|Sportsbook||Win NL East||Win NL Pennant||World Series|
|Over/Under Season Win Total: 90.5 (BetOnline)|
Once a city of heartbreak, Washington D.C. is now something of a city of champions. Well, not the Wizards, but the Capitals and Nationals. And who knows? Maybe the DC Defenders! The Nationals emphatically ended a decade of playoff heartbreak with a World Series title. The Nationals had four chances to get past the first round and failed each time, losing the last two times in Game 5. I guess all it took was a first-round win to go all the way.
Washington earned it, man. Of course everybody knows the story, but the Nats were 19-31 through the first 50 games of the season. They won their last eight games of the regular season to ride a big ol’ wave of momentum into the postseason. But, realistically speaking, it was 112 games worth of momentum. The Nationals went 93-69, which means that they went 74-38 after that hellacious start to the season. That is .661 baseball over the last 112 games.
A Wild Card Game win over the Brewers, a Game 5 win on the road over the Los Angeles Dodgers, a four-game sweep of the Cardinals, and then a Game 7 win on the road at Minute Maid Park ended the season with a bang for the Nats. (See what I did there? Yeah you did.)
It wasn’t just the World Series. It was the fact that the Nationals improved by 11 games from 2018 to 2019 with some better fortunes. They also scored 102 more runs than they had the previous season. This wasn’t a flash in the pan World Series champion that got hot at the right time. This was a very good team that underperformed early in the year. A .661 clip over 112 games would equal 107 wins in a full season. Coincidentally, that’s how many wins the team that the Nationals beat in the World Series had.
The question for World Series winners is always the same. How do they follow it up? How do they avoid the World Series hangover? In particular, a Nationals team that had never won a playoff series in franchise history. The 1981 Expos lost in the NLCS, but there was no NLDS at that time.
I’ll be able to talk more about the World Series hangover and what it truly means in the sections of this win total preview because there are a LOT of things it could mean for the Nationals.
Before we get to that point, I’ll echo everything I have said in the write-ups for the Braves, Phillies, and Mets win totals. Those 57 head-to-head games will be tough. The Nationals were able to beat up on the Phillies last season with a 14-5 record, but that was the exception and not the norm for 2019. This division remains a gauntlet. The Marlins are likely to be a punching bag again, but Washington has a challenging path to simply return to the playoffs, let alone make history once again. Washington had 29 of its 44 wins against the Marlins and Phillies, which is to say that they struggled with the Braves and Mets, though Washington did outscore Atlanta despite losing 11 of 19.
It will be another war of attrition in the NL East. The Nationals overcame it last season by playing white-hot baseball for four consecutive months before going 12-5 in the postseason. What does 2020 have in store for the reigning champs?
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+139 (5.30/4.44)|
|3rd Order Win% Record||94.6-67.4|
|Record in One-Run Games||17-21|
|Additions: David Hernandez, Paolo Espino, JB Shuck, Tyler Wilson, Emilio Bonifacio, Kevin Quackenbush, Welington Castillo, Mac Williamson, Tyler Eppler, Carlos Tocci, Eric Thames, Starlin Castro, Will Harris, Fernando Abad, Kyle Finnegan, Ryne Harper|
|Losses: Koda Glover, Anthony Rendon, Brian Dozier, Fernando Rodney, Greg Holland, Jeremy Hellickson, Jonny Venters, Spencer Kieboom, Matt Adams, Hunter McMahon|
It was a fairly quiet offseason for the reigning champs. They’ll have to figure out how to replace Anthony Rendon’s production, but players like that don’t just grow on trees. It will have to be a combined effort from newcomers like Eric Thames and Starlin Castro and the in-house options. With the exceptional second half that Castro had, a 2/12 price tag was really low for his services and the Nationals should be flexible to add at the deadline.
While they didn’t do much this winter and will need some internal options to make up for the loss of Rendon, there wasn’t a whole lot that the Nationals needed to add in order to be in contention for the division and possibly more. Just by adding Will Harris, the bullpen projection is completely different and the rotation is still anchored by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin.
Superutilityman Carter Kieboom is also an in-house option whose flexibility makes him a lot like a free agent, but at the cost of the league minimum.
The biggest question for the Nationals this season is how far the offense falls without Anthony Rendon. As far as I’m concerned, the pitching staff could improve, but more on that later. Among players with at least 350 PA, only Howie Kendrick had a higher batting average and slugging percentage. Rendon had the highest OBP and also the highest wOBA and wRC+. His 12.4% BB% was third on the team. As a side note, Brian Dozier’s was second and he is also gone.
By no means are the Nationals hurting for offense, but Rendon leaves a massive hole in the middle of the lineup. He hit 34 homers, walked almost as much as he struck out, and played pretty well at third base for the Nationals. It wasn’t his best year at the hot corner, but it was plenty good enough, especially with the huge offensive numbers.
It really will be a group effort to fill the Rendon void. Juan Soto certainly has room for improvement as a 21-year-old that is only going to get better. He followed up his terrific 2018 with nearly identical numbers over the full 2019 season. Soto’s K% stayed the same and his walk rate ticked up. He had less success in the BABIP department, but traded that for power and a higher SLG. He also stole 12 bases for good measure.
You don’t see many 21-year-olds with over 1,150 plate appearances at the MLB level. Soto’s ceiling is basically uncapped at this point. As he learns the pitchers and continues to fill out physically, he is likely to become a top-five hitter in baseball. His O-Swing% did go up last season and he did swing and miss more, but pitchers also pitched him differently with fewer fastballs. He made more contact in the zone (Z-Contact%) and felt comfortable swinging a little more often. Soto is ready to make that leap. It would be nice if his defense improved a little to help the overall fWAR numbers, but his offensive profile is elite.
After Soto, however, there really aren’t any other guys with superstar potential. I’m not banking on a Kendrick repeat, as the 36-year-old, who has been a very good player throughout his career, set career highs in BA, OBP, SLG, wOBA, wRC+, and fell one short in HR by only having 370 plate appearances. He hit 18 in 583 in 2011, which was previously his best season.
I really like the total package of Trea Turner, but I don’t see him shouldering much more of the offensive load. He had strong numbers with a .298/.353/.497 slash and a 117 wRC+, but there isn’t a ton of room for growth, I don’t think. The 26-year-old has hit 19 homers in back-to-back seasons. A spike in his BB% to his 2018 level would raise his OBP, but that could come at the expense of a slight power drop and I wouldn’t be surprised to see regression in his .348 BABIP.
Adam Eaton finally stayed healthy for a full season for the first time since 2016 and had good offensive numbers with a .365 OBP and a 15/15 season with a nice power and speed combo. His offensive performance fell mostly in line with his career numbers, though. His 107 wRC+ was indicative of the league-wide scoring environment, so it could rise, but I don’t see a lot of growth from him either.
It’s important at this point in time to clarify something for the readers. I’m not saying these guys stink. Quite the contrary. It’s just that we are talking about a high season win total line and every bit of regression, positive or negative, is something that I take into account. If multiple players have small or modest regression signs, that can add up to a lot. Similarly, if there are small positive regression signs for several players, that has to be considered. It’s all about the aggregate picture for me.
And so far, I see some offensive numbers that I am either concerned about or just don’t see a lot of room for improvement.
Maybe Victor Robles can be that guy. I’m not sure that there are a ton of encouraging signs from last year’s full season in the bigs, but he carried a good BABIP at .310, stole 28 bags, and hit 17 homers. He also made terrible contact with a horrible average exit velocity of 81 mph and a 23% Hard Hit%. Add that to a low walk rate and I’m not seeing it from him either. The speed is a potential weapon and the elite center field defense provides a ton of value, but the offensive profile isn’t there.
Asdrubal Cabrera is back in the fold after a .323/.404/.565 showing over the last 146 plate appearances he had in the regular season, but he also had a .235/.318/.393 for Texas and struggled with Philadelphia in the in the second part of 2018. I’m not buying anything more than league average for Cabby.
Maybe it’s Eric Thames, who had a 116 wRC+ and 25 HR in 459 PA for the Brewers. He has managed to work around a 30% K% the last three seasons with a lot of walks and a bit of pop. I mentioned Starlin Castro’s elite second half with a .302/.334/.558 slash and a 129 wRC+, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore his .245/.272/.336 slash and 60 wRC+ in 351 first half PA.
All in all, in a tl;dr way, the Nationals offense could take a pretty decent-sized tumble without Rendon. A lot of guys seemed to play to their peaks or above them last season, which is what often happens in a World Series year. To me, the only guy with a much higher ceiling within this offense is Soto.
The Nationals rewarded Stephen Strasburg for his playoff heroics with a seven-year, $245M pact, which I have to admit carries a good bit of risk. Strasburg has been really good for the vast majority of his career, but he just threw 200 innings for the first time since 2014 and the second time in his career. He hadn’t even thrown 180 MLB innings since 2014 and had only done it twice prior to last season.
Then he went out and threw 36.1 more innings in the playoffs. The World Series hangover is a real thing, but not because of some narrative or some mindset. Winning the World Series is hard! Starters work another 30+ innings. They lose a month of recovery time. The drama of the postseason is impossible to replicate with regular season games in April and May. So on and so forth.
To me, it is about that workload. It is about pushing your body further than it has ever gone before. With someone like Strasburg, who has spent a lot of time in the trainer’s room, I can’t help but consider that for this season and beyond.
The same is true of Patrick Corbin with back-to-back 200-inning seasons to his name and 23.1 more in the playoffs. Max Scherzer battled injuries for really the first time last season and saw his run of 200+ inning seasons snapped at six. Only Justin Verlander has thrown more innings since 2010. Maybe Scherzer, like Verlander, is the freakish exception, but it is a hard standard to continue to uphold the older you get.
The Big Three was relied on a lot in the playoffs. Fourth starter Anibal Sanchez turns 36 this year. The depth options in Erick Fedde, Kyle McGowin, Ben Braymer, Wil Crowe, and maybe even Tim Cate if it goes down that far, are worrisome at best and terrifying at worst. The Nationals only needed 10 starters last season and their four spotlight guys all made at least 27 starts.
Make no mistake, a healthy Nationals rotation will be dominant again, but this is a six-month bet. This is a leap of faith regarding health. In a perfect world, all four guys are healthy. In the real world, they are all on the wrong side of 30 with substantial workloads last season and even prior to that.
The same can be said about the bullpen in all honesty. Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle have spent ample time in MRI machines. Will Harris, while dominant last season for the Astros, turns 36 this year. The rest of the Nationals arms weren’t really trusted enough to be used extensively in the playoffs.
Wander Suero is a positive regression candidate with a 4.54 ERA, a 3.07 FIP, and a 3.81 xFIP in 78 appearances. Tanner Rainey could be on the flip side of that coin with a 3.91 ERA, a 4.37 FIP, an ugly HR/FB% and a high walk rate. Roenis Elias only had four appearances after being acquired from the Mariners.
The bullpen is really top-heavy and that always worries me, especially with what Hudson and Doolittle have gone through in recent years.
Positives & Negatives
The elephant in room has gone back into the wild. The Nationals didn’t just win a playoff series, they won all of the playoff series. Organizationally, the removal of that weight should have some positive impact going forward. Getting back to the mountaintop isn’t easy, but at least the Nationals have gotten there once and took care of other dragons along the way.
As always in these good divisions, there are 57 tough games against fellow NL East contenders. Four of the five teams in the NL Central could also classify as contenders. The best team in baseball is in the West and the Diamondbacks and Padres look pretty legit. Furthermore, the Nationals draw the AL West in interleague play, where four of those five teams look pretty decent, including two AL elites. The margin for error thins when you talk about a gauntlet like that and specifically for a team that has a big loss on offense.
Pick: Under 90.5
This is perhaps my boldest call in the 2020 MLB Betting Guide. The Nationals are the prototypical team to fall victim to the World Series hangover. The loss of Rendon takes a huge chunk out of the team’s offensive upside. Scherzer, who seemed impermeable and impenetrable for so many years, finally showed some cracks in the exterior after turning 35. Strasburg pitched more than he ever has and had a month less to recover. Corbin had Tommy John not too long ago and also worked extensively, including some relief efforts.
There is a ton of talent on this ballclub and this is probably the year that Juan Soto cements himself as a top-10 player in baseball. I just feel like a lot of guys peaked or came very close to it last season and they are likely to regress, either because of the mean or because of injury. The Nationals put together one of the most dominant five-month stretches we have ever seen to erase that bad start and win the “piece of metal” known as the Commissioner’s Trophy.
That takes a lot out of a team and it takes a lot out of an individual. The drama. The excitement. The adrenaline. It’s all gone. It evaporates into thin air. It is hard to play “meaningless” games in April and May. It is hard to get going.
Can the Nationals flip the switch? Of course they can. We saw it last year. I just don’t think we see it this year. I think this is a very talented team that wins 86-88 games. The range of outcomes isn’t big enough for me to bet on this win total, so it may be the boldest pick without a bet in the guide, but I am approaching the Nationals with extreme caution after slaying the playoff dragon.