As teams across the league have placed a greater emphasis on positional flexibility out of their hitters, the Nationals have mostly stayed on the course of slotting just one or two players into each position and counting on those starters to stay healthy.
That won’t be the case in 2020, when the Nationals will take the field with an unprecedented number of lineup combinations—at least by their standards.
Even though the team is planning on using the new 26th roster spot on a reliever, Washington’s bench will be deep with players who can slide into multiple positions. New additions Starlin Castro and Eric Thames will join returning veterans Asdrúbal Cabrera and Howie Kendrick to give the Nationals a plethora of options defensively.
NATIONALS SPRING TRAINING PREVIEW SERIES
Here’s a snapshot of the Nationals’ infield as they prepare for the trip down to West Palm Beach.
All ages listed are as of Opening Day.
First Base – Ryan Zimmerman, Eric Thames
2019 Stats: 52 games, .257/.321/.415, .736 OPS, 44 hits, 6 home runs, 27 RBIs, 20 runs scored, 17 walks, 39 strikeouts and 0 stolen bases
Contract: $2 million salary in 2020 with $2 million owed from buyout of team option
2019 Stats: 149 games, .247/.346/.505, .851 OPS, 98 hits, 25 home runs, 61 RBIs, 67 runs scored, 51 walks, 140 strikeouts and 3 stolen bases
The Nationals assembled themselves a formidable first base platoon this offseason, signing Ryan Zimmerman (.917 career OPS vs. lefties) and Eric Thames (.834 career OPS vs. righties).
Howie Kendrick should also get some time at first, though Thames and Zimmerman figure to be the most frequent starters given their lack of positional flexibility. (Thames can play in the corner outfield, but those spots will almost exclusively be occupied by Juan Soto and Adam Eaton.)
Zimmerman, a noted reluctant participant of spring training games, likely won’t see a ton of plate appearances in Grapefruit League play. At 35 years old, his biggest focus is to go into the season completely healthy after being limited to just 52 games in 2019 due to plantar fasciitis.
For Thames, spring training will present an opportunity for Thames to adjust to his new team after playing for the Milwaukee Brewers the last three years. Washington has a Gerardo Parra-sized hole and Thames is as good a candidate to fill it as any. He’s a well-liked player who brings a carefree attitude to his game that should fit seamlessly in the Nationals’ clubhouse.
“You could tell that they played like a unit,” Thames said shortly after he was signed. “So naturally, I love that. I love playing in a clubhouse where guys care about each other on top of winning, so it was a no-brainer for myself.”
Second Base – Starlin Castro, Howie Kendrick
2019 Stats: 162 games, .270/.300/.436, .736 OPS, 172 hits, 22 home runs, 86 RBIs, 68 runs scored, 28 walks, 111 strikeouts and 2 stolen bases
Contract: $5 million salary in 2020, $7 million salary in 2021, free agent after 2021
2019 Stats: 121 games, .344/.395/.572, .966 OPS, 115 hits, 17 home runs, 62 RBIs, 61 runs scored, 27 walks, 49 strikeouts and 2 stolen bases
Contract: $6.25 million salary in 2020, free agent after 2020
Both Starlin Castro and Howie Kendrick are slated in as the Nationals’ top second base options. However, it’s entirely possible they spend most of 2020 playing other positions. Castro is experienced at shortstop and third base, while Kendrick can also play third or first. They’re both significant pieces that will allow Washington to exercise flexibility in its day-to-day lineups.
Until Carter Kieboom has a chance to showcase the improvements he made over the offseason at third, Castro and Kendrick will project as the club’s primary second basemen. Kendrick’s age and health history make it unlikely that he’ll play every day despite coming off a career year, so Castro figures to make a lion’s share of the starts at the keystone.
The Nationals signed Castro with the hope that his second-half surge (.892 OPS and 16 home runs after the All-Star Break) will prove to be the new norm after he adjusted his swing with launch angle in mind. Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long is credited with changing the career arc of Daniel Murphy by helping him change his swing to hit more flyballs and line drives, so Castro will be a similar pupil whose potential Long will hope to unlock.
Kendrick had the best season of his career in 2019, albeit with only playing 121 games. According to FanGraphs, he set career highs in contact rate (84.3 percent) and hard-hit percentage (45.5 percent). While those numbers bode well for his ability to replicate his success in 2020, nothing is a given as he enters his age-36 season.
Shortstop – Trea Turner, Wilmer Difo
2019 Stats: 122 games, .298/.353/.497, .850 OPS, 155 hits, 19 home runs, 57 RBIs, 96 runs scored, 43 walks, 113 strikeouts and 35 stolen bases
Contract: $7.45 million salary in 2020, arbitration eligible in 2021, free agent after 2022
2019 Stats: 43 games, .252/.315/.313, .628 OPS, 33 hits, 2 home runs, 8 RBIs, 15 runs scored, 12 walks, 29 strikeouts and 0 stolen bases
Contract: $1 million salary for 2020, arbitration eligible in 2021, free agent after 2022
The biggest key to Trea Turner’s 2020 season? Not getting hit in the hand by pitches. He suffered a non-displaced fracture in his wrist in 2017 that forced him to miss 51 games, played all 162 games in 2018 then 39 games last year with a broken index finger.
Despite playing the rest of the season without being able to bend his finger, Turner turned in a strong season in which he posted his best numbers since the stellar half-season he put together as a rookie in 2016.
“I’ve started hitting, can hit with 10 fingers, feels good,” Turner said a WinterFest. “I said earlier, we’ll see how I play and might go back to nine if I don’t like it because I felt like last year went pretty good but definitely in a much better spot than last year.”
If the idea of dropping him to down to the third spot in the order is going to have any merit, he’ll need to add a power element to his game that he hasn’t displayed since that rookie year. The good news is Turner hit the ball hard more often than he ever had in his career (37.8 hard-hit percentage) in 2019. But he’s also going to need to get his walk rate back up; he dropped to a 7.6 walk percentage after improving in each of his previous two seasons.
Wilmer Difo has been an important utility player for the Nationals over the past few seasons, but their bench may be too full for him to make the club out of spring training.
If Kieboom wins the starting job at third, that will push Asdrúbal Cabrera to the bench alongside Thames/Zimmerman, Kendrick, Michael Taylor and the back-up catcher. Difo is out of options, so he may have to be designated for assignment if the Nationals don’t suffer an injury in spring training.
Third Base – Carter Kieboom, Asdrúbal Cabrera
2019 Stats: 11 games, .128/.209/.282, .491 OPS, 5 hits, 2 home runs, 2 RBIs, 4 runs scored, 4 walks, 16 strikeouts and 0 stolen bases
Contract: League minimum in 2020, arbitration eligible in 2023, free agent after 2025
2019 Stats: 131 games, .260/.342/.441, .783 OPS, 116 hits, 18 home runs, 91 RBIs, 69 runs scored, 57 walks, 103 strikeouts and 4 stolen bases
Contract: $2.5 million salary in 2020, free agent after 2020
All eyes will on Kieboom once spring training is underway, as manager Davey Martinez has said that the Nationals’ top prospect will have every opportunity to win the starting job if he proves capable in West Palm Beach.
Kieboom struggled in his short stint at the majors last season both at the plate and in the field. Now having shifted from his natural position of shortstop over to third, Kieboom will need to prove not only that his bat can play at the major-league level but also that he can adeptly field a position that he’s only played at for 10 games of his professional career.
“I’m as ready as I possibly can be,” Kieboom said at WinterFest. “I got my taste last year. I learned tons of stuff, definitely better off from it. I think as a player if you get an opportunity to go up there and it doesn’t work out and you get another opportunity to be able to go up there, you can’t really beat that. So I’m really excited, this is the best I’ve ever felt in an offseason
“Competition” wouldn’t be the right word to describe the situation Kieboom and Cabrera will find themselves in once they report to the Nationals’ facility in February. It’s a question of whether or not Kieboom can prove he’s ready to play in the majors on an everyday basis. If he can’t, then the Nationals will send him back down to the minors and give the job to Cabrera.
Cabrera struggled with the Texas Rangers before being designated for assignment in August. He signed with the Nationals and quickly turned his season around, registering more RBIs (40) than games played (38) for Washington down the stretch. The Nationals signed him for a bargain price of $2.5 million and even as a bench player can give the team options as a capable defender at all four infield positions.
Catcher – Kurt Suzuki, Yan Gomes
2019 Stats: 85 games, .264/.324/.486, .809 OPS, 74 hits, 17 home runs, 63 RBIs, 37 runs scored, 20 walks, 36 strikeouts and 0 stolen bases
Contract: $6 million salary in 2020, free agent after 2020
2019 Stats: 97 games, .223/.316/.389, .704 OPS, 70 hits, 12 home runs, 43 RBIs, 36 runs scored, 38 walks, 84 strikeouts and 2 stolen bases
Contract: $4 million salary in 2020, free agent after 2021
When the Nationals signed Kurt Suzuki and traded for Yan Gomes last offseason, they hoped to turn a black hole of offensive production at catcher into a reliable spot in the batting order by allowing two players to split time at the position and maximizing their individual output.
That plan didn’t come to fruition, as catcher was still the team’s worst position by OPS and Gomes in particular had a down season. Yet both catchers came through in big moments in the playoffs, and the team felt comfortable rolling with the veteran duo once again in 2020.
But as much as the Nationals would love for their catchers to improve at the plate despite both being on the wrong side of 30, the most important area they’re going to want them to focus on is their rapports with the rotation. Suzuki ended up being the personal catcher of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Aníbal Sánchez, while Gomes did the same for Patrick Corbin.
It’s not yet clear who the fifth starter will be, but in all likelihood Gomes will be assigned the task of matching up with whoever wins the job. If he can help one of those starters stick at the back of the rotation and eat innings, that’s going to provide Washington with a significant luxury it didn’t enjoy last season.
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