If you have recently read some of my work on this site, you have probably rightly branded me as a pessimist (although I, like many others, have noticed pessimist, prefers the term realist). Call it an evolutionary move, a way to ensure the burden of disappointment does not feel too heavy because I already expected it. Call it a gimmick, as in, the guy who always apologizes for the condition of an organization that recently won a World Series. Call it a habit, as I tend to focus on what might be wrong in sports; there seems to be more content there.
But for our optimistic and neutral readers, it is probably repetitive, sometimes annoying and certainly frustrating. After all, we all see Citizens of Washington trying to make moves to remain competitive in the division and the league as a whole. They have one good roster; I’m just questioning whether they have a good one or not enough list. I’m sure there will be a time in the future when I come back to that question, but today is not that day.
Because, as I mentioned in my previous article, players like Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and now Kyle Schwarber and Josh Bell are all on the same team. For me it is a pretty formidable list, and in another year I probably would not give it so hard. Unfortunately, this is not another year. With all that said, here is my attempt at optimism: I will diligently try to map a path that gives the organization its 2021 roof.
The roof is probably another World Series, especially given the route configuration and merging of talented players. But I will try to be as realistic as possible, which means considering previous criticisms and applying them to this article while still trying to reach a conclusion on how far this team can go. In this thought experiment, it may pay to first decide on a floor.
Getting out of the shortened 2020 season where the Nationals finished tied for fourth place in the division may be a good place to start. But it does not feel quite right. As it turns out, Washington will most likely be better this year than it was last year, if for no other reason than because last year was muted by underachievement, something I do not think will happen for the second season in a row. But, besides that, the list is also better, in my opinion. Although there have been some departures with recent staples, the additions of Schwarber and Bell – and probably another player or two in the future – should more than make up for any losses.
Furthermore, while Miami Marlins surprised everyone last season, the team could look very different in a whole year; I am of the belief that in the end, the Nationals ‘veteran presence may be enough to push them over the edge and obscure other teams’ output. Let’s then assume that Miami finishes in fifth place and establishes the Nationals’ floor as a fourth place team in the division. In that scenario, let’s say they finished 79-83. Not great and certainly a disappointment. I doubt they will sink to this depth.
Let’s find out from the roof. I will notice that when I talk about each player reaching their roof, I do not mean their career roof; I mean their roof in 2021. There is no reason to expect Strasburg or Scherzer to come in and post the best numbers we’ve ever seen from them, but the roof may be in line with what we’ve seen throughout our careers.
Here is the deal. We know how good Soto is. He is a generational player. At this point in his career, FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski says that there are “14 players in major league history with a wRC + of at least 130 in at least a thousand record appearances before their 22-year season,” one of whom is Soto. Szymborski goes on to determine Soto’s closest player: Ted Williams. Big praise. Soto is going to have a good year, anyway – and he’s going to be fine. He is also a player that citizens will sign in the long run, regardless of organizational plans.
Last year, Turner was one of the best hitters in baseball, but was snatched from the All-MLB team. Dodger shortstop Corey Seager knocked him out for a spot on the other team, despite the fact that almost all of Turner’s relevant numbers were higher. Whether Turner will be a top 3 or 4 who hits shortstop in 2021 is not entirely relevant. He will have a great year of piggybacking from the shortened 2020 campaign.
As for the newcomers, Bell and Schwarber, if their total production can produce close to 6 fWAR, I think the front office will be ecstatic. Bell’s highest production came in 2019 when he had 2.5. The only reason it was not higher was because of his terrible defense. I have not heard anything definitive about whether NL will use DH or not, but if they do, Bell’s WAR output may exceed that number in 2019.
As for Schwarber, his highest total came in 2018 when he logged 3.2 fWAR. That year he hit 26 home runs and had a wRC + of 115. If this tandem can generate close to 3 fWAR each, then the Nationals would have been successful with these pickups. I wanted to see them both get closer to the range around 2 WAR each (Bell was -0.4 a year ago, while Schwarber was 0.4).
When it comes to mold, Scherzer has been an elite most of his time in Washington. Last season – a downturn for Mad Max – resulted in a 3.46 FIP and 82 ERA-. He has shown almost no significant signs of regression, which I assumed would be the case before the 2020 campaign. On his way into a season where he will be 37 halfway through, the fall of Scherzer should not be expected to happen this year.
Thanks to the injury, Strasburg started just two games and was not sterling. However, there is no reason to hold it against him. The lifelong Nat turns 33 years old this year, but can easily match his 2019 outputs (3.25 FIP, 5.7 fWAR, 74 ERA-).
Now, for the wild card: Carter Kieboom. He has not received a lot of attention at the main league level, only in 44 games, so it is difficult to come to hard and fast conclusions about his game through statistics. We need more work to do that. He has posted negative fWAR outputs over 2019 and 2020, but in the season’s 23 years we have to wait and see if he can not touch the potential we heard about when he came up through the system. Getting everyday representatives on third base can help him reach the ceiling in 2021.
If citizens are to reach the ceiling, I am of the opinion that the star players must reach their starting levels in the last couple of years. Although not everyone needs career years, it will definitely help the case. If you add a couple more free agents, Washington gets a chance at the division, if not a sustained playoff. Getting to the World Series will still be a big task. In line with my new optimistic mindset, I want to grab the Nationals to get to the National League Championship Series.
To get ahead, it may take some help from others in the NL who do not reach the potential. Each team controls fate to some degree, and if the Nationals play the way they can this season, it’s perfectly within the reach of the NLCS. And I guess if you can get that far, you can do it all the way. I’m reluctant to give this team a World Series berth in this thought experiment, but I see no reason why they can not be number two in the National League.