The Washington Nationals came into the 2020 season in the position that all teams wish to be in: defending champions. After a storybook 2019 season, the Nats had a lot of momentum coming into the 2020 season. However, the Nats did not live up to expectations. They finished the season 26-34 and tied for last place in their division. So, what went wrong for the Nats in 2020 and how can they come back stronger in 2021?
The Nationals started off the 2020 season with a string of devastating injuries. Just hours before the first game of the season, star outfielder Juan Soto tested positive for COVID-19, sidelining him for the first eight games of the season and ultimately hindering their playoff chances. When Soto eventually began playing, he was easily the best hitter on the Nats and arguably the best hitter in the league. He finished the season with a batting average of .351, the best batting average of any player in the National League. If Soto had been able to play in the first games of the season, the Nats likely would have started stronger and may have been able to make the playoffs, as they ended the 2020 season just three wins shy of a playoff berth.
The Nats also lost Stephen Strasburg when he was diagnosed with carpal tunnel neuritis in his right wrist, ending his 2020 season after just one start. If Strasburg had stayed healthy, the Nats wouldn’t have had to rely on their inconsistent back-end starter, Austin Voth. The Nats lost second baseman Starlin Castro early in the season to a broken wrist. Up until the point of his injury, Castro had been one of the Nats’ most reliable hitters, with a batting average of .267, which was the best batting average in the Nats’ lineup through the first part of the 2020 season. Even though Castro was the Nats’ best hitter, he was not as good as the Nats were used to. Overall, the Nats have had a great lineup for years, but 2020 was one of the Nats’ worst batting performances. The loss of Castro so early in the season left a major hole in the Nats’ lineup and they were unable to fill it with another reliable hitter.
Although the Nationals were heavily injured in 2020, they still had enough healthy talent to possibly take them to the playoffs. However, many of the Nats’ players regressed during the 2020 season.
One player who deteriorated was first baseman Eric Thames. The Nats signed Thames in the 2019 offseason, hoping for him to put up a consistent batting average and hit for power. Thames’ role on that Nats became even more important once first baseman Ryan Zimmerman opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19. However, Thames had one of the worst years of his career. He ended the year with a career-low batting average of .203 and a career-low slugging percentage of .317.
The Nats’ pitching was also an area where the team seemed to regress, maybe due to the uncertain schedule and the fact that they were not able to warm up for the shortened season. Four out of their five starting pitchers ended the 2020 season with a worse ERA than they had after the 2019 season. Over the last decade, the Nats have been viewed around the league as a team that prioritizes starting pitching, but last season they weren’t able to live up to that expectation. The Nats’ bullpen pitchers also struggled. In 2019, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson were the Nats’ most reliable relievers; however, both Doolittle and Hudson regressed this season, putting up higher ERAs than in 2019. The Nats were never able to rely on their pitching in 2020 and it directly led to the team’s disappointing performance.
While 2020 was a year that the Nats would like to forget, 2020 also saw the crucial development of key players. Both Juan Soto and shortstop Trea Turner had career years, hitting .351 and .335 respectively. Soto and Turner are the future of the Nats’ lineup, and with both of them still under contract for at least the next three years, the Nats just need a little more support in order to have a top-notch lineup.
2020 was also a big year for many of the Nats’ top prospects. Infielder Luis Garcia made his major league debut and outfielder Andrew Stevenson got more consistent playing time towards the end of the season. Garcia, 20, was called up to the majors after Starlin Castro’s injury. Over 40 games, Garcia put up a respectable batting average of .276 with 16 RBIs. Meanwhile, Stevenson, 26, finally got consistent time in the Nats’ lineup. In his fifteen games in 2020, Stevenson put up an impressive batting average of .366 with 12 RBIs.
Like many of the Nats’ other prospects, reliever Tanner Rainey showed great improvement in 2020. Rainey, acquired in the 2018 offseason, has always shown great potential, but he finally lived up to expectations in 2020. Through 20.1 innings of relief, Rainey posted a 2.66 ERA, signaling some stability for the Nats’ bullpen in the years to come.
2020 was certainly a disappointing season for the Nats, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t recover for 2021. First off, the Nats need a new back-end starting pitcher, as Anibal Sanchez is not under contract for 2021 and is not worth bringing back after one of the worst years of his career.
One possible fit in this position could be Taijuan Walker. Walker has been a consistent back-end starter through his six years in the MLB. In addition to Walker, the Nats should also look to bring in left-handed reliever Brad Hand. With Sean Doolittle likely to leave Washington this offseason, the Nats need a new lefty back-end reliever. Hand had a great 2020 season, with a 2.05 ERA through 22 innings of relief. By adding Hand the Nats would add a much needed, consistent lefty-reliever to their bullpen.
The Nats also have plenty of position-player spots to fill. With the departure of outfielders Adam Eaton and Michael Taylor, the Nats have two open spots in their outfield. One of these spots can be filled by Andrew Stevenson, whose exciting 2020 performance has all but confirmed him a spot on the 2021 roster. The other outfield spot could be filled by star free agents Marcell Ozuna or George Springer. But Ozuna and Springer are sure to sign big contracts this offseason. If the Nats decide that it’s best to cut spending in the outfield, former Toronto Blue Jays’ outfielder Kevin Pillar could be a good fit in the Nats’ lineup. Pillar has always been known for his great fielding and in 2020 he took a step forward with his batting, hitting for a career-high batting average of .288. If Pillar’s consistency at the plate can continue, he would be a great addition to the Nats’ outfield.
Finally, the Nats have a vacancy at first base. With Eric Thames and Howie Kendrick both now free agents and Ryan Zimmerman’s future in the MLB in question, the Nats need a first baseman. One possible fit could be veteran first baseman Mitch Moreland. Moreland, 35, has always been known as a solid power hitter who has a good glove in the field.
Although 2020 was a disappointing season for the defending champs, Nats fans should be looking forward to 2021. With some new faces, less injuries and more consistency, the Nats can easily be back in postseason contention.
Alex Gerson ’23