The Washington Nationals won the World Series in 2019 despite losing their best position player, star outfielder Bryce Harper, in free agency the previous offseason.
Could a similar situation unfold in Boston this season after the Red Sox traded their best player and former American League MVP winner Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers last week? Red Sox chairman Tom Werner quickly brought up the Nationals after being asked Monday if he thought his team could have competed for a title in 2020 with Betts on the roster.
"Yes, but I also believe this team can compete for a championship with the pieces that we have," Werner told reporters at spring training. "You're all smart, so you also know the Washington Nationals won a championship without Bryce Harper. I understand what (Red Sox chief baseball officer) Chaim (Bloom) said -- that he feels in some ways we're not as strong without Mookie and of course that makes sense. But we haven't seen how this season plays out yet. I'm optimistic that we'll be very competitive."
There are a few key differences between the Nationals and the situation the Red Sox currently find themselves in.
First of all, Betts is a far better player than Harper. Since 2016, Harper has zero seasons with a WAR (wins above replacement) above five. Betts has an average WAR of 8.4 over the same span. Betts is an elite offensive player and one of the best defensive outfielders in the game. He's a rare five-tool player. The Nationals had a young star in Juan Soto ready to replace Harper's production at the plate. The Red Sox don't have that kind of player to fill in for Betts this year.
The Nationals also had a top player in the final year of his contract last season in Anthony Rendon, but they kept him through the trade deadline. Rendon ultimately left to sign with the Los Angeles Angels, but not before he played a pivotal role in Washington winning the World Series. The Red Sox, conversely, gave up on Betts before seeing how well the team would perform in his walk year.
However, the main difference between the 2019 Nationals and 2020 Red Sox is pitching.
Washington used the money that would've gone to Harper to sign Patrick Corbin, who was arguably the top starting pitcher on the free agent market after the 2018 campaign. Corbin teamed with two of the best starters in baseball, Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, to form a strong 1-2-3 in the Nationals' rotation. The Red Sox rotation is far worse. Chris Sale hasn't been able to consistently stay healthy since the team acquired him in 2016. Rick Porcello is wildly inconsistent from year to year, and Eduardo Rodriguez has not proven he can perform at a high level in consecutive seasons. And we cannot forget that David Price was shipped off to Los Angeles as part of the Betts trade with the Dodgers.
Boston's offense should still be one of the AL's best in 2020, even without Betts. There's plenty of talent in the Red Sox lineup, as J.D. Martinez pointed out Monday. The problem for the Red Sox in 2020 will be pitching, and it's why the chances of seeing a 2019 Nationals-like miracle in Boston this season are slim.