It’s way too soon to start penciling in potential Nationals lineups for 2021, because there is so much that still needs to be determined before pitchers and catchers report a mere three months from now. But there is one fairly important question that probably needs to be asked right now, because the answer isn’t entirely clear.
Do the Nats need a new leadoff hitter?
They haven’t needed one in quite some time. Whether it’s been Davey Martinez managing the last three seasons or Dusty Baker before that, there’s been little debate about the identity of the guy atop the Nationals’ batting order on a nightly basis: Trea Turner.
But as the 2020 season played out, we saw how change might be necessary. Turner, now one of the most productive offensive players in the National League, probably needs to move down a spot or two in the order so he has more opportunities to drive in runs instead of simply getting on base and scoring them himself.
Martinez has been toying with this idea for some time, and though he stuck with Turner in the leadoff spot when this last season began, by the time it ended Turner was consistently batting second or third. With Juan Soto right behind him, Turner saw more fastballs and thus got more good pitches to hit. And he consistently hit them hard.
So unless Mike Rizzo goes out and acquires at least two more big bats to sandwich around Soto, it seems likely Turner will enter 2021 as the team’s No. 2 hitter, perhaps even No. 3. Who, though, is left to lead off?
Adam Eaton is a free agent and seems unlikely to be re-signed after an abysmal season at the plate and in the field. Andrew Stevenson looked fantastic in limited time, and certainly he could profile as a leadoff hitter when it’s all said and done. But the Nats may want more of a sure thing right now than Stevenson, who has yet to prove he can consistently produce over long stretches.
Martinez tried Victor Robles in the leadoff spot six times this season. Robles did perform better than he did when batting ninth, but he’s still got a long way to go to prove he can display the kind of patience needed to be a big league leadoff man. (For what it’s worth, Robles is currently leading off in the Dominican Winter League and reached base seven times in his first 18 plate appearances, twice via walk.)
There really isn’t anybody else on the current roster who makes much sense atop the order. Neither Starlin Castro nor Carter Kieboom has the right skill set. None of the potential returning first basemen (Howie Kendrick, Ryan Zimmerman) would be a good fit, nor would any catcher that might be acquired. Josh Harrison could perhaps do it on days when he starts, but if things go as the Nationals hope the veteran utility man will mostly come off the bench and only make a few starts here and there when needed.
So it’s fair to ask if Rizzo needs to at least consider potential leadoff men on his offseason shopping list.
We tend to think his most pressing need offensively is a big, middle-of-the-order bat, and it is. But a leadoff hitter arguably could be item No. 2 after that.