New additions won’t matter if returning Nats don’t improve

What do the Nationals need in order to become a contender again in 2021? At this point, surely you can rattle off the list of needs.

A power bat to join Juan Soto and Trea Turner in the heart of the lineup. A No. 4 starter to replace Aníbal Sánchez. A catcher. A left-handed reliever.

Those are the obvious needs, and they all need to come from outside the organization. But there’s an equally important need that we tend not to talk about as much: The Nats need several players already on the roster to perform a whole lot better in 2021 than they did in 2020.

General manager Mike Rizzo can go out and acquire all the big-name free agents he wants. It still won’t be enough to ensure a championship-caliber roster if a group of key returning players doesn’t improve next year.

The list starts with the starters. The Nationals rotation, long the unquestioned strength of this organization, was - how do we put it - not the unquestioned strength of this organization this season. Obviously, Stephen Strasburg’s wrist injury and eventual surgery was a devastating blow, but Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin did not pitch up to their high standards, either.

Plain and simple, the Nats need the big three to pitch like the big three in 2021. That doesn’t mean Scherzer has to be a Cy Young Award contender. But he’s got to bring his ERA down from the high-3.00s to at least the low-3.00s and his WHIP from the 1.3s to at least the 1.1s. He’s got to reduce his walks, he’s got to keep more balls from leaving the yard and he’s got to know when he’s run out of gas around the 100-pitch mark.

Thumbnail image for Corbin-Throws-White-Sidebar.jpgCorbin, meanwhile, really needs to get back on track after a dismal performance this season. The lefty finished with his highest ERA since 2016, his highest WHIP ever and his lowest strikeout rate in four years. What happened? His fastball velocity dropped, and opposing hitters crushed it to the tune of a .392 batting average and a .594 slugging percentage. He’s got to come to spring training physically ready to find that lost velocity and to be prepared with a Plan B for success if it doesn’t come back.

So a return to contention starts with the rotation. But it also will require an uptick in offensive performance from several projected members of the lineup. And tops on that list might just be Victor Robles, who was a huge disappointment following a promising rookie season. Robles, who notably bulked up during the spring/summer shutdown, has got to learn how to perform better with that body type, and that includes a more patient approach at the plate. He doesn’t need to be a star in this lineup, but he can’t be an automatic out.

It’s possible the Nationals will acquire a new third baseman. But until they do, it’s still Carter Kieboom’s job. The organization had high hopes for its top prospect entering the season, but he didn’t come close to living up to the hype, producing just one - yes, one - extra-base hit in 99 plate appearances. Like Robles, Kieboom doesn’t need to put up monster numbers in 2021. But he does need to provide quality at-bats on a regular basis.

Starlin Castro’s return from a broken wrist should help the lineup. And production at first base should be better if some combination of Ryan Zimmerman, Howie Kendrick and a to-be-added left-handed bat are in place.

And then there’s the bullpen. True, it’s not in need of a complete overhaul as has too often been the case over the years. But the two most notable veterans who are returning need to pitch better in 2021 than they did in 2020. Daniel Hudson must reduce his walk and home run rates. Will Harris must find a way to make his cutter elite again and stay healthy after an injury plagued debut season in Washington.

It all sounds simple enough, but it’s easier said than done. The Nationals need all of these players of significance to perform at the level they were expected to perform this year. Only if that happens will the eventual additions of a big bat, a No. 4 starter, a lefty reliever and others make enough difference to propel this club back toward the top of the National League East.

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