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Nationals 2020 lookahead: Expect Adam Eaton to headline bounceback candidates

Nationals 2020 lookahead: Expect Adam Eaton to headline bounceback candidates

Few things define baseball’s difficulties like the year-to-year swoons players have or what is considered success. If you fail seven out of 10 times for 12 years, that may be enough for the Hall of Fame. Nowhere else is such a low rate of accomplishment acceptable at work, let alone lauded.

Which is why players bounce back from one year to the next, flop after a big season or emerge from the weeds.

So, who of the defending World Series champions could fall into each category? Let’s look:

Bounceback candidate: Adam Eaton.

Recent memories of Adam Eaton may make him seem an odd choice here. He hit .320 in the World Series, including two home runs. His .993 OPS was better than Anthony Rendon’s against Houston in the postseason’s final series.

But, prior, Eaton went through another solid-to-average regular season. His 101 OPS-plus suggests he was right on the border of being an average major leaguer on offense. It was also the lowest of any full season of his career.

His defense was worse. Eaton misplayed or misread several fly balls last season on the way to a third consecutive season with a negative defensive WAR. He noticed.

“I stunk last year defensively, still coming with my leg,” Eaton said in spring training.

And now?

“I feel so much better,” Eaton said. “Even just bouncing around the outfield. I was still on one leg quite a bit last year. I think once July hit, that’s really when I kind of hit my stride with the leg -- August -- where I could really have my legs underneath me, I was really able to play full tilt. Early on, I was fielding ground balls on one leg. Peg-legging it.”

Eaton is 31 years old. One team option remains on his contract. If his defense comes back -- likely -- and his offense takes a modest boost, he could move back to 4-WAR territory and help close the gap produced by Rendon’s departure.

Regression candidate: Daniel Hudson.

Hudson went through an October like no other. He became a crucial part of the Nationals’ bullpen, a father for the third time and a national storyline.

Hudson’s 1.44 ERA and 322 ERA-plus with the Nationals were both significantly better than his career numbers of 3.83 and 109, respectively. Even his combined numbers from Toronto and Washington (2.47, 186) were well-beyond his career marks.

What helps Hudson this year? Sharing time with Will Harris, Sean Doolittle and even Tanner Rainey should lighten his workload. It could make his spots to pitch more pinpoint and advantageous.

But, he now has a decade of sample size. And last year was glaring for its departure from his norm. Expect him to go backward.

Breakout candidate: Tanner Rainey

He will perpetually be a breakout candidate. It’s the reason he is in Washington.

When Mike Rizzo swapped Tanner Roark for Rainey, the move seemed curious. Washington lost a lot of innings, a solid starting pitcher and traded him for a Triple-A reliever.

That was Rainey, who easily throws 99 to 100 mph. It’s not a max effort delivery to do so. Rainey’s fastball averaged 97.8 mph last season. His slider, which he upped the usage of, averaged 87 mph. That’s a distinct speed difference when the mechanics are the same. His 13.78 strikeouts per nine innings was elite.

The challenge is command and plan. Rainey needs to spot his pitches better and to understand his fundamental attack better. A second year with a full workload should help him. Video is one thing. Standing on the mound staring at a specific hitter is another.

Rainey also needs to be better against left-handed hitters. His splits heavily favor them, and the new three-batter minimum rule is going to bring them to the plate to face him.

Fixing each department incrementally -- command, plan, execution against lefties -- would launch Rainey into being one of the better setup men in baseball. His command will never be pinpoint. He’s going to allow home runs. However, his stuff is electric enough to make up for some of his detriments, leading to a chance for a breakout season.

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What if the Nationals faced the Yankees, not the Astros, in the World Series?

What if the Nationals faced the Yankees, not the Astros, in the World Series?

This week, NBC Sports Washington is taking a look at some of the biggest “What If” questions in Nationals history. First up, Matt Weyrich and Jim Scibilia examine what the 2019 World Series would’ve looked like had the Yankees faced Washington instead of the Astros.

The Houston Astros had a pretty brutal last few months of 2019.

They closed out the month of October by blowing leads in both Games 6 and 7 of the World Series, handing the Nationals one of the biggest upset victories in MLB history. In November, they were exposed for carrying out an illegal sign-stealing scheme that prompted a two-month investigation. Then, just before Christmas, they lost star pitcher Gerrit Cole in free agency.

Perhaps the only thing that could’ve made it worse? Losing to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series to fall short of winning the AL pennant.

In another timeline, the Yankees came back against the Astros in Game 6 of the ALCS before taking them down in a win-or-go-home Game 7. The matchup would’ve posed a very different challenge for the Nationals, who swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS before waiting four days to find out who they would be facing in the World Series.

The Yankees would’ve made their 41st appearance in the Fall Classic, an MLB record. Meanwhile, the Nationals were embarking on their first World Series run in franchise history—and D.C.’s first appearance since 1933. Even though the Astros posed a juggernaut-type threat as well, the Yankees’ history would’ve made the uphill battle appear even more steep for Washington.

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D.C. doesn’t get a lot of credit nationally for being a sports town, but there’s no better way for a fanbase to get in the spotlight than by facing a New York City team in a championship. How does the Nationals Park crowd fare against the Yankee Stadium faithful? What is each city doing to support its team? Have mayors Bill de Blasio and Muriel Bowser made a friendly wager on the outcome of the series?

As for the games themselves, the Nationals entered the World Series on seven days’ rest while the Yankees would’ve only had two days to prepare following their ALCS Game 7 win. Even though many debated whether they would be rusty after the break from playing, the Nationals jumped out to a 2-0 series lead against Houston; they would've been fresh and ready to take on a tired Yankees team.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone planned to use Luis Severino in Game 7 of the ALCS had they made it, which would’ve lined up the following pitching matchups in the World Series:

Game 1 – Masahiro Tanaka vs. Max Scherzer (with Corbin available out of the bullpen)

Game 2 – James Paxton vs. Stephen Strasburg

Game 3 – Luis Severino vs. Aníbal Sánchez

Game 4 – Yankees’ bullpen vs. Patrick Corbin

Game 5 – Masahiro Tanaka vs. Joe Ross (Scherzer woke up that morning with neck spasms)

Game 6 – James Paxton vs. Stephen Strasburg

Game 7 – Luis Severino vs. Max Scherzer

Just like the real Game 1 with Scherzer and Cole on the mound, this version would’ve featured a fantastic pitching matchup with three-time Cy Young winner Scherzer facing Tanaka and his 1.76 career postseason ERA. However, there was no Justin Verlander behind Tanaka like the Astros had behind Cole, pushing the advantage in starting pitching much farther over in favor of Washington.

Paxton and Severino combined to make five playoff starts last October and only once did one of them advance past the fifth inning (Paxton went six in ALCS Game 5). Strasburg, who won World Series MVP, would’ve been the difference maker with two matchups against Paxton while Severino would’ve been tasked with besting NLCS star Sánchez and Scherzer.

The most intriguing matchup, however, might have been Game 4. The Yankees entered the playoffs with one of the best bullpens in the majors, making it an easy choice for Boone to use his relief corps rather than give J.A. Happ or CC Sabathia a chance to start. On the other side, the Nationals would've been starting prized offseason addition Corbin. The runner-up for his services in free agency? The Yankees.

On offense, New York boasted an elite combination of star power and depth much like the Astros. Giancarlo Stanton would’ve been a player to watch, as his 34 home runs against the Nationals from his time with the Miami Marlins are his second-highest total against any team. Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu, Edwin Encarnacion and Gary Sanchez all presented power threats in the box as well.

Perhaps the two most fun players to watch in the series, however, would’ve been Gleyber Torres and Juan Soto. Both young stars from Latin America play with a flair and level of self-confidence that make them must-watch TV every time they step to the plate. Although each player had already built up a national reputation on their own, facing off on the World Series stage would’ve been a treat for fans everywhere.

Of course, the Yankees didn’t make the World Series, so we’ll never know what the outcome would’ve been had the Nationals faced them instead. But there’s no doubt such a matchup would’ve presented plenty of intrigue—both on and off the field.

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MLB return: Will pending free agents choose to sit out 2020?

MLB return: Will pending free agents choose to sit out 2020?

“Risk” continues to be the defining term while the Major League Baseball Players Association and league haggle over how to start the season.

The players vaulted a proposal back to the league late Sunday night, as reported by ESPN, which included a 114-game season to run from June 30-Oct. 31 (as opposed to the 82-game season offered six days ago by the league). Players added a salary deferral caveat. Deferrals of $100 million for players who make $10 million or more would be triggered if the postseason -- a large earner for owners and risk in financial recuperation for the players this year -- did not occur. The players threw in some fresh ideas, including additional microphones on the field, possibly a separate offseason Home Run Derby, and expanded playoffs for the next two years, to further ring the cash register.

An open-ended idea also made its way into what the players sent back. The union proposed players deemed high-risk to play during the coronavirus pandemic could opt out of the season and still receive salary. It also suggested players not deemed high-risk could opt out of the season. They would not be paid, but would still receive service time. This is a wild-card in the proposal.

A tussle between personal preservation and team duty will be coming for players who can be free agents. Does Mookie Betts, who will be the offseason’s focal point, want to risk playing this year? Does Sean Doolittle? Will they worry about this extended lull before sprinting back into a season? If the union gains games -- forcing multiple doubleheaders into the schedule -- will an everyday player scoff at putting his body through that with a payday just months away?

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Betts was the central figure in the union’s original agreement with the league in March. Service time was crucial to the players because they wanted to vault Betts into free agency no matter what. They wanted Juan Soto’s clock to move another year forward. Major League Baseball is structured against young players. Free agency is the only salvation. Moving toward it is paramount at any point, even when recent offseason spending has lost its past fervor.

So, underlying this agreement will be that idea. The players will not give on service time. They say they will not give on salary. These are two anchors going forward.

Betts, Doolittle and a slew of others will have to evaluate their “risk” differently. Betts will be 28-years-old this offseason. A 10-year contract for more money than Bryce Harper or Manny Machado received will be his focus. Doolittle is in the final year of his overwhelming underpayment as a result of a five-year, $10.5 million contract he signed in Oakland. He will be 34 by the time the offseason starts. His remaining contracts are few.

These questions will slam into the general desire percolating beneath all players. They are here to compete. Emerging from the minor-league crab bucket is a challenge for most. Doolittle was a late first-round pick. As a first baseman. He didn’t reach the major leagues until he was 25 years old. Telling him sitting out any portion of a season would be in his theoretical best interest is a difficult sell. But, he will have to consider it, along with the health of his wife, Eireann Dolan, who has a chronic lung condition. Even in a season which could be a “repeat” for the Nationals.

A new challenge emerges each time a new proposal is lobbed from one side to another. Perfect is unattainable. Good enough is the goal here, and if that means service time moves without certain players on the field in 2020, so be it. The union just said that’s acceptable.

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