Does bolstered Nats lineup still need another piece?

The Nationals lineup, as currently constructed this morning, features three guys who hit at least 34 homers and drove in at least 92 runs during the last full major league season. It also includes another guy who hit 22 homers and drove in 86 runs that season, plus one who totaled 63 extra-base hits and yet another who totaled 53.

That sounds like a pretty potent and deep lineup, does it not?

It does. And yet it still feels like this group is lacking one more significant piece. And that’s the dilemma general manager Mike Rizzo now faces as he figures out how best to spend whatever remaining dollars he has this winter.

Saturday’s signing of Kyle Schwarber, on the heels of the Christmas Eve trade for Josh Bell, went a long way toward bolstering a Nationals lineup that sorely needed some more big bats. That’s two new players who put up big-time power numbers in 2019 (38 homers and 116 RBIs for Bell, 37 homers and 92 RBIs for Schwarber).

Put those two right behind Trea Turner (19 homers, 61 extra-base hits in 2019, then a career-best .982 OPS in 2020) and Juan Soto (arguably the best offensive player in baseball) and right in front of Starlin Castro (22 homers, 86 RBIs in 2019 for the Marlins) and you’re looking at a fearsome fivesome at the plate.

So what’s the problem? Well, it’s the rest of the projected lineup.

Robles-RBI-Single-Red-at-MIA-Sidebar.jpgIf they don’t make any more moves, the Nationals will head into the 2021 season with Carter Kieboom, Yan Gomes and Victor Robles batting sixth through eighth, in one order or another. And that should give Rizzo some pause as he looks at his entire batting order from top to bottom.

The solution, though, may not be simply to add a No. 6 hitter who plays either third base, catcher or center field. Truth be told, what the Nationals appear to be more in need of right now is another top-of-the-order hitter, somebody who could bat leadoff, second or third.

Consider this potential lineup arrangement, given the current personnel:

SS Trea Turner
RF Juan Soto
1B Josh Bell
LF Kyle Schwarber
2B Starlin Castro
C Yan Gomes
3B Carter Kieboom
CF Victor Robles

Do the Nats really want to go into the season with Bell batting third and Schwarber batting cleanup? Probably not. If there was a way to bump each of those guys down one slot, it would feel much more appropriate.

There are ways to attempt to do that without acquiring anyone else new. They could take a shot at Robles as the leadoff man, moving everyone else down. Or they could try Castro higher up, either second or third, to allow Bell and Schwarber to move down.

But neither of those feels like a preferred scenario. A preferred scenario would have more of a sure thing hitting that high in the lineup.

Given what we have to assume are at least some budget constraints, Rizzo has done what he can to replace Anthony Rendon, Howie Kendrick and Ryan Zimmerman from his World Series-winning lineup. What he hasn’t done yet, though, is replace Adam Eaton.

Yes, Rizzo got his new corner outfielder in Schwarber, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a player who bears some resemblance to Eaton offensively. (The 2019 version of Eaton, not the 2020 version.) A grinder. A guy who gets on base at a high clip, makes contact, runs well.

That’s what this lineup is now missing. Yes, the Nationals should hit plenty of homers. They’ll also strike out in bunches.

They need another guy, though, who can put the bat on the ball and drive in a runner in scoring position with two outs. A guy who can start a rally with a walk or a single, maybe steal second and then score on a hit from one of the big boys behind him.

Is such a player in Rizzo’s plans? We don’t know. He might be content to proceed with this lineup as now constructed.

It’s an improved lineup from 2020, no doubt. But if it wants to match the 2019 lineup, it’s probably going to need one more proven hitter who fits a particular description and allows everyone else to slot into roles they’re best suited to hold.

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