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2020 MLB Team Preview: Washington Nationals

Zach Thompson provides his thoughts on what the 60-game MLB season could look like for the Nationals.

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July update: The Nationals title defense will be one of the most unusual ones ever with an abbreviated 60-game season coming up. The team has had multiple players opt out or battle COVID-19 early in camp, so their roster will definitely look a little different when games get underway. Juan Soto and Victor Robles were both exposed to someone with COVID-19 and had to self-isolate, missing about a week of team workouts, but they are expected to be available on Opening Day. Relievers Roenis Elias and Wander Suero were also quarantined and may not be ready for the start of the season which could hurt Washington’s bullpen depth. Howie Kendrick also was delayed in reporting until July 16 for unknown reasons. In addition to those uncertainties, they’ll be without Ryan Zimmerman, Joe Ross and Welington Castillo, who have all announced that they will sit out the entire season. Zimmerman’s absence could me more time for Marcus Thames, and Ross’s departure leaves an opening at the back of the rotation that Austin Voth is expected to get the first shot to fill.

The Nationals won their first World Series championship last year after going 93-69 and earning the right to host the Brewers in the Wild Card game. They won that contest 4-3 with an eighth-inning rally and then knocked off the Dodgers, Cardinals and Astros on their way to hoisting the trophy.

Aside from the celebration, the offseason was a busy one for the team as well with both Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon big-name free agents. They were able to keep Strasburg but lost Rendon to the Angels. His absence will be the biggest void they need to fill, but there are some other positions in flux as well. Let’s see what they’ll need to do to repeat and what to expect from their players from a fantasy perspective in this season preview.

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Could Max Scherzer be on the decline?

DraftKings Sportsbook odds

— Division Winner: +260

— League Winner: +700

— World Series: +1600

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Key Departures:

Anthony Rendon, 3B; Brian Dozier, 2B; Fernando Rodney, RP; Jeremy Hellickson, SP

Key Acquisitions:

Starlin Castro, 2B; Eric Thames, 1B/OF; Will Harris, RP; Welington Castillo, C

2020 Fantasy MVP

Juan Soto, OF

Not surprisingly, the Nationals are a popular fantasy target with five players in the top 55 ADP. None of their stars shines more brightly, though than Soto, who turned only just turned 21 last October. The phenom hit .282 with 34 homers, 110 RBI, an impressive .401 OBP and a .949 OPS. He hit for more power in the second half of the season and especially thrived at home where he hit .311 with a 1.015 OPS. His home production and his passion for the game took him from a fan-favorite to a legend in D.C., where he’ll be looking to improve on already impressive numbers.

Soto doesn’t have Ronald Acuña’s speed or Mike Trout’s proven track record, but Soto has more room to grow since he’s still on the upswing of what should be a long and successful career. He isn’t quite in the tier of Trout, Acuña, Betts and Yelich yet, but definitely has the potential to get there this season. Soto’s million-watt smile will be lighting up Nationals Park and fantasy lineups, so add some joy and upside to your lineup by grabbing him at the end of the first or start of the second round.

2020 Fantasy LVP

Max Scherzer, SP

Of the “big five” Nationals, the one who could be most set up for to disappoint could be Scherzer. The big righty will be turning 36 this season, so he is probably getting towards the end of his prime years of fantasy production. Throughout his career, he has been remarkably consistent, durable and productive, but he was dealing with some minor issues in Spring Training already. Those things should be cleared up by the time things get underway, but there were some signs for concern that started to show last season.

For the first time since he became a regular in 2009, Scherzer started fewer than 30 games. His WHIP also crept up to the highest it has been since he joined the National League in 2015. His strikeout rate stayed consistent but he did throw 50 fewer innings during the regular season. With all of that being said, he’s still one of the first pitchers to consider in the early rounds. However, there is some risk of decline which makes him slide out of the first round for me. I’d rather build around Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole or wait and get Jack Flaherty, Walker Buehler or Stephen Strasburg.

2020 Breakout Player

Victor Robles, OF

Robles has elite speed, but at least for now, the Nationals appear ready to leave Trea Turner in the leadoff spot and keep Robles batting at the bottom of the order. The 22-year-old finished his rookie year with 28 stolen bases in 155 games and also added a solid 17 home runs while hitting .255. His power-speed combo would be well-served in the top of the lineup, and he could definitely move up in case of injury or if he gets off to a hot start. Robles did hit for better average in the minors, so he shouldn’t be a liability in that department while giving you nice steals and home runs.

Starlin Castro, 2B

Castro escaped Miami after two years with the Marlins and signed a two-year deal with the Nationals. The massive upgrade in lineup should help his counting stats and he could start the year batting in the No. 3 spot in the lineup vacated by Anthony Rendon. Last year, Castro made a major swing adjustment midseason to try and improve his launch angle. After July 1, he hit .313 after hitting .230 up to that point. He hit 17 home runs after that point with a .909 OPS. If he can continue that kind of production over the whole season from the middle of a much better lineup, Castro could be a great draft day value and a good DraftKings value on a regular basis.

Final Thoughts:

Repeating as a champion is always tough, and doing so without Anthony Rendon will be a tall task indeed for the Nationals. Their division is stacked with the Phillies, Mets and two-time defending division champion Braves. I see all four of those teams separated by a very slim margin at the end of the season with the Mets most likely to claim the division and the Phillies most likely left out of the playoffs. The Nationals and Braves will likely be right in the middle of the Wild Card hunt once again.

With the Nationals’ top three starting pitchers, they’ve shown they can get on a run and power through the postseason. If they get to the postseason, they’ll definitely be a force to be reckoned with. The emergence of top prospect Carter Kieboom will be one of the main keys, but I’m not convinced he’s ready to fill in productively at 3B. They’ll also need Anibal Sanchez and a combination of Joe Ross and Austin Voth to successfully fill in the end of their rotation. If things go there way, Washington could prove they weren’t just a one-hit-wonder as they continue to build around their core contributors in Soto, Turner, Robles and a stacked starting rotation.

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