Fantasy Breakdown: Washington Nationals for 2021

A preview of Washington's lineup, rotation, and bullpen for 2021.

Throughout the winter months of the offseason, the Pitcher List staff will be creating profiles for every fantasy-relevant player for 2020. Players will be broken up by team and role through starting pitchers, bullpen, lineup, and prospects. You can access every article as it comes out in our Player Profiles 2021 hub here.

These profiles will also be featured as an eBook exclusively for those signed up for PL+.

 

At A Glance

 

The Nationals are a team built for the moment, but not necessarily prepared to take it on. Their improbably 2019 title run definitely softens some of the several blows the team has taken since, from losing Anthony Rendon to free agency to seeing all three of their top-end starters struggle in some meaningful way last year.  Thanks to some shrewd mid-market additions, this team has the bones to be a top-10 offense. Kyle Schwarber and Josh Bell should increase the output at the top end of the lineup, and the return of a healthy Starlin Castro should help as well. The question marks are mostly where you’d least expect them: in the team’s $85m starting rotation, where injury concerns loom for Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, who mysteriously lost more than 1 mph on his fastball. But if the team can get the All-star production from its rotation that it’s paying for and likely MVP production from Juan Soto before they have to pay him, this team will have a shot to compete for a Wild Card spot and another chance to roll the dice in the playoffs.

 

Hitters

Projected Lineup

 

Infielders

 

Josh Bell (1B)

2020: 22 R, 8 HR, 22 RBI, 0 SB, .226 AVG/.305 OBP/.364 SLG | 1B #45

2021 ADP: 178.4 (1B #19)

Josh Bell arrived in Washington on Christmas Eve after five years in Pittsburg, having been traded for Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean, a pair of right-handed pitching prospects. 2020 might have been rough for Bell — according to my TDV earned value system, the only first baseman drafted within the top 300 in NFBC who was worse for teams on a per-game basis was Daniel Murphybut his fans in Pittsburg will remember him as more than his poor 55-game sample. His new fans in the nation’s capital will be left to wonder exactly how much of his star turn in 2019 should be believed, though. If his 2019 breakout came by unlocking more power, his 2020 implosion came because of a noticeable drop-off in his contact ability. Bell wasn’t alone in that regard — many hitters complained that the lack of in-game video in 2020 hurt their ability to make adjustments. With that rule going away in 2021, Nats fans will hope that he can resume his breakout. And at his price, drafters should be able to gamble on him doing so while still drafting a safer option first.

 

Starlin Castro (2B)

2020: 9 R, 2 HR, 4 RBI, 0 SB, .267 AVG/.302 OBP/.450 SLG | 2B #71

2021 ADP: 334.0 (2B #33)

Starlin Castro signed with the Nats after a strong finish to his time in Miami — Ben Palmer’s Going Deep detailed how his second half wOBA of .370 came after a stance change that allowed him to elevate the ball more. Then, just two weeks into the shortened season, Castro broke his wrist diving for a ground ball. This year, the Nats will give him another shot to prove that he’s more than just a league-average bat after ten years of being just that. Castro has never been prolific in getting on base (his career .319 OBP is thanks to a 5% walk rate), but his ability to put the ball in play in nearly 80% of his PAs should help make him a sneaky late-round RBI and batting average contributor.

 

Trea Turner (SS)

2020: 46 R, 12 HR, 41 RBI, 12 SB, .335 AVG/.394 OBP/.588 SLG | SS #1

2021 ADP: 7.0 (SS #2)

Drafting Trea Turner feels like a choice more so than other high-end shortstop options. His elite production in stolen bases (51 per 162 games in his career), batting average (career .292, but trending up), and runs (113 per 162, but again, trending up) have historically come with questions marks in both power outputs and health. But in 2020, he put it all together as one of just seven players to provide above-average value in all five batting categories on a per-game basis. Injury concerns for Turner might be overblown: he’s made just three appearances on the injured list in his career, and his only soft-tissue injury was a minor hamstring strain back in 2017. Expect his batting average to regress somewhat, as his 30% line drive rate was well above his career average, but his strikeout rate dropping from 19.7% to 13.9% should give reason to hope that both his batting average and power numbers should stay higher than they had been in the past. Turner will need to outperform projections in both power and batting average to repay his first-round ADP — but his floor is so high in categories that are hard to find that he merits consideration there anyway.

 

Carter Kieboom (3B)

2020: 15 R, 0 HR, 9 RBI, 0 SB, .202 AVG/.344 OBP/.212 SLG | SS #64

2021 ADP: 466.5 (3B #40)

Nats manager Dave Martinez says that Carter Kieboom will compete for the team’s third base job. If he does, it will be because he showed something different than he has so far. Since hitting a home run in his first career MLB game, the former first-rounder hasn’t exactly lit the league on fire — he collected just two extra-base hits in his next 43 games. What’s interesting, though, is that it hasn’t been the same problem in both years. In 2019, his issue was being frozen by called strikes (his 37.2% strikeout rate earned him his demotion), but in 2020, he upped his z-swing rate to 67.2% while also upping his z-contact to an impressive 87.8% mark. The apparent tradeoff, though, was an abysmal 20.9% hard hit rate that meant he essentially traded strikeouts for weak groundouts. Kieboom’s power should show up eventually — he had posted ISO numbers near .200 throughout the minors, and his max exit velocity numbers in both 2019 and 2020 have been near-identical to Eddie Rosario‘s in both years — and even if his 13.9% walk rate looks unsustainable, he did look like he had a strong command of the zone. Seeing him make a correction to his game was a good sign. It might just be a matter of Kieboom finding a winning balance between contact and power.

 

Yan Gomes (C)

2020: 14 R, 4 HR, 13 RBI, 1 SB, .284 AVG/.319 OBP/.468 SLG | C #15

2021 ADP: 351.8 (C #24)

Drafting Yan Gomes is not an upside play. The veteran catcher enters his tenth MLB season as the favorite to catch the majority of the Nationals’ games, but his track record suggests that probably means 100 starts and slightly more than 400 PAs at best. Gomes has a typical batting average for a streaming catcher in the past, but he was able to cut a quarter of whiffs in the zone last year, which helped raise his batting average well about what’s average for a contending team in 10-team leagues. Don’t expect that to stick — his batting average should sink below .250 in a full season, given his career contact numbers — but as long as he’s catching 55% of the Nats’ games and batting at least sixth, he represents a safe option for teams that opt not to think too hard about the position.

 

Outfielders

 

Juan Soto (OF)

2020: 39 R, 13 HR, 37 RBI, 6 SB, .351 AVG/.490 OBP/.695 SLG | OF #3

2021 ADP: 4.2 (OF #3)

 

If you’re looking for a case study in how poorly player rankings handle differences in playing time (yes, even Razzball’s), look no further than Juan Soto. He was one of seven true five-category contributors in 12-team roto last year, and his per-game value was second only to Mookie Betts. But he missed 13 games last season between a false-positive COVID test and a handful of days off for an elbow injury, nearly a quarter of the season. We can’t expect his .351/.490/.695 triple slash to repeat — that is, his divisional opponents sure hope not — but even reasonable regression should place him within reach of Mike Trout‘s status as the best hitter in baseball. The questions marks and plusses for both hitters look extremely similar: 40ish home runs, league-leading counting stats, and high batting average come with questions about teammates’ contributions and at best low-teens steals. The two have been going back-to-back, and with fewer injury concerns for the 22 year old, expect plenty of takes about a “passing of the torch.” What else is there to talk about with Soto? His numbers speak for themselves.

 

Victor Robles (OF)

2020: 20 R, 3 HR, 15 RBI, 4 SB, .220 AVG/.293 OBP/.315 SLG | OF #103

2021 ADP: 159.8 (OF #42)

 

in 2019, Victor Robles put up a 4.1 bWAR, just half a win behind his outfield neighbor. In spite of his scraping-the-floor hard contact stats (yes, even when we remove bunts), his 17 home runs and 28 steals put him squarely on the radars of speed-hungry managers going into 2020. But his 2020 performance was an all-time flop: he produced the fourth-worst per-game value of any player who played 50 games, hurting teams more than Trea Turner or Jose Abreu helped them. And there were concerns in every corner. Robles attempted just five steals all year and his sprint speed was down to 28.0 ft/sec from above 29. His whiff rate in the zone increased 50%, pushing his strikeout rate to 28% and dropping his batting average 35 points. And he mustered just two barrels all year while seeing his weak contact rate rise above 10%. Even a few of his defenders’ usual excuses evaporated: he bunted just five times all year and reached based three of those times. Some of these are bound to be blips, and it’s possible that his late to the season was something he never recovered from. At ADP 160, Robles gives his drafters some room to give up on him if things go south again. But with error bars so wide, all managers will want to watch Robles’ results and is stock early on to know whether to make a move.

 

Kyle Schwarber (OF)

2020: 30 R, 11 HR, 24 RBI, 1 SB, .188 AVG/.308 OBP/.393 SLG | OF #61

2021 ADP: 199.2 (OF #53)

 

It may surprise some that, given a chance to pick his destination, Kyle Schwarber landed on a team that might not have a designated hitter. But the lefty slugger comes to D.C. after starting 48 games in left field for the Cubs last year and should presumably keep his OF eligibility for at least two more seasons. Schwarber has run hot-and-cold for much of his MLB career, and his 2020 season happened to have more cold than other years while still falling within his normal rolling averages. There were some standout trends, though, that deserve watching in 2021. After starting the year by striking about 35% of the time, he corrected that issue, only for his rolling 100 PA average hard-hit rate and his launch angle numbers to drop off to career lows. In particular, Schwarber chased at pitches outside of the zone well above his 2018/19 numbers — perhaps a sign that lack of in-game video was hurting his approach. Schwarber should play every day, which means greater exposure to lefty pitchers will drag down his per-game averages. But smart managers might be able the maximize his value by starting him selectively at first, even when Dave Martinez doesn’t. At his near-200 ADP, his price will allow that — even if his track record and projections tell us that he can produce like a borderline top-100 asset.

 

Watch List Considerations

 

The backend of the Nats roster will be rough this year. Ryan Zimmerman returns after opting out of the 2020 season, and his low strikeout totals might mean a decent lineup spot and RBI totals when he infrequently spells Josh Bell (or should the DH come to NL again, more often than that). The team’s other righty utility piece is Josh Harrison, who could steal some starts from Schwarber and Kieboom, but likely doesn’t belong in any fantasy lineups. His lefty counterpart is Andrew Stevenson, who put up huge numbers in a short stint last year, but likely won’t be worth starting outside of NL-only leagues if he’s forced into more action.  Alex Avila is the likely backup catcher, but he’ll fight with veteran Wellington Castillo and 26-year-old Tres Berrera to catch the short side of the Nats’ platoon this year. Any of them could become relevant in two-catcher formats should Gomes spend time on the IL. And if there’s one batter that could force his way into larger action, it’s probably Luis García, who debuted early last year as a 2-year-old second baseman. García profiles as a contact specialist hitter with middling steals and below-average power, but should he translate that into a high batting average, he could find his way into a respectable lineup spot and everyday playing time. He should remain off of draft boards for now, though. Otherwise, the cupboard is bare — so don’t be surprised if the team continues to add free agent depth as we approach Opening Day. 

 

Starting Pitchers

 

Max Scherzer (Locked In Starter)

2020: 5-4, 67.1 IP, 92 K, 3.74 ERA, 1.38 WHIP | SP # 36

2021 ADP: 29.9 (P# 10)

Repertoire: 45% Fastball, 19% Slider, 16% Changeup, 10% Cutter, 9% Curveball

The season-long numbers for Scherzer’s 2020 look pretty bad, at least by his fantastic standards. That said, the signs that Scherzer was still his old self are all there. His fastball velocity remained intact, and his secondaries almost all retained their swinging strike rates. His 100 PA rolling strikeout and walk numbers were within the normal variance of his past three years. Even the back injury that nearly kept him from pitching during the World Series didn’t show up! But, on the whole, there were issues. The first, a much higher walk rate driven by a more than 25% drop in chase rate for his fastball and changeup, seemed to correct itself — he finished the year with a rolling 6% walk rate, right in line with career numbers. But late in the year, those walk seemed to be more than replaced by line drives — his .355 BABIP came with an absurd 34.1% line drive rate, most of which came in the last few starts, and which we can’t possibly expect to repeat itself. He also gave up slightly more hard hit balls in play than usual, but only 1% more than in 2019. The sum of these problems points to a return to form for Scherzer, and with his cost lower than usual without much tangible skills degradation, Mad Max looks primed to be a buy for 2021.

 

Stephen Strasburg (Locked In Starter)

2020: 0-1, 5.0 IP, 2 K, 10.80 ERA, 1.80 WHIP | SP # 228

2021 ADP: 74.2 (P# 27)

Repertoire: 30.8% Curveball, 28.6% Four-seamer, 20.7% Changeup, 19.7% Sinker

 

It’s almost disingenuous to report Stephen Strasburg‘s 2020 stats or rank given that he was immediately dropped by any teams trying to win, potentially for breakout arms like Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, or Dylan Bundy. The only real question is whether the carpal tunnel that ended his year has been fixed to the point that he can pitch for the remaining six years of his mammoth $175m extension. Nats GM Mike Rizzo has downplayed the long-term risks and expects Strasburg to be ready for Spring Training, but carpal tunnel isn’t exactly an injury that plagues pitchers — you’ll likely find more cases of it in the press box — so our data is extremely incomplete. Even the most notable recent, David Price‘s case in 2018, was milder than Strasburg’s. We might need to wait a little longer to get a reasonable look at what to expect from the former ace — if he’s throwing in March without pain, he probably belongs just after where he was drafted in 2019 (ADP 59.3). With injury risks elevated for everyone in 2021, it’s possible that we might need to discount him less than usual. But for now, there’s just not much to rely on.

 

Patrick Corbin (Locked In Starter)

2020: 2-7, 65.2 IP, 60 K, 4.66 ERA, 1.57 WHIP | SP # 206

2021 ADP: 146.8 (P# 54)

Repertoire: 40.3% Slider, 29.8% Sinker, 22.3% Four-seamer, 5.6% Changeup, 2.1% Curveball

 

Let’s start with the ugliest part. Patrick Corbin‘s fastballs averaged 91.8 mph in 2019, which is perfectly serviceable for a lefty (see: Clayton Kershaw). In 2020, Corbin averaged just 90 mph. His secondaries saw a similar amount of drop, which is fine in terms of separation, but that drop in velocity also came with a 100 rpm drop in spin. Corbin responded by throwing more pitches in the zone than he had in either of how two “peak” seasons, especially in the heart of the zone. The results were predictably awful. Both his whiff rate and his strikeout rate dropped from among the top 20% to the bottom 30% of the league. Among the 170 pitchers with at least 50 innings 2020, he had the 4th highest percentage of all pitches that led to contact (behind Zack Wheeler, Rick Porello, and Dustin May), and the 3rd highest HardHit/PA at 32.5% — only Alex Cobb and Chris Paddack were worse. The pathway to a Corbin rebound might be pretty simple — if he gains that velocity and spin back, the results could reverse course. If he enters the first month of the season without reversing course, though, drafters need to be prepared to potentially drop their SP4 — as is, his stuff might not be worth rostering.

 

Jon Lester (Locked In Starter)

2020: 3-3, 61.0 IP, 42 K, 5.16 ERA, 1.33 WHIP | SP # 151

2021 ADP: Undrafted

Repertoire: 31.8% Cutter, 27.8% Four-seamer, 14.1% Sinker, 13.5% Changeup, 12.8% Curveball

 

Jon Lester is not a complicated player to figure out. His fastball velocity has dropped from 93 mph when he was pitching in the world Series for the Cubs to 89 mph last year. His strikeout rate has plummeted, and the contact he’s giving up has gotten worse. Lester’s most important role in fantasy will be as a player to stream righties against.

 

Joe Ross (Likely Starter)

2019: 4-4, 64.0 IP, 57 K, 5.48 ERA, 1.67 WHIP | SP # 202

2021 ADP: Undrafted

Repertoire: 38% Sinker, 24.9% Four-Seamer, 20.7% Slider, 9% Curveball, 7.6% Changeup

 

After opting out in 2020, Joe Ross is the reported fifth starter in Washington. Ross also missed much of 2017 and almost all of 2018 thanks to Tommy John surgery, so his track record at the MLB level is quite short for someone with four years of service time. Ross pitches aggressively to contact, even pounding the zone with his slider, which has a 19% SwSt% since 2017 (the beginning of Alex Chamberlain’s Tableau). His problem seems to be a four-seamer that’s turned into a ball or a batted ball almost 80% of the time. He doesn’t need to rely on the pitch — his sinker has been better in almost every way, and sports a 21.3% called strike rate. Watch to see if he returns with any notable changes, such as a different pitch mix or a four-seamer with a slightly different shape. He’s at most a tweak or so away from passing Lester in this rotation, and while his own injury concerns aren’t to be dismissed, the potential for him to get a full workload is there.

 

Watch List Considerations

 

Should any of the penciled-in starters go down with injury (or lack of anything remaining in the arm, whichever comes first), Austin Voth will likely be first in line to step into the rotation from the bullpen. Eric Fedde also has experience in the majors as a starter, as does Rogelio Armenterosa recent waiver add from the Diamondbacks. Of the three, Armenteros probably has the best strikeout stuff, but bone spurs in his elbow have bounced him around the league this offseason. Seth Romero and Tim Cate might also see starts late in the season, and bring much more upside than the rest of the list, but the lack of any recent data on them makes figuring out exactly how excited to be a bit difficult. Cate last appeared in high-A, and while Romero did debut last year, it was for 2.2 IP after only seeing a combined 47.1 IP in the minors, all at A-ball or lower.

 

Relief Pitchers

Bullpen Roles

 

Brad Hand (Closer)

2020: 16 SV, 1 HLD, 22.0 IP, 29 K, 2.05 ERA, 0.77 WHIP | RP # 2

2021 ADP: 139.7 (P# 53)

 

If Brad Hand was looking for a team that isn’t scared by his plummeting fastball velocity, he sure found one. Hand joins Lester and Corbin as yet another lefty who can’t touch 92 mph anymore. But he brings with him a track record of unimpeachable success that any skills-based doubter of his will have trouble explaining away. But it’s easier to understand this when we look at why exactly Hand succeeds: not through unhittable stuff, but through placement and deception that keeps hitters from swinging. His called strike rate was 12th in the league among the 319 pitchers with at least 250 pitches thrown, lead by his slider, which put up an insane 22.8% called strike rate last year, 11th in the MLB of the 193 sliders thrown at least 100 times. If there’s something unsustainable, though, it’s the foul ball rate on his fastball — its lost velocity translated to lost swinging strikes, but Hand avoided trouble when his four-seamer posted a 28.3% foul ball rate, 6th highest among the 758 pitches thrown as often as it in 2020 and 25th out of 2703 in the last four years. If this is skill, then bet on Hand to be excellent again in 2021. But if you’re looking for a number to watch early next year, it’s whether batter manage to put more of his fastballs into play. At ADP 140 or so, there’s not too much cost baked in just yet (that would be below $10 in auctions), and he still certainly be a value play. Just be careful not to expect that he’s a steal at the price and build an entire approach around him.

 

Tanner Rainey (Next-in-Line)

2020: 0 SV, 9 HLD, 20.1 IP, 32 K, 2.66 ERA, 0.74 WHIP | RP # 51

2021 ADP: 346.2 (RP# 129)

2021 ADP since Hand signing: 461.0 (RP# 153)

 

Tanner Rainey is exactly the short of pitcher that Statcast’s “sliders” would have you believe has a hard contact problem: his 10th percentile HardHit% and Barrel% put him behind only Will Harris on the team. But adjust those numbers to be for batters faced instead of batted ball events (a much fairer comparison, because not all pitchers give up an equal amount of contact), and you get a much different story: his 21.3% HH/TBF% was better than Max Scherzer, Shane Bieber, Yu Darvish, or Trevor Bauer managed, to name. a few. It’s also better than “contact suppression specialist” Dallas Keuchel has managed in any year since 2015. Rainey’s elite strikeout numbers (42.7% in 2020 and 34.6% in 2019) position him as a top-of-the-line holds candidate as long as he can keep the walk rate in the single digits, which he did for the first time last year. Rainey’s ADP was in the low 200s before the Hand signing, a glimpse of what he could be worth as a closer, but has settled into the 400s as a handcuff or ratios/strikeouts option. Make sure to grab him at actual value, not average ADP.

 

Will Harris (Holds Option)

2020: 1 SV, 6 HLD, 17.2 IP, 21 K, 3.06 ERA, 1.70 WHIP | RP # 201

2021 ADP: Undrafted

 

In 2020, Will Harris‘ steady command finally betrayed him, as his walk rate jumped above 10% for the first time in his career and his HardHit/TBF% jumped from the high teens (frontline starter/closer territory) to 29% (low leverage only territory). At 36, he’s not relying on velocity, but his still dipping about 1 mph last year. But the strikeouts were mostly still there, so there is hope he can get things back on track, and the results over just 17.2 IP were strong. Be wary, but if he’s showing his 2019 stuff again, Harris will get prime relief opportunities and can return value in SV+HLD leagues. If he’s his “new” self again, though, he won’t do either.

 

Daniel Hudson (Holds Option)

2020: 10 SV, 0 HLD, 20.2 IP, 28 K, 6.10 ERA, 1.26 WHIP | RP # 23

2021 ADP: 409.4 (P# 153)

 

In an organization full of pitchers over 30, Hudson is an outlier as one without velocity issues last year, still sitting at 96 mph. His strikeouts spiked in his tiny sample, and he dropped his HardHit/TBF% back down into the teens, where it had sat for years before creeping up in 2019. The little hard contact Hudson did give up managed to hurt him far more than expected, though, because his LD% was massively inflated compared to his career average. The result? a 6.10 ERA with a 14% barrel rate. Expect Hudson to bring his same skills to 2021, and don’t be surprised if this time they turn into an ERA around 4.00, or even below that mark.

 

Watch List Considerations

 

The rest of the Nationals’ bullpen probably needs some luck to be in a viable position to be rostered even in  15-team SV+HLD leagues, but some of them do have. The strikeout upside to make the most of that luck. Wander Suero brings a track record of K-BB% numbers close to 20% and HardHit/TBF% at or below the same mark, which are all more than strong enough to roster — should he find himself pitching in the last two innings of meaningful games, he’ll be worth rostering immediately. Kyle Finnegan is a potential flier with strong results last year and a record of good numbers as an “old” guy in the minors, and should he keep his walks in line as much as anyone throwing a splitter can, he has the potentially to become relevant.

 

ADP data from NFBC.

2020 Positional Rankings from Razzball’s 12-team Player Rater (ESPN).

Photos by www.allproreels.com & Lorie Shaull | Design by Quincey Dong (@threerundong on Twitter)

Alexander Chase

Alexander Chase starting playing fantasy baseball in 2010 because he didn't have a real team to support. Since moving to Baltimore, he still hasn't found one, but he likes Camden Yards. Alexander tweets about sports at @chase_rate.

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