The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With an aging roster and DH candidates, the Nats are oddly built for an odd season

Howie Kendrick may end up getting to play a lot of designated hitter for the Nationals if MLB manages a shortened season. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Mostly, I hope for an 82-game Major League Baseball season this year because it would be a good sign for humanity. If the pandemic runs wild as the United States and the world try to reopen, then sports will disappear in a blink. But if pro games get played, the novel coronavirus probably isn’t doing too well.

However, because the fate of mankind isn’t my beat, I hope that MLB manages to play a half-season also because I have a strong suspicion that such a chopped-in-half format would be a significant help to the Washington Nationals as they try to mount an entertaining title defense.

Usually, I cover my eyes and fear the worst (a .500 season) for teams in the year after they have won an especially inspiring heart-and-soul World Series. Most likely, they were merely very good but not great teams, which is why they were underdogs in their thrilling runs.

Teams that win titles usually pay dearly, one way or another, because the market value of their stars soars, often resulting in departures. That’s what happened when the Nationals signed Stephen Strasburg to a long extension but lost MLB RBI leader Anthony Rendon. Also, the pitching staffs of all World Series teams bear the strain of a full month of extra games in October. That workload needs to damage just one or two key pitchers to sink the whole next season.

Finally, post-championship letdown is real; it’s just human nature. That’s why it’s rare and impressive when a team gets back to the next World Series even if it doesn’t win. Only one Nats player (Hunter Strickland) had been on a World Series winner before. I have heard countless vets, after follow-up flops, confess, “That championship-hangover talk is no joke.”

Nats’ Howie Kendrick reflects on his postseason home runs, takes a dig at the Astros

Since Rendon left, I have felt that the Nats needed to catch some breaks to have a proud, dignified 2020 — not talking back-to-back titles here, something in the hands of the gods, but a high-quality season. As it turns out, they oddly may be perfectly suited for the kind of season no one ever wanted or could have foreseen.

First, if there is a season, it’s virtually certain that the National League will have the designated hitter. The Nats, accidentally, are built for a DH.

The rule change is coming because the players’ union wants it and because MLB knows it helps scoring. Also, everyone knows the DH is coming in 2022 — and beyond — as part of the next collective bargaining agreement. So why not give it a trial-run spin?

Those gleeful chuckles you hear are from Howie Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Eric Thames; all can play the field, to some degree, but their group picture would say, “DH-type players.”

Maybe you noticed how tough the Nats’ lineup suddenly became in four World Series victories in Houston and how little even Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole enjoyed facing the Nats with a DH.

The prime beneficiary would be Kendrick, who everyone thought would sign with an American League team in the offseason because it was rational. Instead, Kendrick came back to D.C. for love. Now it has been rewarded. He can get the maximum number of plate appearances his body allows while also playing a bit at second or third base when he is feeling frisky. Also, as a key team leader, Kendrick will be more at the center of the mix.

Also, the question about who will bat Nos. 3-4-5 for the Nats this year, without Rendon, has been answered. It will be Juan Soto, Kendrick, Zimmerman and Thames — in some combination depending on pitching matchups and who needs rest. It’s not Rendon, but it’s good.

With a DH, Thames (.851 on-base-plus-slugging percentage last year) and Zimmerman get more at-bats. Also, Carter Kieboom will be the everyday third baseman — his job to lose — because a stronger, deeper lineup can more easily tolerate a rookie presence. Also, with probably no minor leagues this year, Kieboom absolutely must play regularly so he can develop properly. With the switch-hitting Cabrera, too, the Nats have options galore.

As it was last season, the Nats’ roster is old by modern standards — just the club that could benefit most from a short-sprint year. Those aching high-mileage bodies that often hit a 100-game wall by August could play through a 2020 World Series and not reach 100 games. If they make the postseason, with all its days off, the Nats might never feel old.

Also, in such a uniquely bizarre season, a team built around a Big Three starting rotation can ride those aces harder and longer, sometimes even on short rest, because, even including the postseason, there’s no way that any of them will even pitch 140 innings.

The idea of a fresh, rested Nats pitching staff was ludicrous three months ago. I have seldom seen a team with so many pitchers past 30 — and several past 34 — who were all “rode hard and put up wet” to win a ring. Such pitchers desperately need extra time to recover — time that baseball never allows. One result: some ugly injuries by the middle of the next year.

Nationals’ plans for full-time employees: Partial furloughs, no virus-related layoffs

The list of Nats pitchers who needed an extra month or two of rest — why, three extra months would be a dream — was essentially the entire pitching staff: Max Scherzer, Aníbal Sánchez, Will Harris, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson are all between 32 and 36. Strasburg, 31, and Patrick Corbin, 30, were double-duty and short-rest heroes this past fall.

The benefits to the Nats of going more than eight months between (non-exhibition) games extend through most of their very veteran roster. Players, as they age, always say: “It’s not the years. It’s the mileage.” It’s not the birthdays. It’s the battering that beats you down.

Once, I asked Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, who constantly complained about nagging injuries, what would help his arm.

“Take a year off,” he said. Being Palmer, he added, “Then quit altogether.”

After Zimmerman slumped badly in 2015 and 2016, he seemed washed up. Then he hit .303 with 36 homers and 108 RBI in 2017. What?

“It took years for my shoulder to heal completely,” Zimmerman said of the surgeries on his throwing arm. He never got his throwing motion back, but his swing finally returned to full strength.

Kurt Suzuki, Kendrick, Cabrera and Zimmerman (whose heel injury finally may be well) all fit the mold of old-timers who, until now, could only dream of having an eight-month break between serious games. Will one or two of them seem rejuvenated in 2020? Bet on this: That much rest is more likely to make them “play younger” than a few extra months of age is likely to make them “get old in a hurry.”

Whatever the Nats’ chances were in February, and Las Vegas thought they were only 16-to-1 to win the World Series, those odds are better now.

If only, with stakes far bigger than sports, there is a season to play.