But here’s a crack at showing where the Nationals’ needs lie — and just how many active roster spots they will have to address before Opening Day. We still don’t know whether the National League will have a designated hitter next season. We’re also not sure whether the pandemic will bump major league rosters to more than 26 players in the spring as it did this past summer before clubs settled at the intended number for the stretch run.
The following assumes the Nationals will have 26 roster spots and no DH. Below is a positional breakdown with returning players and projected openings:
Starting pitchers: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, OPEN, Joe Ross/Erick Fedde/Austin Voth
Relief pitchers: Daniel Hudson, Will Harris, Tanner Rainey, Kyle Finnegan, Wander Suero, OPEN, OPEN, Ross/Fedde/Voth (long man)
Catcher: Yan Gomes
First base: OPEN
Second base: Starlin Castro
Third base: Carter Kieboom
Shortstop: Trea Turner
Left field: Juan Soto
Center field: Victor Robles
Right field: OPEN
Bench: Josh Harrison, Andrew Stevenson, OPEN (second catcher), OPEN, OPEN
First, an important note: Kieboom started 30 games at third in 2020 and could get another shot there. But the 23-year-old struggled offensively, with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .556, and could have a short leash. Luis García, who is not listed above, has the potential to supplant Kieboom or make the team as a reserve infielder. The 20-year-old impressed in bursts last year, flashing smooth defense and a mature two-strike approach. His roster chances depend on the club’s view of Kieboom and how it wants to construct a five-man bench.
One slot should go to Stevenson as the fourth outfielder. Another is for a second catcher, whether that’s a traditional backup or a starter to pair with Gomes. Harrison, signed to a one-year deal in October, has experience at second, at third, in right and in left, giving the Nationals flexibility with their remaining holes. In 2019, when everyone was healthy, they carried three first basemen in Ryan Zimmerman, Howie Kendrick and Matt Adams, a left-handed power bat. In 2020, before Zimmerman opted out, the plan was to have him, Kendrick and Eric Thames, a direct replacement for Adams.
Following that trend, it’s conceivable the Nationals will carry three first basemen again. If they do, there would be no room for either Kieboom or García as another infielder. If they don’t and instead form a right-left platoon at first, both Kieboom and García could be in the majors next spring. That leaves corner outfield as the biggest need on offense. Soto, listed above in left field, dabbled in right in September. When asked why that happened, Manager Dave Martinez hinted at interest in pending free agents.
George Springer, Michael Brantley, Marcell Ozuna and Joc Pederson are now available. Landing any of them, should the Nationals look to really spend on a hitter, would make it more prudent to keep testing Kieboom, García and even Robles, who took a few steps back in 2020. Same goes for the possibility of signing catcher J.T. Realmuto, who has long been coveted by General Manager Mike Rizzo. The holes are less glaring if one is filled by a star.
Then there’s the pitching staff, with familiar questions about filling out the rotation. A new assurance is that Hudson, Harris and Rainey return to the back end of the bullpen. The Nationals should seek a veteran fourth starter to replace Aníbal Sánchez. After that comes a familiar race among Ross, Fedde and Voth, who may be the odd man out.
Once Ross opted out of playing in 2020, Voth edged Fedde for the last rotation spot. But then he finished with a 6.34 ERA in 11 outings. Six of them were shorter than five innings. It’s now possible, even likely, that Voth has overstayed his welcome with Washington. If that narrowed the race to Ross and Fedde, the Nationals could keep Fedde, 27, in an undefined role he has handled well. Ross, out of minor league options, had the inside track on Fedde before he decided to sit out the season. Fedde, with one remaining option, could be shuttled between the majors and minors. It all makes him a logical fit for long relief and spot starts.
And should Fedde be a long man to begin next year, there are a minimum two remaining spots in the bullpen. That assumes Finnegan and Suero are back in the mix as middle relievers. Finnegan, 29, shined as a rookie in 2020. Suero was up and down, not settling in until mid-September. Both could work for Martinez if Rizzo brings in two more experienced pitchers, at least one of whom should be left-handed.
This alignment would keep Ryne Harper, Kyle McGowin, Dakota Bacus and James Bourque as depth options out of the minors, though McGowin did impress after evolving from fringe starter to slider-dependent reliever. Internal confidence in a player such as McGowin would affect how much the Nationals will shop for answers. Meanwhile, a slow-moving market awaits their business.
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