Technically, this is a three-way competition, but it’s more likely down to two candidates — sorry, Erick Fedde.

  • Joe Ross: 4–4, 5.48 ERA, 27 games (9 starts), 64 innings, 57 strikeouts
    • Post-All Star break: 4–3, 3.83 ERA, 10 games (9 starts), 49.1 innings, 45 strikeouts
  • Austin Voth: 2–1, 3.30 ERA, 9 games (8 starts), 43.2 innings, 44 strikeouts

Joe Ross has the advantage of veteranship, but Austin Voth was marginally more effective in 2019 — in my estimation, Ross hadn’t rediscovered himself post-Tommy John surgery at the beginning of the season. Ross was the one who Dave Martinez trusted to start Game Five of the World Series, but Voth has more frequently capitalized on the opportunities he’s been given.

They’re both out of minor league options, so they’ll almost certainly make the roster one way or another. My hunch is that Ross will be named the starter, Voth will become predominantly a multi-inning reliever, and Fedde will be sent to the minors until he’s needed. Regardless, they should all receive their fair share of appearances this spring, because the workloads of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin will undoubtedly have to be monitored after their heavy usage during the postseason — plus, Anibal Sanchez (who will be 36 years old) might also need to take it slow.

Bullpen Roles

This gets tricky, but it’s stronger than last year. Here’s what the existing — pre-cut down — bullpen looks like, including each player’s production from last season.

  • Aaron Barrett: 0–0, 0.00 ERA, 2 games, 0.1 innings, 0 strikeouts
  • James Bourque: 0–0, 54.00 ERA, 1 game, 0.2 innings, 0 strikeouts
  • Sean Doolittle: 6–5, 29 saves, 4.05 ERA, 63 games, 60 innings, 66 strikeouts
  • Roenis Elias (full season): 4–2, 14 saves, 3.96 ERA, 48 games, 50 innings, 47 strikeouts
  • Erick Fedde: 4–2, 4.50 ERA, 21 games (12 starts), 78 innings, 41 strikeouts
  • Ryne Harper: 4–2, 1 save, 3.81 ERA, 61 games, 54.1 innings, 50 strikeouts
  • Will Harris: 4–1, 4 saves, 1.50 ERA, 68 games, 60 innings, 62 strikeouts
  • Daniel Hudson (with Nationals): 3–0, 6 saves, 1.44 ERA, 24 games, 25 innings, 23 strikeouts
  • Kyle McGowin: 0–0, 1 save, 10.13 ERA, 7 games (1 start), 16 innings, 18 strikeouts
  • Tanner Rainey: 2–3, 3.91 ERA, 52 games, 48.1 innings, 74 strikeouts
  • Hunter Strickland (with Nationals): 2–0, 5.14 ERA, 24 games, 21 innings, 15 strikeouts
  • Wander Suero: 6–9, 1 save, 4.54 ERA, 78 games, 71.1 innings, 81 strikeouts
  • Austen Williams: 0–0, 162.00 ERA, 2 games, 0.1 innings, 1 strikeout

With rosters expanded to 26, the Nationals will be carrying 13 pitchers one of the spelled-out rules that I’m not particularly fond of. I feel comfortable saying Bourque, McGowin, and Williams are major long shots to make the Opening Day roster, and I doubt the organization would prefer to throw Fedde into that role initially either.

Doolittle, Harris, and Hudson will anchor the back of the bullpen in some order. My hunch is that they’d like to give Elias and Strickland both of whom they traded for at last year’s deadline another chance. That leaves openings for two of Barrett, Harper, Rainey, and Suero. They all have at least one remaining minor league option year Barrett and Suero have two, and Harper still has all three. I would rank their odds as follows, although it will likely be fluid this spring:

  1. Rainey (most dominant)
  2. Suero (on par with Rainey last year until workload became a major factor)
  3. Harper (slightly more dependable, but less flashy)
  4. Barrett (still has to prove himself and likely can’t pitch back-to-back days)

The Infield

I would shrink this to third base, but there are so many moving pieces that I don’t think it’s that simple. A lot is up in the air, except for shortstop — although even that position has questions, namely who the backup will be.

On paper, Eric Thames and Howie Kendrick form a logical platoon at first base, Carter Kieboom can be the everyday third baseman, Starlin Castro takes most of the second base reps, and Asdrubal Cabrera becomes a backup at all four spots. But that feels too good to be true from a strategic perspective.

Thames could easily become an everyday starter against right-handed pitching, but Kendrick was a borderline elite hitter last year, and was even strong against righties. However, his day-to-day health is always up in the air, and wearing him out from too many reps wouldn’t be wise. I haven’t even mentioned Ryan Zimmerman yet.

There’s also no certainty that Kieboom will be ready — to start every day or even to play at the big league level. That would bump Castro and Cabrera’s play time up, and it would likely also require Kendrick to play a bit at second or third.

I don’t think who plays where is necessarily set in stone, either. Kieboom profiles as a third baseman, but he hasn’t gotten much work anywhere other than shortstop — and the returns at that position aren’t great. Cabrera is currently his backup, but the Nationals didn’t use him on the left side of the infield last year. So then is it Castro? He played a handful of games at third last year — I’m being facetious; 45 games is a solid sample — but that was the first time he’d done so in his career.

Backup Outfield

In all likelihood, Taylor — who is out of minor league options — will remain on the roster. That’s a blessing and a curse. He has great value as a defender and pinch runner, but his bat is hard to count on — to put it lightly. That’s likely part of why the team gave quite a few veteran outfielders  — not to mention late-bloomer Yadiel Hernandez — camp invites.

Ideally, the Nationals would prefer to not keep someone to strictly be a fifth outfielder. In a perfect world, one of the infielders — most likely Thames, but possibly Kendrick  — could be called upon at a moment’s notice without causing any true concern. But that will have to be tested over the next month.

The Lineup

Most years, teams poach a few of the champions’ top players. For the most part, the Nationals avoided that. The trouble is the one they lost: Anthony Rendon, considered by many to be a top 10 player in the league. How do they fill the three hole in their lineup?

It sounds as if the initial plan — or at least a new one that Martinez wants to explore — is moving leadoff hitter Trea Turner to that slot, which would likely bump Victor Robles to one of the top two places in the order.

Kendrick is another possibility, although an everyday player seems more ideal for the position. Nonetheless, his production definitely is worthy, and they may be able to slide Thames into the void when he sits. 

Otherwise, Starlin Castro seems like a relatively safe option with more upside than you might think. His production dipped a bit last year, but he altered his swing late in the season, and the results look very favorable.

  • Pre-All Star break: 351 at bats, .245 average, 19 extra-base hits (6 home runs)
  • Post-All Star break: 285 at bats, .302 average, 38 extra-base hits (16 home runs)

There are two reasons why I think this could withstand the test of time:

  1. He has a .280 career batting average over 10 seasons and has eclipsed .300 three teams, including as recently as 2017.
  2. The change he made added more of an upper cut, which aligns with the vision of hitting coach Kevin Long.

Both of these characteristics also sound eerily similar to other recent second basemen — Daniel Murphy and Howie Kendrick.

The Process

Spring training may not ultimately count for anything, and for many veterans, it’s simply a time to run through the motions and get back into regular season form. But for other players — and the coaching staff — it’s a very important experimental period. 

I’ll be keeping a keen eye on all of these battles and any others that may emerge. If Washington wants to truly defend its World Series title, the team will need to shore up each of these areas. It all starts on Saturday at 6 pm against the Astros — go figure!

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