Even after sell-off, Nats lineup remained productive

A lot of things with the Nationals went wrong this season, horribly wrong. But not everything. And one thing that did work out in the end, surprisingly enough, was a lineup that was productive both prior to and after the massive trade-deadline sell-off.

The Nats ended the season with the highest team batting average (.258) and on-base percentage (.337) in the National League. Their .754 OPS was fourth-highest in the NL, tied with the NL East champion Braves and only five points lower than the vaunted Dodgers.

And they sustained that production throughout the season, even after dealing away Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Yan Gomes and Josh Harrison. Their batting average after July 30 was identical to their batting average prior to it. Their on-base percentage and OPS went up.

No, this was not a perfect lineup. It had flaws, both in personnel and in situational performance. But ultimately the Nationals had a good enough batting order to win a lot more than 65 games.

Thumbnail image for Soto-Connects-Blue-Sidebar.jpgIt started, of course, with the best hitter on the planet. Juan Soto had an MVP-caliber season, his best full season as a big leaguer. His .313 batting average, .465 on-base percentage and .999 OPS all were career highs, excluding the 60-game pandemic season, and even his .534 slugging percentage was a mere 14 points worse than his mark in 2019 and still ranked eighth in the National League.

But the Nationals' offensive success wasn't just about Soto. He had help, even in August and September.

Josh Bell, following a brutal opening month to his first season in D.C. that began with a stint on the COVID-19 injured list, wound up a more than capable cleanup hitter and viable lineup protection for Soto. His .889 OPS from May 13 through season's end ranked 14th in the NL, ahead of the likes of Mookie Betts, Pete Alonso and Manny Machado.

"He had a terrific spring training and then got sidetracked with COVID, and I think that turned a lot of naysayers early in the season into believers," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "This is a guy that at 29 years old had a career 800-plus OPS. That was the player that we traded for, and that's the player we got."

Soto and Bell combined for 183 RBIs, and that was largely a reflection of the guys who got on base in front of them out of the top two spots in the lineup. Early on, that was Turner, Harrison and Schwarber. But down the stretch, it was Lane Thomas and Alcides Escobar, two unexpected contributors who far exceeded expectations after taking over everyday roles.

Thomas supplanted the ineffective Victor Robles as the Nationals' leadoff man and starting center fielder, and did everything he could to ensure the job will remain his next spring. The 26-year-old, who hit .172/.289/.336 in 142 plate appearances for the Cardinals over parts of three seasons, may have realized his full potential following his trade for Jon Lester, hitting .270/.364/.489 in 206 plate appearances.

Escobar, who Tuesday agreed to a one-year deal to return in 2022, was an out-of-nowhere find after his acquisition from the Royals' Triple-A affiliate July 3 when the Nats were desperate for healthy infielders. He wound up hitting .288/.340/.404 in 75 games while showing an uncanny knack for making contact, especially with two strikes. His ability to put bat on ball helped the Nationals finish with the lowest strikeout rate in the NL at 21.3 percent.

"The value is, for a lot of teams, home runs and walks," manager Davey Martinez said in late September. "And don't get me wrong, I love home runs and I love walks. But there's also value in just moving the baseball. And we've done that. We've scored five or six runs a game, just because we're able to do that. We're able to put the ball in play, and we don't accept strikeouts."

Equally adept at contact was rookie catcher Keibert Ruiz, who came to the Nationals in the Turner-Max Scherzer blockbuster with a reputation for being able to put the bat on the ball and certainly lived up to it. He struck out only four times in 89 plate appearances and by season's end was starting to consistently hit with authority.

Beyond that, though, there are questions in the Nats lineup plans heading into the winter. Do they need a more productive left fielder than Yadiel Hernandez, who did an admirable job after Schwarber was traded, but didn't hit for much power and struggled in the field? Is 21-year-old Luis García the answer at second base after showing flashes of his skills down the stretch? ("I think that he'll have every opportunity to be our everyday second baseman," Rizzo said.) Has time run out on 2016 first-round pick Carter Kieboom, who has been given several opportunities to seize the job at third base and has yet to offer much evidence he deserves it? ("The jury's still out if he can make those adjustments," Rizzo said, "but he's got the skill set and the tools to be a good everyday player in the big leagues.")

These are important questions, but they aren't necessarily at the top of the Nationals' offseason list of quandaries. There are more pressing needs on the pitching side of things. The lineup, for now, appears to be adequate enough to give them a chance to win more games in 2022.

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