Welcome to the first in a series of stories looking at multiple problems the Nationals will have to deal with in the offseason. They have apparent and underlying flaws. The roster will be trimmed, revamped and made younger. The team needs more power and to play much more precise baseball in order to move back into postseason contention.
Under that umbrella, we’ll look at different issues then offer possible solutions. Let’s start with third base and outfield defense.
How bad was it? Just short of the worst in Major League Baseball. Nationals third baseman delivered a 29th-ranked .575 OPS, .001 percentage points in front of Milwaukee third baseman. And, it’s not just the number compared to the rest of the league. The massive year-over-year dip is eye-popping.
Anthony Rendon finished 2019 as an MVP finalist with a 1.003 OPS. This year, his first in Anaheim, he delivered a .915 OPS. So, the Nationals took a 428-point hit in OPS in one spot year-over-year.
Most of the reduction came because the team decided to give rookie Carter Kieboom a full-time chance at third base. His .556 OPS basically defined the position for the Nationals in 2020. Asdrúbal Cabrera helped pull up the OPS when he played third.
How to fix this?
There’s not an easy answer. The Nationals could try Kieboom backed by a veteran again. They could do something dramatic like move Luis García to third base and Kieboom to more of a utility role (or back to Triple-A). Remember, Starlin Castro is under contract at just $6 million again next year. He will be the everyday second baseman. Castro did play a limited amount of third base for Miami in 2019. However, the Nationals have pegged him only as a second baseman. Maybe Kieboom’s struggles make them rethink. If Castro was at third and García at second, the lineup would have increased depth.
The free agent market is limited. Like most positions this offseason, it’s filled with players at least 30 years old. DJ LeMahieu is graciously listed as a third baseman in some instances despite playing just 104 games there in 10 seasons. He would also be an expensive multi-year choice following two blistering seasons at the plate for the New York Yankees. Here’s a list of prospective free agents at the position with their ages:
Asdrubal Cabrera (35) Zack Cozart (35) Todd Frazier (35) — $5.75MM club option with a $1.5MM buyout Marwin Gonzalez (32) Jedd Gyorko (32) — $4.5MM club option with a $1MM buyout Josh Harrison (33) Adeiny Hechavarria (32) Brock Holt (33) Tommy La Stella (32) Jake Lamb (30) DJ LeMahieu (32) Brad Miller (31) Joe Panik (30) Eric Sogard (35) Justin Turner (36)
Lamb, who was hurt in 2018 and 2019, is a powerful bat when healthy. He slugged .509 and .487 in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Though an average defender, he should receive thorough consideration. Lamb’s cost will be in line with the Nationals’ level of spending interest at the spot. Kieboom can be the fall back in that situation.
Turner is also an interesting option -- even at 36 years old. Turner’s contract in Los Angeles peaked at $19 million this season. He’s been consistent through his 30s: .298 batting average, .884 OPS and 3.0 bWAR. The Nationals don’t want to be in the high teens or over $20 million annually for third base. Otherwise, Rendon would be standing there for the next six years. If the designated hitter sticks in the National League -- something that has become less certain after seeing it on display in 2020 -- that would enable Turner’s future employer to put him in the field four or five times a week. The question for Turner is what level of pay cut he will accept.
The Nationals knew they would incur an offensive gap in 2020 after Rendon’s departure. They hoped to chip away at it elsewhere, with more production at second base, for instance. Instead, they encountered a giant hole they could not fill which needs to be resolved this offseason.
Fangraphs uses a catch-all defensive metric call, simply, “Defense” and abbreviated DEF. Here is the explanation of the metric:
Defense (Def) is the combination of two important factors of defensive performance: value relative to positional average (fielding runs) and positional value relative to other positions (positional adjustment). In order to properly evaluate a player’s defensive value, you need to know both factors and adding them together and providing it on the site saves you a bit of legwork. With that in mind, these were the bottom three defenders on the Nationals in 2020:
Victor Robles, -2.9 Juan Soto, -3.5 Adam Eaton, -3.6
The eye test suggested all three regressed from 2019, when Soto and Robles were Gold Glove finalists (something that needs a grain of salt and is a discussion for another day). The Nationals, by a lot of measures, had a top-three outfield defense last year despite Eaton’s poor play. That’s how solid Soto was and how good Robles was. The drastic step back in 2020 should be a much easier fix than third base.
Soto will be back to full health. The team advised him to play a conservative left field when he first returned from quarantine, then again after his left elbow was sore. Davey Martinez told him not to throw at full strength. Soto was instead told to just hit the cutoff man.
Robles is expected to be lighter and more mobile following an offseason workout program more focused on that than muscle building. His first step was measurably slower in 2020, Martinez said. His defensive values should recover.
Simply removing Eaton will improve the outfield defense (unless he is replaced by Marcell Ozuna or a similarly immobile player).
The outfield defense ties to third base. In addition to thinking better offense at second base would close the overall runs-scored/runs-prevented gap produced by Rendon’s departure, the team figured better overall defense would also help. Instead, the defense was worse, compounding the problem.
Expect better next year by default.