2020 Division Preview: NL East

Pete Ball provides an in-depth preview of the NL East!

With the season delayed and an aura of uncertainty surrounding the start date, I approached the NL East Division Preview with the same stipulations as my colleagues:

  • Rosters will be 29 players, up from 26
  • If a player is currently injured with an expected return date, I will count them toward the Opening Day roster if they are expected to return before the new Opening Day. For this, we’ve gone with June 18. While we’re not confident this date is realistic, it’s 12 weeks from the original start date, and we must start somewhere.
  • The tables may be larger than the actual number of players the team will carry. This is due in part to the expanded rosters and yet-to-be-made roster decisions. 

 

Atlanta Braves

2019 Record: 97-65 (.599 W%)

 

Notable Roster Changes

Projected Lineup

Order PlayerPositionBats
1Ronald AcunaRFR
2Ozzie Albies2BS
3Freddie Freeman1BL
4Marcell OzunaLFR
5Travis d’ArnaudCR
6Dansby SwansonSSR
7Ender InciarteCFL
8Austin Riley3BR

 

Projected Bench

PlayerPositionBats
Tyler FlowersCR
Adeiny HechavarriaINFR
Johan CamargoINFS
Adam DuvallOFR
Nick MarkakisOFL
Charlie CulbersonOFR
Yangervis SolarteINFS

On May 10, the Braves made the decision to move Ronald Acuna Jr. from the cleanup spot to leadoff. Up until that point, Acuña had hit fourth in the lineup every game he had played in 2019. During that time period, the Braves had a record of 18-20. They were far back in the division and had just gotten swept by the Dodgers where they scored only seven runs throughout the entire three-game series.

Then, manager Brian Snitker made the lineup adjustment. For the rest of the season, Acuña raked from the leadoff spot and the Braves went 79-45 during that stretch. They won the division.

As simple as that change was, it clearly provided a spark for the 2019 Braves. While all signs point to Acuña continuing to bat leadoff, one has to wonder if that same spark will be there or not without former MVP Josh Donaldson batting in the top half of the Braves’ order.

Though the addition of Marcell Ozuna, and to a lesser extent, Travis d’Arnaud, may help mitigate the loss of Donaldson, it is going to be a challenge for them to overcome such a loss. Donaldson led the Braves in BB% and ISO. He was second on the team in wRC+, fWAR, wOBA, SLG%, and OBP. While Ozuna was having a similarly outstanding season before going down with an injury in 2019 for the Cardinals, I do have some concerns about him filling the massive shoes left behind by Donaldson.

A situation worth monitoring is that very hole left by Donaldson at third base, where I believe Austin Riley will get the bulk of starts over Johan Camargo. Riley started his major league career with a bang but cooled off tremendously. Both players have shown quite a bit of versatility with Riley playing both 3B and OF and Camargo moving all around the infield. That helps both their cases, but in a shortened season I think the Braves will look for the best chance at an offensive spark. To that end, there is no question that Riley has a higher offensive ceiling.

The bench is pretty deep with reliable names like Nick Markakis and Tyler Flowers, among others. I could see the Braves throwing a major league spot at either Yonder Alonso or Yangervis Solarte, given the expanded rosters. I went with Solarte because of his versatility.

Unless there is an injury or a situation in which Ender Inciarte and Markakis are so bad at the plate that their fielding doesn’t make up for it, I do not expect to see Christian Pache or Drew Waters until 2021 most likely.

Even if the Braves offense takes a little bit of a step back, they will probably be able to weather the storm. They were in the top three in the NL in R, RBI, BB%, ISO, OBP, and wOBA. That is a lot of offense! It would be foolish to attribute that all to Donaldson. I expect the Braves to have a pretty awesome offense once again in 2020.

 

Projected Rotation

OrderPlayerThrows
1Mike SorokaR
2Max FriedL
3Mike FoltynewiczR
4Cole HamelsL
5Felix HernandezR

The Braves shed Julio Teheran and Dallas Keuchel, replacing them with veterans Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez. While none of those four players are particularly exciting, it does indicate that the Braves are not completely sold on the idea of any of their young phenom prospects such as Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, or Ian Anderson starting the season in the rotation. My expectation is that we see Hamels and Hernandez to start the season but it could be on a very short leash, particularly for Hernandez, in a season with less of a margin for error.

It appears that the Braves are really going to be leaning on their young breakouts if the bottom two spots in the rotation do not work out as hoped. Mike Soroka, Max Fried, and Mike Foltynewicz have all shown stretches of brilliance and will certainly anchor the staff for 2020. Though Foltynewicz lost a lot of his hype after an injury-plagued 2019, he did go 4-1 with a 1.50 ERA in September. If Foltynewicz can return to his 2018 form and Fried and Soroka build on their strong 2019 campaigns, the Braves should bolster a strong top of the rotation.

Considering the youth at the top and the instability at the bottom, I do wonder if the Braves would turn to a six-man rotation in a shortened season. My guess is Wright, Wilson, or Sean Newcomb would occupy that sixth spot if such a situation were to occur. The first two do come with quite a bit of prospect pedigree but have not found any success in their extremely limited MLB experiences. Newcomb has been a much better pitcher out of the bullpen for his career and will probably be needed there since the only other lefty in the pen is Will Smith.

 

Projected Bullpen

RolePlayerThrows
CLMark MelanconR
SUWill SmithL
SUChris MartinR
MidLuke JacksonR
MidShane GreeneR
MidDarren O’DayR
LongSean NewcombL
LongJosh TomlinR
LongTouki ToussaintR

This bullpen should be dominant with the addition of Smith. I expect him to be used as a closer only if Mark Melancon falters. Melancon had a rough August but turned it around in September with five saves and a WHIP under 0.80. If he can hold that job down, Smith would provide Snitker with quite a weapon that he could deploy in a 2016/2017-Andrew-Miller fashion.

Touki Toussaint is an interesting name to throw there. He made many relief appearances for the Braves last season where he was mostly bad but not nearly as atrocious as he was in 2019 through his 10 starts in Triple-A or his lone major league start. Perhaps a new beginning and an established role out of the pen could get him to reclaim some of his prospect hype.

Chris Martin is another strong arm in this pen. His 1.63 FIP as a Brave last season certainly makes me feel better about his >4 ERA. With Melancon, Smith, and Martin all providing solid-to-excellent relief options, the Braves would just need Luke Jackson, Shane Greene, Darren O’Day, or Newcomb to perform at a high level to have a truly elite bullpen. All four of those pitchers have had stretches of great relief success, so such a situation is not completely unheard of.

 

Storylines to Follow

Can Acuña go 40/40? How will Ozuna fill-in for Donaldson in the lineup? Can Melancon hold down the closer role with Smith in town? Will Hernandez build on his decent spring training success and hold down a rotation spot? Or will a young phenom within the Braves minor league system emerge as a starter and take his spot? Most importantly, can the Braves repeat as division champions?

Clearly, the storylines are endless here. The offense has the ability to keep chugging along, even without Donaldson. The bullpen should be much more stable than it was last year, particularly with Smith now. The rotation, though, is what will decide if the Braves are a powerhouse or just a good team. There are a lot of question marks there and they are certainly a rotation worth monitoring.

 

Miami Marlins

2019 Record: 57-105 (.352 W%)

 

Notable Roster Changes

 

Projected Lineup

OrderPlayerPositionBats
1Jonathan VillarCFS
2Brian Anderson3BR
3Corey DickersonLFL
4Jesus Aguilar1BR
5Isan Diaz2BL
6Jorge AlfaroCR
7Garrett CooperRFR
8Miguel RojasSSR

Projected Bench

PlayerPositionBats
Lewis BrinsonOFR
Jon BertiINF/OFR
Francisco CervelliCR
Matt JoyceOFL
Magneuris SierraOFL
Sean RodriguezINF/OFR
Harold RamirezOFR

Woof. In 2019, the Marlins offense was last in the National League in R, RBI, HR, wOBA, wRC+, BB%, OBP, and SLG. I’m sure there are even more offensive categories they were last in but for the sake of time, we’ll cap it at those eight. Despite the departure of one of their best players in Starlin Castro and three veterans in Curtis Granderson, Neil Walker, and Martin Prado, I actually expect the offense to be better in 2020, as I’m sure most would agree.

Miami’s major transactions this off-season have all been offensive. The biggest splash was bringing in Jonathan Villar who figures to be their best player in 2020. Though Villar has had a bit of an up-and-down career, he is coming off a monster season in which he was a four-win player (bWAR) and had 24 home runs and 40 stolen bases. He strikes out a lot but his profile backs up his high BABIP, keeping his BA from plummeting. There is no doubt he will add some much-needed punch and versatility to this atrocious lineup.

The other two major (by Marlins’ standards) acquisitions were Corey Dickerson and Jesus Aguilar. Aguilar showed some improvement after being dealt to the Rays last season but it was such a small sample size that it was tough to draw any conclusions. He struggles mightily against breaking balls. In a division with Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, etc. that may not work out well in his favor. Dickerson, like Aguilar, was traded mid-season last year but he performed much better than his now-teammate. The issue with Dickerson is, and always will be, health. If he can stay healthy, he will be one of the most talented hitters the Marlins have seen in the heart of their order in a while, but that really isn’t saying much.

The power of Isan Diaz is intriguing and the way Brian Anderson finished the year (.342 with 13 XBH in August) definitely raised some eyebrows, but I just don’t see this offense being any good. Will it be better? Sure. But really anything would be better than last year’s Marlins’ offense.

 

Projected Rotation

OrderPlayerThrows
1Sandy AlcantaraR
2Caleb SmithL
3Pablo LopezR
4Jordan YamamotoR
5Jose UrenaR
6Elieser HernandezR

Yes, I have the Marlins pegged for a six-man rotation because why not? If that is what it takes to get Elieser Hernandez into the rotation, then please do it Marlins! I wrote about why I think the Marlins should put Hernandez into the rotation back in February. However, in that piece, I argue that Jose Urena should be the one who gets bumped. That was before the season got delayed, though, and now I’m thinking this is the approach they may take. If there are really going to be more double-headers, fewer days off, etc. then why burn your young starters, especially if you’re a team that has literally no shot whatsoever of competing? The Marlins can instead take this approach with six starters to preserve their young arms and get an extended look at players, like Hernandez, who they may be on the fence about.

No matter how this rotation shakes out, though, it is certain that Caleb Smith will be in it, barring injury.

Smith showed signs of elite capabilities last year. Perhaps the best example of this was his start to last May where he first tore through the Indians for seven innings, finishing with eight punchouts, one earned run, and only four hits and two walks against him. He followed that start with an 11-strikeout performance against the Cubs. Things went really south for Smith in the second half, particularly on the road, but he could be a valuable piece for the Marlins going forward if he is able to pitch as he did in May on a more consistent basis.

 

Projected Bullpen

RolePlayerThrows
CLBrandon KintzlerR
SUYimi GarciaR
SUAdam ConleyL
MidBrad BoxbergerR
Mid
Stephen TarpleyL
Mid Sterling SharpR
OpenerRyne StanekR

The Marlins never used Ryne Stanek as an opener after acquiring him from Tampa Bay last year, despite him opening for the Rays on many occasions. I imagine all teams are going to be creative this year in finding ways to preserve arms, though, and since Stanek already has some opener experience and success, I could see him filling that role with the Marlins in 2020.

Brandon Kintzler and Brad Boxberger have both had successful seasons as closers in the past, but that is the distant past now. Boxberger hasn’t been decent since 2017. Kintzler, meanwhile, has had three total saves since 2017. My guess is that Yimi Garcia is the closer by the end of the season. Garcia’s Statcast sliders are beet red and his 0.87 WHIP combined with his decent K% just scream “closer”, particularly in this unexciting bullpen.

 

Storylines to Follow

Rome wasn’t built in a day. This season, and probably the next several, is all about the Marlins developing their young talent. Marlins fans are thirsty for competent baseball so I understand why eyes will be on Villar, Smith, and Dickerson. What’s truly important, though, is that we see growth out of Sandy Alcantara, Jorge Alfaro, Isan Diaz, Brian Anderson, and any other young Marlins that could be a part of a championship future. The most important storylines of the Marlins 2020 season probably won’t even be at the major league level. The development of Sixto Sanchez, J.J. Bleday, Jesus Sanchez, and Jazz Chisholm in the minor leagues is probably what most Marlins fans will be looking for.

 

New York Mets

2019 Record: 86-76 (.531 W%)

 

Notable Roster Changes

Projected Lineup

OrderPlayerPositionBats
1Brandon NimmoCFL
2Jeff McNeil3BL
3Pete Alonso1BR
4Michael ConfortoRFL
5JD DavisLFR
6Robinson Cano2BL
7Wilson RamosCR
8Amed RosarioSSR

 

Projected Bench

PlayerPositionBats
Yoenis CespedesOFR
Jed LowrieINFS
Jake MarisnickOFR
Eduardo NunezINF/OFR
Luis GuillormeINFL
Tomas NidoCR
Matt Adams1BL

Everyone and their mother seems to be hyping up JD Davis. I have to admit, I am on that train as well. Davis was a beast from June onward but he really took off in August when he hit .295 with 8 homers and 18 RBI. He followed that up with a .357/.392/.614 slash in September. The fantasy hero was a monster for the Mets, but a small part of me is worried about playtime. If Yoenis Cespedes truly is healthy then he has to play… right? The former stud seemed like he was ramping up to play on, if not close, to Opening Day. With a delayed start to the season, he may be fully healthy. Michael Conforto should also be healthy by the time the delayed start to the season kicks off and he, like Cespedes, has proven to be a masher in the Mets lineup. That leaves Davis and Brandon Nimmo for one outfield spot. Nimmo’s excellent ability to draw a walk and superior fielding maybe give him the nod some nights over Davis. Davis’ flexibility may help him get into the lineup, especially since Cespedes most likely won’t play every night and neither will second-baseman Robinson Cano (Jeff McNeil could push over to second, assuming Jed Lowrie doesn’t, and Davis could take third those days). None of this even takes into account Jake Marisnick, though, who the Mets traded for to provide an elite glove in the field on some nights. Even if he is strictly a late-inning fielding replacement, that could still limit the ceiling of Davis.

With all that said, there are two key conclusions I can draw from this situation. First, Davis might be so good it doesn’t matter who else is healthy or playing well. He will play just about every day if he hits like he did down the stretch last year. Second, and more importantly for the Mets as a team, they have depth when they’re healthy. Unfortunately for them, they are so rarely healthy.

Bottom line: I really like this lineup. I don’t like it only because of its depth. Rather, I think it has real high-end talent. Even with all the injuries last season, the Mets ranked second in the National League in wRC+. A lot of that had to do with the emergence of Pete Alonso, but guys like McNeil and Conforto were exceptional too. They don’t really have any holes in their offense when it is healthy. They’re even solid at catcher — a position of great offensive concern for some teams.

Fun fact about the Mets’ catcher Wilson Ramos: according to Baseball Savant, Ramos was one of only four qualified hitters in 2019 to have a Hard-Hit% above 40 and a K% under 14. The other three were Ketel Marte, DJ LeMahieu, and Anthony Rendon. Considering how 2019 went for those three players, that is not bad company for Ramos!

 

Projected Rotation

OrderPlayerThrows
1Jacob deGromR
2Marcus StromanR
3Steven MatzL
4Rick PorcelloR
5Michael WachaR

There is nothing really to be said about Jacob deGrom. With Gerrit Cole choosing to sign with another American League team, deGrom enters the season as the favorite to win the Cy Young. It would be his third in as many seasons. The man is a stud and I hope that we don’t look back on his career and say to ourselves, “It was a shame the Mets’ bullpen was always bad and their offense never put up runs for poor deGrom.” That is being said enough as it is but hopefully, the Mets turn that narrative around this season. Over the last two years, deGrom has won two Cy Youngs but only 21 games. That is incredibly unique.

The loss of Noah Syndergaard is devastating and there isn’t much more to be said there. Fortunately for the Mets, they were a little aggressive in the starting pitching market this off-season and signed not only former Cy Young Rick Porcello but Michael Wacha as well. I’m sure Mets fans would give up both to have Zack Wheeler back but the depth isn’t a bad thing. Porcello gets a chance to reset his career after an abomination of a 2019 season where he relied more on his four-seam fastball and less on his signature sinker than he ever had before. If he can go back to his roots and induce more ground balls, Porcello could have a fine season in New York. As for Wacha, well if you take a gander at his Baseball Savant sliders, they look like a bunch of blueberries. Perhaps most damning of his sliders is his xBA, which was in the bottom 13% of all of baseball. Porcello’s didn’t look great either but of these two new Mets, I would say the odds of Porcello bouncing back are higher than Wacha’s.

As for Steven Matz and Marcus Stroman, I think what you see is what you get. After battling injury problems early in his career, Matz has quietly given the Mets 30 starts each of the last two seasons. I think he is a pretty safe bet for around 140 innings and a 4.00 ERA. Stroman will top him in IP and probably have a little bit better of an ERA.

All four of Matz, Stroman, Porcello, and Wacha could be really solid for the Mets in 2020 but none have the upside of replacing what Syndergaard would have done. It will have to be the offense and the bullpen that picks up the slack in his absence.

 

Projected Bullpen

RolePlayerThrows
CLEdwin DiazR
SUSeth LugoR
SUDellin BetancesR
MidJustin WilsonL
MidJeurys FamiliaR
MidBrad BrachR
Mid/LongRobert GsellmanR
MidWalker LockettR

On paper, this should be one of the three or four best bullpens in baseball. Four of those pitchers have been All-Stars and five of them have had solid-to-elite success as a closer in the past. Seth Lugo had the best 2019 out of all them and he is not included in either of those groups. With Dellin Betances now in the fold, one has to hope that 2020 is finally the season we see the Mets bullpen emerge as elite. I think Edwin Diaz enters the season as the closer, of course. However, with so many elite names in the pen and less than 162 games on the schedule, I imagine it will be a short leash for Diaz if he struggles like he did last year. In such a scenario, I think Betances would leapfrog Lugo for the opportunities.

 

Storylines to Follow

I think the big storyline here is definitely Cespedes. He hasn’t played 150 games since 2015 so maybe I am overblowing the impact he could have. But, Cespedes has shown he is one of the best hitters in baseball when he is going right. Adding an elite bat to a lineup that already bolsters Alonso, McNeil, and Conforto could take a good lineup and make it great. I don’t expect much from Cano these days and while the bullpen is interesting, I don’t think there is any storyline regarding the Mets that is as compelling as the Cespedes situation and what it could mean for their success and the playtime of other players on the team.

 

Philadelphia Phillies

2019 Record: 81-81 (.500 W%)

 

Notable Roster Changes

 

Projected Lineup

OrderPlayerPositionBats
1Andrew McCutchenLFR
2Jean Segura2BR
3Bryce HarperCFL
4Rhys Hoskins1BR
5JT RealmutoCR
6Didi GregoriusSSL
7Scott KingeryRFR
8Alec Bohm3BR

 

Projected Bench

PlayerPositionBats
Neil Walker2BS
Josh HarrisonINF/OFR
Jay Bruce1B/OFL
Andrew KnappCS
Roman QuinnOFS
Adam HaseleyOFL

Alec Bohm! In a shortened season, I expect the Phillies to be more all-in in 2020 than they even were before. If Bohm gives them a better chance to win the World Series, then why not start him on day one? He is older than several other stars in the division (Juan Soto, Acuña, Albies, Soroka) and the Phillies are clearly built to win-now after signing veterans Zack Wheeler and Didi Gregorius. I expect Bohm to play, and if his 2019 season in the minors is a reliable indication of how he will perform, then he could have a major impact on the Phillies lineup. In 475 AB, Bohm had 55 XBH and hit .305 in 2019.

If Bohm struggles, the Phillies should easily absorb it. They were brutal offensively last year, but a lot of that had to do with the devastating ACL tear for beloved outfielder and on-base god Andrew McCutchen. With McCutchen back in the fold and the signing of Didi Gregorius, I think the Phils offense will be much improved. They also have some pretty reliable veterans coming off the bench in Neil Walker, Josh Harrison, and Jay Bruce who could help ease the rookie into regular playing time by spelling him in the field on occasion (not at third necessarily but the Phillies have enough flexible players to move around the diamond). The Phillies will also undoubtedly want to get Adam Haseley‘s glove in the outfield on a somewhat regular basis, so the breakdown of their lineup on any given night will be a fluid situation.

Similar to the Mets, the Phillies don’t really have a lot of holes offensively. Hopefully, players like Jean Segura and Rhys Hoskins, who woefully disappointed in 2019, perform better in 2020. With a full season of McCutchen, Bohm, and Gregorius, I expect good things out of the Phillies offense.

 

Projected Rotation

OrderPlayerThrows
1Aaron NolaR
2Zack WheelerR
3Zach EflinR
4Vince VelasquezR
5Jake ArrietaR

The Phillies wanted Zack Wheeler, so they went out and got him. That is great! However, I think they maybe should have signed another starter or two. Jake Arrieta is simply bad, and though Zach Eflin had a strong first half, his lackluster peripherals caught up with him in the second half where he posted an ERA over 4.50. Vince Velasquez performed admirably for a team desperate for starting pitching, but his over-reliance on his fastball and lack of a real third offering profile him as more of a reliever than a starter. Maybe the Phillies should have been the team that threw a contract at Rick Porcello or Kyle Gibson.

Perhaps the Phillies did not sign a Porcello or a Gibson, though, because they think they have something better cooking in the minor leagues. Spencer Howard is ranked 88th on MLB’s Top 100 Prospects list for 2020. After utterly dominating Double-A during his brief taste last year with his elite fastball, Howard looks like he may be on the fast track to a 2020 debut. Should Howard start the year in the rotation, or find himself in it at some point, my guess is that Velasquez would get the bump and serve more in a long-reliever role to which he is better suited. Howard has the upside to be a monster, which could give the Phillies a three-headed beast at the top of their rotation in ace Aaron Nola, Wheeler, and Howard.

 

Projected Bullpen 

RolePlayerThrows
CLHector NerisR
SUAdam MorganL
SUTommy HunterR
MidNick PivettaR
MidRanger SuarezL
MidJose AlvarezL
MidDeolis GuerraR
LongFrancisco LirianoL

Seranthony Dominguez failed to live up to expectations in 2020 after an awesome 2019 debut. His season ended with an elbow injury, and it now looks like Tommy John Surgery is inevitable. David Robertson‘s season went the same exact way except he has already had the surgery. Fortunately for the Phillies, Hector Neris really gave the team a lift. Neris kept his WHIP (1.02) well-below his career average (1.16) and notched 28 saves with a 2.93 ERA for the Phils in 2019 (though it should be noted his FIP was almost a full run higher at 3.83).

With Dominguez and Robertson shelved, I think Neris will have no problem holding on to the closer’s role. The issue is with what pitches between him and the starters. Set-up men Tommy Hunter and Adam Morgan pitched a combined 35 innings last season. Ranger Suarez had a horrendous WHIP of 1.32 and a K/9 of only 7.8. Jose Alvarez‘s WHIP was even worse than Suarez’s and his K/9 was the same. Deolis Guerra is a career journeyman who is also not good at pitching. The Phillies may really need Nick Pivetta to emerge as a reliable arm in that bullpen. Putting the words “reliable” and “Nick Pivetta” in the same sentence just made my stomach churn.

 

Storylines to Follow

Alec Bohm! Again! … and Spencer Howard! How the Phillies approach these young studs is what intrigues me the most. I think they should be all-in in 2020 and get those guys on the roster as soon as possible. Both the rotation and lineup disappointed in 2019 and these guys could not only help those two areas but potentially make them huge strengths. I’m a sucker for prospects and I’d be geeking out if I were a Philly fan at the idea of these two contributing to getting my team over the hump.

The other storyline here is the bullpen, specifically Pivetta. We all know he has nasty stuff. I always think back to his starts against my favorite team, the Red Sox. It is wildly anecdotal, but in his two starts against them, he has a 0.69 ERA with 15 Ks in 13.0 IP. If he can become a useful reliever for the Phillies then he could really save that horrendous-looking bullpen. Just one year ago, the Phillies were envisioning Pivetta as a starting pitcher with elite upside. That failed to materialize last year in disastrous fashion, but he can still help them out on the mound by turning in a great year from the pen.

 

Washington Nationals

2019 Record: 93-69  (.574 W%)

 

Notable Roster Changes

 

Projected Lineup

OrderPlayerPosition Bats
1Trea TurnerSSR
2Adam EatonRFL
3Starlin Castro2BR
4Juan SotoLFL
5Victor RoblesCFR
6Ryan Zimmerman1BR
7Yan GomesCR
8Carter Kieboom3BR

 

Projected Bench

PlayerPositionBats
Eric Thames1BL
Kurt SuzukiCR
Asdrubal CabreraINFS
Howie KendrickINFR
Michael TaylorOFR
Wilmer DifoINFS

I think Starlin Castro has gone really underappreciated in his career, despite playing well on some high-profile teams. However, expecting some combination of him and the returns of Howie Kendrick and Asdrubal Cabrera to even come close to replacing the value of Anthony Rendon is simply not happening. Rendon is a monumental loss for the reigning World Series champs. He led the NL East in WAR and is a superb defender and hitter with an excellent eye at the plate. Replacing him won’t be easy, but the Nat with the upside to accompany Juan Soto and anchor the middle of the order is prospect Carter Kieboom.

I know, I know. Another prospect. But clearly, by not re-signing Rendon or signing Josh Donaldson, the plan is for Kieboom to ultimately replace the hole Rendon is leaving behind in the order. With the Nats looking to repeat, Kieboom will get his shot, and he has the skills to succeed. Like his predecessor Rendon, Kieboom has an excellent eye at the plate. Through a large sample of 494 PA at Triple-A in 2019, he had a BB% of 13.8%. For comparison, Rendon’s was 12.4% last season. I’m of course not comparing Triple-A and MLB apples-to-apples, but the point remains that Kieboom has great on-base ability. He also has some pop and his 123 wRC+ at Triple-A last season was superb.

While all eyes will be on Kieboom, they will also be on Victor Robles. The 22-year-old showed off some power, hitting 17 HR and 33 2B in 617 PA. However, his advanced numbers are a little concerning. He ranked in the zeroth percentile (you read that correctly) in exit velocity, the bottom fourth percentile in hard-hit rate, and was in the bottom 10% of all hitters in xBA. It was just his age 22 season, though, and the Nats have high hopes for their young centerfielder. He is a stellar fielder and mighty quick. Should Robles and/or Kieboom blossom into a star, the Nats might just soon forget about their amazing former third baseman.

 

Projected Rotation

OrderPlayerThrows
1Max ScherzerR
2Stephen StrasburgR
3Patrick CorbinL
Anibal SanchezR
5Austin VothR

One of the best rotations in baseball welcomes back the 2019 World Series MVP, Stephen Strasburg, now on a 7-year, $245 million deal. That’s exciting news for Nats fans and the three-headed monster of Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Patrick Corbin should continue to be elite… so long as Scherzer’s back holds up.

Scherzer turns 36 in July, a scary age for any pitcher who has accrued as many innings as he has in his career. He only made four total starts between July and August due to a back strain. Through five September starts, he had an ERA over 5.00, perhaps indicating that the injury wasn’t fully behind him. He was able to put a lot of concern to rest in the playoffs when he dominated the Dodgers in Game 4 of the NLDS and followed that up by obliterating the Cardinals in Game 2 of the NLCS. However, injuries returned as he was scratched from Game 5 of the World Series with neck spasms. He was able to take the mound in Game 7, tossing five innings and giving up an uncharacteristic seven hits and four walks.

Fast forward to Spring Training 2020, and Scherzer had a start pushed back due to what he called “a fatigue thing“.

When you look at any of these issues individually, they don’t seem too serious. However, when packaged like that it at least makes you begin to think about the possibility that Scherzer may be in a little bit of a decline. Does that mean he will be bad? Of course not. It is Max Scherzer, for Pete’s sake. Do you really ever think you’ll see the guy be bad? Nevertheless, it is a situation worth monitoring.

I also like Austin Voth over Joe Ross heading into 2020. Through eight starts for the Nationals in 2019, Voth had a 3.48 ERA and averaged about a strikeout-per-inning. Granted, his FIP was closer to 4.00 and he did not find quite as much success at Triple-A, but I still find him much more interesting than Ross. Ross showed some promise when he was first called up back in 2015 but he has really only got steadily worse, especially since his 2017 Tommy John Surgery. He has never been a swing-and-miss pitcher and last season his walk-rate exploded (in a bad way). Only turning 27 in May, Ross was a first-round pick and may still live up to that potential. For 2020, though, I prefer Voth.

 

Projected Bullpen

OrderPlayerThrows
CLDaniel HudsonR
SUSean DoolittleL
SU Will HarrisR
MidTanner RaineyR
MidRoenis EliasL
MidWander SueroR
MidJavy GuerraR
LongJoe RossR

I am quite confident Daniel Hudson should have the closer’s role over Sean Doolittle at this point. He was excellent for the Nats down the stretch and Doolittle’s skills are in decline. The Will Harris acquisition was definitely needed, as the Nats bullpen looks like its weakest link. If Harris and Hudson can lock down the 8th and 9th innings, then the Nats should be fine, especially considering how elite their rotation is. If they struggle or fall to injury, though, I could see the Nats bullpen preventing them from repeating.

 

Storylines to Follow

Will the Nationals repeat as World Series champions? Without Anthony Rendon?!

My guess is absolutely not. That doesn’t mean they won’t be competitive, but the loss of Rendon is just too immense. Combine the loss of Rendon with a weak bullpen and you have some serious concerns. Regardless, the Nationals overcame their bullpen woes last year and have a top prospect lined up to take over the hot corner. Perhaps in October (or whenever the World Series is…) I’ll be eating crow. I wouldn’t mind that. They were such a fun team last year.

 

Predicted Standings

TeamWin %
Atlanta Braves.586
Washington Nationals.562
Philadelphia Phillies.531
New York Mets.519
Miami Marlins.401

 As you can see, I don’t predict too much of a change within the NL East’s hierarchy. The injuries the Mets are already dealing with, particularly Syndergaard’s, convinced me to put the Phillies over them. As for the division’s two top dogs, I have a hard time putting the Nationals ahead of the Braves when they couldn’t take the division from them with Rendon, let alone without him. I think Will Smith helps solve one of the Braves’ biggest issues, while the other teams in the division (other than the Mets) look like they’ll have spotty bullpens. Miami improves on its 2019 record, but not by a significant margin. Four teams over .500 in one division is an aggressive prediction, but they pretty much did the same thing last year (Philly finished 81-81, right at .500). This should be a fun division to watch.

Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by J.R. Caines (@JRCainesDesign on Twitter and @caines_design on Instagram)

Pete Ball

Pete Ball is a graduate of Emmanuel College and a die-hard Red Sox fan. In addition to his work at Pitcher List, he co-hosts the Fantasy Baseball "Pitch Count Podcast". Follow him at @PitcherListPete.

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