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Where is the dent in Houston’s roster? Nowhere

Where is the dent in Houston’s roster? Nowhere

What we know: Game 1 is Tuesday night in Houston. What we don’t: who will be pitching to start it.

There are reasonable guesses. Gerrit Cole is 99 percent the choice for Houston. Max Scherzer is the likely pick for Washington -- though it could tweak the whole situation by pitching Aníbal Sánchez in Game 1. Why Sánchez? Pitching Sánchez bumps Scherzer to Games 2 and 6, Stephen Strasburg to Games 3 and 7, and gives Patrick Corbin a start as well as two chances to use him out of the bullpen. The risk is two starts for Sánchez, though he has been pitching better than Corbin in the postseason.

Moving on. 

A closer look at the Astros confirms what is assumed from afar when the 107 in the wins column is viewed. They are a juggernaut. Often, that’s hyperbole. Not here.

Houston was No. 1 in Major League Baseball in OPS against right-handed pitching this season. Usually, that’s a left-handed heavy team which would suffer to a degree on the other side. Not the Astros. They were No. 2 in OPS against left-handed pitching. Rookie Yordan Alvarez carried an OPS over 1.000 against each side. George Springer is above .900 against both sides. So is Carlos Correa. 

Flip it. Maybe the Astros’ pitching has a notable problem against one side or the other. Nope. They are No. 2 this season in OBP-against by right-handed hitters (the Nationals are a right-handed heavy lineup). They are No. 1 against left-handed hitter in the same category. 

So, well, where else? The bullpen. Try there.

Roberto Osuna is the closer. He led the American League in games finished and saves. However, Osuna has not been infallible in the postseason. His ERA is 3.52. Sean Doolittle has been more than a run better, at 2.46. Daniel Hudson has not allowed a run. The key shot against Osuna came Saturday night when DJ LeMahieu hit a game-tying homer in the top of the ninth.

Osuna mixes a lot of pitches for a closer. He throws his fastball less than 50 percent of the time, his slider 18.4 percent of the time, a cutter 13.9 percent and a changeup 18.4 percent. He’s a rarity, the four-pitch closer.

Overall, the Astros’ bullpen was second in ERA.

Here’s another way to look at it: Do the Astros own the skills to get into the Nationals’ weakest point, the middle of the bullpen? Of course they do.

Houston led MLB in walk percentage and OBP. It is able to run up pitch counts, creating the gap between the high-end starter and the relievers with juice. The soft middle, as it is, for the Nationals, a place they desperately want to avoid.

So, to recap: the starting pitching is elite. The hitters operate against both sides. The bullpen is elite. The manager has been in charge of a club for three consecutive seasons of 101 wins or more, three consecutive ALCS appearances, two World Series appearances, and one title. Juggernaut, indeed.

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Don't worry Nationals fans, Anthony Rendon was never going to be a Dodger

Don't worry Nationals fans, Anthony Rendon was never going to be a Dodger

While Nationals fans are understandably disappointed Anthony Rendon is no longer a member of the Nationals, they can rest easy knowing he didn't see himself signing the the NL rival Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers never made an offer to Rendon, per The Athletic, after "sensing that he didn’t want to play in Los Angeles." He instead signed with the Los Angeles Angels, inking a seven-year, $245 million deal to play for the California team that receives considerably less media attention than its in-state rival.

Now entrenched in the AL on the other side of the country, Rendon won't face the Nationals very often nor will his team's play have any effect on Washington's playoff chances from year to year. It was a best-case scenario for fans after it became likely he wouldn't be returning to Washington.

After being spurned by Rendon and losing out on top free-agent pitchers Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, the Dodgers are still looking to make their first big move of the offseason.

There's still plenty of time for them to make a move, but Los Angeles can expect little sympathy from Nationals fans that Rendon won't be suiting up in Dodger blue for the next seven years.

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Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Here’s the list of players on the Nationals’ active roster who could play third base: Wilmer Difo, Jake Noll, Adrián Sánchez, Howie Kendrick, Carter Kieboom. Career major-league starts at the position: Difo, 29; Noll, one; Sánchez, nine; Kendrick, 25; Kieboom, zero. 

Such is the state of third base for the defending World Series champions. Not good. 

Which makes Josh Donaldson’s agent smile and any semi-skilled third baseman with a pulse a possible target. Possible trades? Count the Nationals in. On most. Not on Nolan Arenado. That’s a non-starter because Washington is not going to send assets (prospects) for a contract it was unwilling to give Anthony Rendon in the first place. Zero chance. Zilch.

However, Kris Bryant is more intriguing depending on the years and ask -- as always with trades. Beyond him and Kyle Seager, is there another third baseman the Nationals could pursue in a trade? The question takes on weight because of the aforementioned toothless list of in-house candidates and shallow free-agent talent pool beyond Donaldson.

Any trade consideration needs to begin with an understanding of the parameters Washington is working from. Last season, Rendon’s one-year deal to avoid arbitration earned him $18.8 million. When Washington looks at the cost for its next third baseman, the number will be similar to last season’s cost for Rendon. A bump in the competitive balance tax threshold, plus savings at first base and catcher, provide the Nationals wiggle room for increases in spots. So, $18-25 million annually for a third baseman is in play.

Second, the Nationals’ farm system needs to be taken into account. Their 2018 first-round pick, Mason Denaburg, had shoulder problems last year. Mike Rizzo said at the Winter Meetings that Denaburg is healthy and progressing. But, the early shoulder irritation for a high school pitcher who also had problems his senior year with biceps tendinitis provides his stock pause. He’s a would-be trade chip. So is Kieboom.

But, what is Kieboom’s value? What damage did it receive during his rocky, and brief, appearance in the majors last season? Did his potent hitting in the Pacific Coast League after being sent back mitigate his big-league struggles? 

Beyond Kieboom, the farm system’s next tier is manned by Luis Garcia, 2019 first-round pick Jackson Rutledge, Wil Crowe and Tim Cate, among others. Only Garcia is part of MLB.com’s top-100 prospects list (which is more of a guide than an industry standard).

So, when Bryant or Seager -- or anyone not named Arenado -- are mentioned, know where the Nationals are coming from. If they are positioned to take on money, they don’t want to use assets to do it (this is the Donaldson Scenario). If they can save money, find a solid player and retain the few high-end assets, then a trade could be in play (this would be the Seager Scenario, if Seattle pays some of the contract). 

The Bryant Scenario is the most appealing and challenging. He’s the best player of the group. However, acquiring him would be high-cost and short-term. Bryant has two years remaining before he can become a free agent -- with an outside shot at becoming a free agent after next season because of a grievance he filed against the Cubs for service-time manipulation. Obtaining him would likely focus on multiple pitching prospects.

There is no Arenado Scenario. Just a reminder.

Piled together, Washington is in a tough spot. What it has is not enough. What it needs will be costly.

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