It’s strange to be sitting here, less than a month from pitchers and catchers reporting, and write about the offseason so far. We should be writing about the totality of the offseason and making picks for division winners and MVP favorites, but the top position player and top pitcher on the market both remain unsigned, several teams have yet to make any moves at all, and, like the world in general, baseball exists under a cloud of uncertainty. We can, however, examine the moves the Nationals have made so far and where it puts them in the division race.
I am going to start by saying I don’t find the division standings of 2020 to be that important. It was a shortened season and the Washington Nationals were missing a few key players that would have made a difference if it weren’t for the pandemic. Stephen Strasburg’s injury was not so severe that he would have sat out a 162 game season, but a pandemic shortened one, where there were more than injury risks to deal with, he set out. Starlin Castro played 16 of 60 games, and who knows what he could have done if he had played a full season and how much of his time missed was injury versus pandemic. The Nationals, more than almost any other team, were better in theory than they were in practice, and that defines their offseason moves so far.
Th Nationals have made three big moves in trading for Josh Bell and signing Kyle Schwaber and Jon Lester, and every one of them is coming off a disappointing 2020 where their numbers were much below their career averages. It makes the Nationals a team of a lot of ifs but it also fills in some much needed gaps. The Washington Nationals suffered in 2020 both on offense and pitching. The Nationals might have been sixth in the league in runs scored per game but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Outside of Juan Soto and Trea Turner the Nationals line-up wasn’t exactly a minefield for opposing pitchers. I either Josh Bell, Starlin Castro, or Kyle Schwaber get back to pre-pandemic production that changes the line-up dramatically.
On the pitching side Stephen Strasburg’s decision not to attempt to comeback from his injury left a gaping hole in the Nationals rotation. One they could never fill. It’s fine to have an Erick Fedde as your fifth starter or trot out an Austin Voth every now and then to make a spot start, but neither should be in a rotation full time and having both is a quick way to sink a season. Jon Lester doesn’t miss starts. He is no longer a top of the rotation pitcher, but if he can anchor the four spot in the rotation while Strasburg, Scherzer, and Corbin do their thing and Fedde, Voth, Ross, and Rutledge battle it out for the fifth spot the team is in a much more stable if not better position.
None of these moves do enough to catch the Braves. Even if Schwaber and Bell return to pre-pandemic production and Lester pitches like he’s young again the Braves have too much fire power, but it might be enough to pass the Mets and Marlins and earn a Wild Card spot. That is how things stand right now. Add Realmuto or another veteran catcher, a third baseman, and a more reliable fifth starter to the rotation and then the Nationals have a chance to contend for the division title. Nowhere close to a guarantee of winning it but they can make it a fight.
We might be only eleven days from February but the offseason has barely gotten started and the Nationals still have work to do, but if the offseason were to end today then I am confident that the Nationals have a product that can contend for the playoffs. Although it would be a narrow path to the playoffs that involves a lot going right. Even if the Nationals make no further moves we get to watch Juan Soto slug and Stephen Strasburg pitch and maybe, just maybe, if a few things go right we can watch them do it in October once more.