Washington Nationals 2021 Spring Training Primer

Ryan Zimmerman returns in 2021 after a one-year hiatus, but he’ll take on an unfamiliarly reduced role. (Photo: Getty Images)

Spring Training is underway across Major League Baseball, and that means the newest iteration of the Washington Nationals is beginning to take form. Most of their key pieces from last year’s team will be back in 2021, but that wasn’t a season that returned many fond memories.

New Players

The roster will look much the same as it did last year, only with hopes that players will stay healthier and/or perform closer to their standards and overall expectations. Nonetheless, there are some new faces that merit a brief introduction.

Starting Pitcher

Jon Lester: The 37-year-old lefty is a former ace, but he’s in the home stretch of his career at this point. Essentially, he’s filling the void left by Anibal Sanchez. The hope is that Lester can rebound from a rough 2020 season and show some signs of his old form, but if nothing else, he provides a veteran presence in Washington’s No. 4 starter position.

Rogelio Armenteros: Don’t expect him to make the Opening Day roster, but the 26-year-old right-hander adds quality depth to the minor league pipeline. The former Astros farmhand has made five big league appearances, but he’s also coming off a significant injury to the elbow of his throwing arm. With the benefit of two remaining minor league options, he’ll likely start the season in AAA Rochester (Washington’s brand new top affiliate), but don’t be surprised if you see him on the Nationals’ active roster at some point this year.

Relief Pitcher

Brad Hand: The Nationals spent a bit of money to bring in the 30-year-old lefty to anchor the back of the bullpen this season. It’s unknown precisely what his role will be more on that later but he has experience as both a starting pitcher and a closer. He’s wracked up 103 saves over the last four seasons, which blows all other relievers in Washington out of the water, so he’s plenty capable of taking the mound in the ninth inning if needed.

Sam Clay: This 27-year-old left-hander is another arm we shouldn’t expect to break camp on the active roster, but he’s a good depth piece. The former Twins prospect has yet to make his Major League debut, nor had he ever been on a 40-man roster prior to signing with the Nationals. The good news is that means he has plenty of flexibility to be sent to the minors until he’s needed at the highest level.

Catcher

Alex Avila: The 34-year-old veteran shows up in Washington after a disappointing season by his standards (.184 batting average with one home run in 49 at bats). However, he’s been a league-average hitter throughout his 12-year career up to this point, and he’s even been an All Star in the past (2011). Perhaps most importantly, he has experience catching a few of the Nationals’ starting pitchers (Max Scherzer: 2010-14; Jon Lester: 2017; Patrick Corbin: 2018). He’ll presumably be the team’s No. 2 catcher this season, replacing free agent departure Kurt Suzuki.

First Base

Josh Bell: Arguably the most significant acquisition Washington made this offseason, the 28-year-old switch-hitting slugger was added via trade from the Pirates on Christmas Eve, at the cost of pitching prospects Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean. Once a top-flight prospect, Bell hasn’t entirely lived up to expectations thus far in his career, but there’s undeniable upside. Halfway through 2019, he was legitimately in MVP conversations, and his 86 home runs and 309 RBIs in 552 games (the equivalent of 3.4 full seasons) makes him a clear middle-of-the-order bat for the Nationals.

Outfield

Kyle Schwarber: Truthfully, he’s not a lot different than Bell, but he came at an affordable one-year rate in free agency. The 27-year-old lefty was once a prized possession as a catcher in the Cubs’ organization, but injuries eventually relegated him to left field. He’s essentially a “three true outcomes” hitter (home run, strikeout, or walk) and he’s coming off a career-worst .188 batting average last season, but he’s significantly out-slugged Bell thus far in his career (121 home runs in 551 games, nearly 36 per 162 games). He’ll hit in the same neighborhood of the lineup as Bell.

Top Camp Battles

In terms of battles for Opening Day roster spots and play time, here’s what remains up in the air entering Spring Training games, which will begin for Washington on Sunday afternoon.

Fifth Starter

The big three starters from the last two years are back in 2021, and Lester is also a roster lock. After opting out of last season, Joe Ross returns as the frontrunner for the remaining spot in the starting rotation. Erick Fedde also has a solid case, and Austin Voth remains on the periphery of the race.

Closer

It’s tough to handicap who the leader is here. Daniel Hudson held the closer position last year, but free agent signee Brad Hand is the most experienced in the role. Will Harris isn’t a stranger to the ninth inning either, and Tanner Rainey was Washington’s top performer out of the bullpen last year.

Middle Relief

All four of the above relief pitchers will make the Opening Day roster. That leaves room for four more arms. Voth is out of minor league options, so he likely makes the team in some capacity likely the bullpen. Fellow right-handers Wander Suero and Kyle Finnegan also seem to be safe. Ryne Harper, Kyle McGowin and Dakota Bacus are among the top contenders for the final roster spot, unless the Nationals turn to a non-roster invitee like Javy Guerra or Jeremy Jeffress (who just signed with the team yesterday, pending a physical).

Catcher

This is strictly a discussion of how much each man plays. Over the last two seasons, Yan Gomes had split time pretty equally with Kurt Suzuki. With the latter replaced by Avila, there will be more reps available for Gomes. The goal is for Gomes to play 100 games, which would eclipse his 97 appearances in 2019 and even that was aided by an injury to Suzuki. Only time will tell whether that goal becomes a reality.

First Base

Again, this is simply a matter of how much each of them play. Josh Bell was acquired to be the starter, and he’s even a switch hitter. Still, the elder statesman Ryan Zimmerman will likely draw his share of work, especially against left-handed pitching. In all likelihood, Bell will start around 130 games with Zimmerman primarily serving as a pinch hitter. It sounds strange, but get used to it.

Infield

Yes, I know first base is part of the infield, but it essentially stands on its own. There are some questions at the other spots. Trea Turner is obviously the top shortstop, and Starlin Castro will presumably retain his role as the go-to second baseman. The questions center around third base, the backup spots, and the state of Washington’s top prospects Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia, although they technically exceeded the allowable big league service time to be considered rookies anymore.

The initial word is that Kieboom the elder of the two young assets will have every opportunity to win the third base job. Garcia is broadly viewed as a better defender, and he actually slightly outhit Kieboom last season not that either had overall success at the plate. However, he’s only logged 298 innings at the hot corner in the minor leagues, and none in the majors. Based on experience at the position alone, Kieboom has the upper hand, and there’s an argument that Garcia may need more minor league seasoning anyway. Utility man Josh Harrison has also played a substantial amount of time at third base in his career, including more than a handful of starts for the Nationals last year.

Bench

Avila, Zimmerman, Harrison and outfielder Andrew Stevenson are each near locks to make the roster as bench bats. That likely leaves a spot for one of Garcia, Jake Noll, Yadiel Hernandez or a non-roster invitee to camp with the presumable leader of that group being outfielder Gerardo Parra, who recently re-signed with the Nationals after playing overseas for a season.

Lineup Discussion

The Nationals enter this season with some hitters from near the top of last year’s order no longer on the team. Adam Eaton signed with the White Sox, Howie Kendrick retired, Asdrubal Cabrera joined the Diamondbacks, and Kurt Suzuki reunited with Anthony Rendon on the Angels. Aside from needing to fill their roles on the roster, Washington needs to reconfigure the heart of their lineup.

Here’s one of the lineups you’ll likely see the team try this spring.

  1. SS Trea Turner (R)
  2. 2B Starlin Castro (R)
  3. RF Juan Soto (L)
  4. 1B Josh Bell (S)
  5. LF Kyle Schwarber (L)
  6. C Yan Gomes (R)
  7. 3B Carter Kieboom (R)
  8. Pitcher
  9. CF Victor Robles (R)

In terms of where players best profile, this seems like the most logical configuration. Castro is a top of the order type, Bell and Schwarber are the next best sluggers, and Robles seems like a seamless fit as an extra leadoff hitter at the bottom of the lineup.

There are also pitfalls to that batting order, particularly how crowded it is with lefties in the middle. Here’s a way to break that up a bit.

  1. Trea Turner
  2. Kyle Schwarber
  3. Starlin Castro
  4. Juan Soto
  5. Josh Bell
  6. Yan Gomes
  7. Victor Robles
  8. Carter Kieboom
  9. Pitcher

Soto is better suited as a middle of the order bat, so Schwarber’s power and on-base potential can be moved up top instead. Either way, Castro is the most deserving option to split up the lefties. Robles may also slot ahead of Kieboom, especially if Dave Martinez opts against using the centerfielder as the No. 9 hitter.

Play Ball

None of these questions will be answered right away, but we’ll get a better sense of where players stack up against each other once Spring Training games start. The first week of games is as follows.

  • Sunday, February 28: at Cardinals, 1:05 p.m.
  • Monday, March 1: vs. Astros, 1:05 p.m.
  • Wednesday, March 3: vs. Marlins, 1:05 p.m.
  • Thursday, March 4: at Mets, 1:10 p.m.
  • Friday, March 5: vs. Cardinals, 6:05 p.m.
  • Saturday, March 6: at Marlins, 1:05 p.m.

Stay tuned for more great content as the regular season approaches. Follow @stephen_newman1 and @CapitalNewsman on Twitter for updates.

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