Following the MLB Players Association voting a resounding no on the owners’ final attempt to reach an agreement on the structure of a 2020 season, commissioner Rob Manfred reportedly plans to impose a 60-game schedule once the union both confirms when its players will be ready and approves MLB’s proposed health protocols.
Of course, Manfred's decision doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a season will be played. MLB is still at the mercy of the coronavirus pandemic, which could force health officials to ramp up safety measures should a second wave sweep across the U.S. However, the shape of a 2020 season has finally come into focus after months of bickering between the league and MLBPA.
For the Nationals, they now have a path in front of them for repeating as World Series champions. Here are the six biggest storylines that will surround the team if and when the season gets finally underway.
No room for a slow start
The Nationals famously stumbled out to a 19-31 start to last season before going on a four-month tear that earned them a Wild Card spot. It was one of the greatest turnarounds for an eventual champion in MLB history, but they can’t afford a similar start to the 2020 campaign.
In a 60-game season, every win is counting to count more than it ever has. The Nationals will have a tough schedule facing only opponents from their own division and the AL East (more on that later), so they’re going to need to come out of the gate hot in order to secure a playoff spot.
Keeping it tight while social distancing
A major factor that contributed to the Nationals’ comeback season from a year ago was their ability to cut loose and enjoy the game even when they had to climb out of the bottom of the standings. Dugout dance parties, group hugs and shark chomps were all major themes for a group that never seemed to stop having fun.
MLB’s health protocols are going to challenge the Nationals to keep that strong clubhouse culture intact while practicing social distancing and shaking up routines. Stephen Strasburg probably won’t be complaining about the lack of hugs, but the Nationals are going to have to adapt to a new normal that won’t allow them to bond like they did last season.
Juan Soto’s rise to superstardom
The Nationals outfielder was already considered one of the best up-and-coming young stars in the game before he elevated his status as a World Series performer last October. Now, he’ll have a chance to follow up that performance with a season that stacks up in the NL MVP race.
There’s been no indication yet as to the fate of the 2020 All-Star Game, so there’s a chance Soto might not have an opportunity to earn a bid to the Midsummer Classic. However, the 21-year-old has already made a name for himself on the national stage. The only thing left for him to do is take over as one best players in the entire sport, regardless of age.
How starting pitching holds up
The addition of Will Harris and decision to re-sign Daniel Hudson figure to help the Nationals’ bullpen improve on its dreadful 2019 campaign that forced manager Davey Martinez to basically ignore most of his relief corps in the playoffs. Yet the pressure will still be on Washington’s starters to carry the team back to the playoffs in 2020.
Max Scherzer must find a way to stay healthy and continue defying the aging curve. Stephen Strasburg will be tasked with showing he was worth the $245 million investment the Nationals made in him last winter. Patrick Corbin is still only in Year 2 of his deal and will be looking for more consistency this year. Even Aníbal Sánchez has something to prove entering his age-36 season.
The Nationals have the best rotation in baseball on paper. Can their starters live up to that billing?
Who plays third base?
Carter Kieboom entered spring training with a chance to compete for the starting third base job but turned in lackluster results both in the field and the plate. Only so much stock can be put into spring training performances, but did he do enough to earn a job?
The Nationals will likely put Kieboom on their taxi squad for this season, though it would not be surprising if he starts the year off the active roster while Asdrúbal Cabrera and perhaps Howie Kendrick hold down the position at third. However, the rookie would still only be one injury away from an everyday role, so it’s likely he’ll be playing at some point in 2020.
Interleague rivalry with AL East
It’s unclear how much of their 60-game schedule will be dedicated to interleague play, but the Nationals can count of facing their AL East counterparts at some point throughout the season. That means their schedule will include games against two reigning playoff teams (New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays), a rising club with plenty of young talent (Toronto Blue Jays), the down-but-not-out Boston Red Sox and a rebuilding Baltimore Orioles team.
The must-win nature of every game this season should make for some exciting matchups between the Nationals and the AL East. A taste of what’s to come: A rematch between World Series Game 1 starters Scherzer and Gerrit Cole, the promise of a Soto vs. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. young star showdown, a test of strengths between the Nationals’ rotation and the Rays’ bullpen, Victor Robles and Jackie Bradley Jr. exchanging web gems in center field and the Orioles graduating some of their top talent to the majors.
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