Skip to content
March 29, 2021 / Nat Anacostia

Nats’ 2020-2021 offseason in review: ‘I like to learn a lot of new things every day’

After winning their championship in 2019, the Nats’ front office mostly held pat heading into 2020. The result was brutal—the team’s first losing season in a decade as they tied for last place in the NL East. Heading into 2021, some old ties would need to be broken and some problems would need to be addressed.

At catcher, Kurt Suzuki was allowed to depart to the Angels as a free agent, and the Nats signed a one-year deal with Alex Avila to back up Yan Gomes. Avila was Max Scherzer‘s battery-mate in Detroit from 2010 to 2014, but at age 34 the left-hander’s recent batting averages have slipped well below the Mendoza line. Only by drawing a walk in about one out of every six plate appearances has he been able to keep his on-base percentage high enough to stay in baseball. Gomes is expected to do most of the catching, with Avila starting maybe one or two games a week.

At first base, the 2020 Nats had tried using Eric Thames, Asdrubal Cabrera, Howie Kendrick, and Brock Holt (with Cabrera and Holt also having spent time at third). All four were allowed to depart as free agents. Cabrera signed with the Diamondbacks, and Holt signed with the Rangers, while Thames signed with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan, and Kendrick retired. The Nats traded to fill the gap, sending two pitchers (Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean) to the Pirates in exchange for the 28-year old switch-hitter Josh Bell, who has a career wRC+ of 113. In 2019 Bell had a super-hot two-month start (.343/.405/.704 with 18 home runs in April and May), but fell off in the second half and had a poor season in 2020 (.226/.305/.364). The hope is that he recovers his power bat and that that will make up for his poor glove at first base. Ryan Zimmerman, who opted out last season due to Covid, signed a one-year deal. He’s expected to back up Bell at first and be available as a switch hitter.

Going into spring training, the other big question mark in the infield was third base, but the Nats apparently were committed to sticking with Carter Kieboom. But illustrating the rare case where spring training statistics really do matter, Kieboom went only 6 for 45 this spring and will start the season at the Nats’ alternate training site in Fredericksburg. Starlin Castro is now slated to play third, with Josh Harrison taking over at second. Trea Turner, of course, holds down shortstop. As utility infielders, the Nats selected the non-roster invitee and former Pirate shortstop, Jordy Mercer, and long-time utility player, Hernan Perez, who had signed a minor league contract. Luis Garcia was optioned and will also spend April at the alternate training site.

In the outfield, the Nats let Adam Eaton depart via free agency to the White Sox, and outrighted Michael A. Taylor, allowing him to enter free agency from whence he signed with the Royals. To fill the vacancy in left field, the Nats signed 28-year old Kyle Schwarber to a one-year deal. They hope his left-handed bat will provide power in the middle of the lineup. Schwarber’s production in 2020 was pretty dismal (.188/.308/.393, wRC+ of 77), but in 2019 he hit 38 home runs with a wRC+ of 121. As with Bell at first, defense is likely to be a liability for Schwarber. The Nats’ outfield rounds out with Victor Robles in center and the incomparable Juan Soto in right, with Andrew Stevenson moving into the fourth outfielder role.

The front of the Nats starting rotation is built around the pitchers who led them to their 2019 championship—Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. Anibal Sanchez departed as a free agent and so far hasn’t been signed. As their fourth starter, the Nats signed 37-year old Jon Lester to a one-year, $5 million deal. Joe Ross, who opted out last season, returns and should start the season as the fifth starter.

The Nats lost several relief pitchers to free agency—Sean Doolittle, who signed with the Reds; Roenis Elias, who signed with the Mariners; James Bourque, who signed with the Cubs; and Sam Freeman, who currently remains unsigned. The Nats made some investments, signing 31-year old closer Brad Hand to a one-year, $10.5 million contract. They also signed Jeremy Jeffress to a minor league contract, but released him two weeks later due to unspecified “personnel reasons.” Luis Avilan also signed a minor league contract and had his contract selected, allowing him to start the season with the Nationals. Hand and Avilan will be joined by returning relievers, Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey, Wander Suero, and Kyle Finnegan. The Nats will also start the season carrying two long relievers (and backup starters), Austin Voth, and Erick Fedde. The Nats had hoped to option Fedde, but an arbiter determined that he, like Voth, is now out of options. We’ll see whether the team is able to maintain a bullpen with two long relievers; I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them were to be traded.

While the Nats had a number of minor injuries during spring training, at present the only “regular” player who seems likely to start the season on the injured list is Will Harris, who recently received a good prognosis about a suspected blood clot. The 40-man roster includes several more players who were added to the team this off-season and will continue to train at the alternate site. Gerardo Parra returned to the Nats after playing for the Yomiuri Giants in 2020. The team also claimed pitcher Rogelio Armenteros off waivers and signed relief pitcher Sam Clay as a minor league free agent.

Turning to other changes taking place this off-season, the 2020 season saw a number of rule changes and some of them have been kept for 2021. Gone are the expanded playoffs (good riddance!) and the universal DH. The size of the active roster has dropped back to 26 players.* But MLB decided to retained the 7-inning doubleheader games (a change that I found I liked) and the runner on second in extra innings (I’m still not used to that one). Teams will also be able to bring along a five-player taxi squad on road trips. There are a bunch of covid-related health rules as well, but I won’t go into those.

*I had forgotten that in 2019 MLB had announced that beginning in 2020 the active roster size would increase from 25 to 26, along a limit on September rosters of 28. These changes didn’t take effect last year, as MLB allowed teams to carry a 28-man active roster, but they will be effective this season.

Fans will be back in the stands this season too. Each city sets its own rules, and Washington’s limit of 5,000 fans is one of the most restrictive (only Boston’s limit of 4,500 is smaller), with most cities allowing 20 to 30% of seating capacity. Because of the U.S.-Canada border closure, the Blue Jays will play their home games in Florida to start the season.

MASN has cut back its pre-game and post-game coverage, resulting in Dan Kolko, Bo Porter, and Alex Chappell losing their jobs. The Nats expressed their displeasure with MASN’s decisions, and Kolko has landed a job with the Nationals team. Chappell took a job with Amazon Web Services and Porter will work for MLB Operations.

The most fundamental change taking place this off-season was a reformation of the minor leagues. Here’s a little history first.

Minor League Baseball was organized in 1901 with the creation of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. From the beginning, the major leagues held the advantage in the relationship by controlling richer markets and better players, but for roughly their first quarter century the minor leagues operated more-or-less independently of the majors. With the development of farm systems in the late 1920s and 1930s, however, the minor leagues moved into a vassal relationship to the majors, which now controlled the on-field talent.

In 2019 and 2020, MLB decided it wanted to take more control of minor league operations and cut the number of minor league affiliates. The pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020 Minor League Baseball (MiLB) season, weakening the franchises. MiLB attempted to work out an agreement with MLB to continue their professional agreement, but on September 30 MLB let the agreement expire. MLB took control of minor league operations, cut the number of affiliates from 162 to 120, and announced that it would negotiate directly with the affiliates that it had decided to retain. The old minor leagues, such as the International League and the Pacific Coast League, are gone, and the new organization is known as the “Professional Development League.” MiLB continues to exist and operate its website, but their arrangement with MLB appears to be temporary and transitional. Some of the former minor league affiliates will be homes for collegiate summer leagues or independent leagues, while others (such as Hagerstown) are losing their teams, at least in the short term.

The changes appear to mostly have been about power (MLB wants more direct control over the minor leagues) and saving money by cutting the number of minor league teams and reducing travel. The Nats will have four minor league affiliates—the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, Double-A Harrisburg Senators, High-A Wilmington Blue Rocks, and Low-A Fredericksburg Nationals.

Most major league fans won’t notice the changes too much. The replacement of Fresno with Rochester will clearly benefit the Nats by reducing travel time for Triple-A call-ups. The main effects are on the small towns that are losing their teams and on the players (especially those drafted out of high school) who will lose the chance to try their skills in the minors. This summer’s first-year player draft will take place in mid-July run between 20 and 30 rounds, in contrast to about 40 rounds in the past.

The other change that Nats fans will notice is that minor league seasons will start later, with Triple A scheduled to start about May 4. A number of minor league players, including those on 40-man roster, will spend April at the Nats’ alternate training site in Fredericksburg.

Opening day is Thursday, April 1, 7:09 pm, at home against the Mets. The weather forecast (low 40s and rain) isn’t good. We’ll hope for the best.

%d bloggers like this: