When a team starts a season 19-31, the chances are slim that they will be relevant in October. But the 2019 Washington Nationals took that horrible start, and completely forgot about it. They turned things around and pulled several upsets en route to winning their first World Series title.
Nationals Roster Moves: Washington’s Underrated Offseason
The 2020 season was just 60 games due to a late start thanks to COVID-19, so the fact that they wound up at 19-31 again wasn’t very endearing. There was no time to turn it around, and an injured Stephen Strasburg combined with the loss of Anthony Rendon was too much to overcome.
Washington has acquired six new players this offseason, banking on past track records to play in their favor. It’s been an underrated offseason for the Nats, the media not buzzing around these moves.
Nationals Roster Moves: Jon Lester Joins the Fray
It is no secret that the heart of the Washington Nationals lies within the starting rotation. Led by mighty Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, it’s the team’s backbone and a big reason why they outlasted the Astros in 2019. Patrick Corbin is not a bad #3 option to have. And now, they have a guy that’s pitched in three different World Series joining the fray.
Jon Lester spent the past six years with the Cubs, but will now be taking his talents to DC to play with the Nationals. He went 3-3 with a 5.16 ERA over 12 starts during the shortened 2020 season. His ERA was 4.46 in 2019, but had been under 4.00 for the prior six seasons, including two years with a sub 2.60 ERA. Lester has had some great years in the majors.
Lester has appeared in 26 playoff games (22 starts), including posting a 4-1 record in five World Series starts, an ERA of 1.77. He pitches well when the games matter. And his one-year deal will allow him to show the Nationals and other teams around the majors that he hasn’t lost it yet. He’s also eight wins away from 200 for his career.
Nationals Roster Moves: Adding Some Pop to the Lineup
The Nationals signed not one, but two players with serious home run potential. Both Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber hit the cover off the ball in 2019, the last 162 game campaign that was played. Bell launched 37, driving in 116 runs for the Pirates. Schwarber clobbered 38 home runs and drove in 92 runs for the Cubs, who had been with for the entirety of his six-year career.
Washington hasn’t had a serious home run duo in a long time. Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn were once considered to be something of the short, while Anthony Rendon’s only 30-home run season came when Bryce Harper left. Harper meanwhile, always knew how to send the ball into orbit. But he never had a partner to do it with.
Schwarber’s glove has always been a question, but he should be able to find his way into the lineup. Trading for Josh Bell was a great move for DC, who hopes to put some power hitters around Juan Soto in 2021. The NL East is suddenly loaded with talent, so the Nationals saw they had to take some action.
Bell should be the starting first baseman, with Ryan Zimmerman being his primary backup. Schwarber will find plenty of reps in the outfield, and if the NL chooses to keep the DH, that’ll be his primary role.
Nationals Hoping to Discover Success on Memory Lane
Alex Avila was an All-Star in 2011. Blake Swihart entered the majors as a player bursting with potential in the Red Sox organization. The careers of both players have been extremely unimpressive to date, however. Avila hasn’t had more than 89 hits in a year since 2012. Swihart didn’t even have a team last season.
Serving as the Tigers everyday catcher in 2011, Avila hit .295 with 19 home runs and 82 RBI’s. Since then, he really hasn’t done much with his bat. The career averages are very unimpressive, though he’s a decent fielding catcher. He’ll be the primary backup for Yan Gomes, and the team hopes he can rediscover some of his old magic.
Blake Swihart has had 639 career at-bats, picking up 155 hits. That’s good enough for a .243 average. He entered as a catcher, but has since converted to an outfielder. His contract with the Nationals is a minor-league one, so he’ll have to earn his way onto the roster. Swihart can be a quality bench player, who can be decent as a starter from time-to-time.
In Swihart, you’d be getting a hard-working player that is trying to prove he still belongs. And while he isn’t as highly regarded as he was upon entering MLB, he could be a positive contributor.
The Nationals are hoping that the additions of these two guys this offseason can help provide the spark that was missing last year.
Nationals Roster Moves: Brad Hand Signs as the New Closer
If you’re looking for puns, you came to the right place. Brad came to lend the Nationals a hand. Everybody clap your hand(s). What a handy pickup. Okay, I’ve got them out of my system. The Nationals signed 3X All-Star closer Brad Hand, and it’s a winning move.
While pitching for the Marlins, the statistics for Hand were not very good. He had a 4.75 ERA and 25 losses in 288 2/3 innings. As soon as he got to San Diego, his fortunes turned around. He posted a 2.92 ERA in 82 appearances in 2016.
And the past four years, split between San Diego and Cleveland, Hand made three All-Star games, and kept his ERA under 3.50 in each season. He made 111 appearances in Cleveland, saving 58 games.
In Hand, the Nationals are bringing in a veteran that has been very good for a number of years. Sean Doolittle struggled in his 11 appearances last year after a strong playoff effort in 2019. He’s now in Arizona. And Daniel Hudson, who was as clutch as humanly possibly in the 2019 postseason, finished with an ERA over 6.00 last year.
Tanner Rainey, Kyle Finnegan, Will Harris, and Wander Suero were all decent last year. But they didn’t have that reliable reliever to finish games. And that’s where Brad Hand comes in. He’s going to be their guy from day one, and if he gets enough opportunities, he could be the best in the league next year.
This was a terrific move. Not only do they get their new closer, but they also kept him from joining the Mets. It’s just like when they pried Murphy away from their division rival in 2016.
Tough Sledding Ahead
It was a very solid offseason for the Nationals. As you just read, they picked up some terrific players. A lot of these moves are underrated, and will benefit them come Opening Day. But at the end of the day, they’re not near the top of the NL East.
Atlanta isn’t going anywhere. The Mets made some big moves. And the Marlins finished around .500, making a playoff appearance in last year’s expanded format. And Philly has talent up the wazoo. The Nationals are in position to contend for the playoffs, no doubt. But it’s important to understand that tough sledding is ahead.
It will be fun to watch this team though, and that’s for sure. Juan Soto and the newcomers are ready to go.