Washington Nationals Batting Order Begins to Take Shape

Victor Robles leading off has been among the most notable developments during Spring Training. (Photo: Elsa/Getty Images)

We all knew that adding Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber while losing Adam Eaton and Asdrubal Cabrera (among others) would result in a reconstructed Nationals batting order. They lost some decent all-around hitters and added sluggers, bolstering their thump but sacrificing some on-base potential and overall consistency.

It’s still early in Spring Training, but some lineup patterns have become clear.

Victor Robles Leading Off

Trea Turner has been Washington’s leadoff hitter for the bulk of his career, but losing Eaton – the typical No. 2 hitter – opens up a hole for Robles to move up.

It might not stick as Opening Day approaches, but Robles has led off each of the four games he’s played in. He’s also seen some success in doing so. In 12 plate appearances, he’s reached base five times – although he only has one hit – and swiped three bases.

So far in his career, Robles has thrived as a leadoff hitter. In 94 plate appearances, he’s sporting a stellar .306 batting average with an OPS+ of 140 (meaning 40% better than league-average).

Trea Turner in the Middle

As Robles has moved to the top, Turner has slid down. In three appearances, he has batted third twice – with Robles leading off both times.

The three hole isn’t a spot Turner has much experience in – 19 plate appearances, to be exact. But the strides he took as an all-around hitter last season suggest that he’s capable of making the move. He had career-highs in on-base percentage (.394) and slugging (.588) last year, his RBI rate skyrocketed (one every 6.3 plate appearances), and his .335 batting average was only slightly topped by his 73-game cameo in 2016.

His lineup placement may revert back to the norm once the season starts, but there are reasons to keep Turner in the three hole – more on that shortly.

Juan Soto Bumped Up

He’s only played in two games, but Soto has batted once apiece in the second and third spots in the lineup. He primarily hit third last year, but the bulk of his plate appearances (663, or 49% of them) throughout his career have come in the cleanup spot.

Soto obviously hits well regardless of what slot he bats in. Nonetheless, he’s had more success hitting second than third in roughly the same number of opportunities. In terms of OPS, it isn’t substantial (.877 and .846, respectively). However, that statistic is heavily skewed by walks. Soto’s batting average and slugging percentage in the two hole (.291 and .477) are notably higher than when he bats third (.231 and .441).

Whereas Turner might not stay where he’s been this spring, Soto is likely to stay in one of these two positions – and possibly both, if platoon splits dictate where other players hit against various pitchers.

Josh Bell Hits Cleanup

Bell has played in four games this spring, and he’s batted fourth in all of them. Results have been favorable so far – four hits, three for extra bases, and two walks in 11 plate appearances. It’s also the spot he predominantly hit from in Pittsburgh (1,280 of 2,191 plate appearances), and he was highly-productive in it (.831 OPS).

There’s little doubt that this will be where he bats throughout this season. The only question is whether he’ll be an everyday hitter.

Kyle Schwarber’s Role is Unclear

Schwarber’s likely placement is much tougher to gauge. In four games, he’s batted second once, third once and fifth twice. He also has experience (444 plate appearances, more than any other spot) as a leadoff hitter.

He’s actually had the most success as a cleanup hitter (1.011 OPS), but he hasn’t been too shabby in the two hole, either (.845). He’s been slightly better fifth (.790) than leadoff (.762), and he’s only logged 44 plate appearances batting third.

Truthfully, these numbers don’t mean as much as his platoon splits (vs. left-handed pitching and right-handed pitching). We’ll discuss that later on.

So is Starlin Castro’s

Through three games, Castro has batted second once and sixth twice. He’s succeeded in both roles so far, with three singles in his seven plate appearances.

Throughout his 11-year career, Castro has been fairly evenly-deployed anywhere from Nos. 2–5 in the lineup, with similar results as a hitter. However, he’s been sprinkled everywhere at various points. In his debut with the Nationals in 2020, he almost exclusively hit third, between Eaton and Soto.

The Gomes/Avila Split

It’s too soon to assume much in this race, but Alex Avila has been slightly better than Yan Gomes at the plate thus far. But again, they haven’t played much – Avila has started twice, catching once; Gomes has played three times, twice as a catcher.

To no surprise, Avila caught Max Scherzer, and Gomes was the backstop behind Patrick Corbin and less-experienced pitchers. As I stated in a recent article

“…[Avila] has caught Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester at various points in their careers. Kurt Suzuki was Scherzer’s primary catcher over the last two seasons, and no one has caught more of Scherzer’s major league starts than Avila, so that pairing seems likely to re-emerge in 2021. On the flip side, Corbin has thrown to Gomes in the overwhelming majority of his starts for Washington.

Filling in the gaps, logic seems to indicate that Strasburg and Ross – or whoever wins the fifth starting gig – will generally pitch to Gomes, while Lester sticks with Avila…”

The other projected starters haven’t pitched yet, so those pairings will be worth monitoring going forward.

They’ve each hit between fifth and seventh each time they’ve played so far this spring.

Carter Kieboom Stays Low

So far, Kieboom has batted fifth, seventh and eighth (twice) this spring. He has two hits – a single and a triple – in 10 plate appearances.

It’s worth noting that he started all four of those games. Yet, even in lineups that haven’t featured the entire starting lineup, he hasn’t broken into the top half of the lineup at any point.

Nearly half (81 out of 165) of his career plate appearances have come batting seventh. He’s exceeded his overall career production in that position – not that it’s been great – and that’ll probably keep him there.

The Initial Lineup

Although it doesn’t align with my previous prediction, based strictly on usage this spring, here’s what we’re likely to see most often this season:

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

However, it’s probably not what fans should expect to see consistently – if at all – for various reasons.

Bench is Gaining Clarity

The players at the top of the depth chart weren’t really up for debate, but there were some questions about the bench. Here’s what’s materialized this spring:

  • Ryan Zimmerman: three games (all starts), 3-for-7 (two home runs, double), walk, strikeout
  • Josh Harrison: three games (all starts), 4-for-9 (home run, double, two singles), strikeout, stolen base
  • Andrew Stevenson: five games (four starts), 4-for-14 (all singles), walk, three strikeouts, 1-for-2 on stolen base attempts

There’s one spot that remains unclear, though. Neither Yadiel Hernandez nor Luis Garcia have started often – which is typically the indicator of whether players are viewed as roster favorites at this stage of camp. They’ll remain in the mix, but so will Gerardo Parra, who hasn’t played yet this spring due to injury.

About Those Platoons…

The only case in which player splits will likely affect who’s in the lineup on a given day is at first base.

  • Josh Bell: vs. RHP: .845 career OPS; vs. LHP: .725
  • Ryan Zimmerman: vs. RHP: . 786; vs. LHP: .917

I don’t subscribe to the idea that platoon production should dictate who plays 100% of the time. Generally, the best overall players should be the ones who play, just with their placement in the batting order perhaps altered. In some cases, good hitters are used to being part-time players. But typically, benching good players just because they struggle in situations disrupts their rhythm and keeps them from fully developing.

With that said, Zimmerman has proven himself as a very productive hitter. Bell will play every day against right-handed pitchers, but Zimmerman will draw starts against lefties, especially if Bell struggles against them initially.

So far this spring, Bell is 0-for-2 against lefties. Unless that changes, Zimmerman will start against them.

Aside from that, platoons will dictate who bats in what spots in the lineup. On the surface, that appears to be most relevant for Robles, Schwarber and Castro.

Here’s what Nationals fans could see if platoons come into play heavily:

Vs. Right-Handed Pitchers

  1. Schwarber
  2. Turner
  3. Soto
  4. Bell
  5. Gomes/Avila
  6. Castro
  7. Kieboom
  8. Pitcher
  9. Robles

Vs. Left-Handed Pitchers

  1. Robles
  2. Turner
  3. Soto
  4. Bell/Zimmerman
  5. Castro
  6. Schwarber
  7. Gomes/Avila
  8. Kieboom
  9. Pitcher

Dave Martinez admittedly might not feel that progressive. He might prefer to keep Turner leading off. He also hasn’t used Turner in the two hole this spring. But it’s a spot he’s fairly familiar with (510 plate appearances, mostly in 2018).

Davey might lead Turner off and flip Robles/Schwarber to second – even though the latter would stack three consecutive left-handed hitters from Nos. 2–4.

Either way, the rest of the lineup should look roughly as outlined above.

Other Notes

Not all of the more prominent players have taken the field yet, and even the ones that have might not have done so enough for there to be any significant takeaways. Nonetheless, here’s what we’ve seen so far:

  • Starting Pitchers
    • Max Scherzer (Friday): 1.2 innings, one hit, two walks, two earned runs, two strikeouts
    • Patrick Corbin (Saturday): two innings, two hits, no walks, one earned run, three strikeouts
    • Erick Fedde (Sunday and Wednesday): two innings, four hits, three walks, four earned runs, two strikeouts
    • Austin Voth (Monday and Friday): 2.1 innings, four hits, no walks, two earned runs, two strikeouts
  • Yet to debut: Joe Ross (scheduled for Monday); Stephen Strasburg (potentially Tuesday)
  • Bullpen: To be discussed later
  • Pitching prospect appearances: Jackson Rutledge (No. 1, per MLB.com); Cade Cavalli (No. 2, No. 99 in the league); Cole Henry (No. 3); Seth Romero (No. 7); Matt Cronin (No. 8); Joan Adon (No. 14); Ben Braymer (No. 22)
  • Luis Garcia: three games (one start), 3-for-9 (double, two singles), four walks
    • Likely opening season in the minor leagues
  • Hitting prospect appearances: Drew Mendoza (No. 9); Yasel Antuna (No. 10); Israel Pineda (No. 12); Tres Barrera (No. 17); Jackson Cluff (No. 18); Raudy Read (No. 28)

Upcoming Schedule

Here’s Washington’s slate for next week:

  • Monday: vs. Mets, 1:05 p.m.
  • Tuesday: at Astros, 6:05 p.m.
  • Wednesday: vs. Cardinals, 1:05 p.m.
  • Thursday: at Marlins, 1:05 p.m.
  • Friday: off day

Keep up with the latest Nationals news by following @stephen_newman1 and @CapitalNewsman on Twitter.

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