Better, worse or the same in 2021: Position players

The Nationals, as a team, were not very good last season. It was only 60 games, so you have to be careful about drawing broad conclusions, but nobody would try to claim 2020 was a success for the defending World Series champs.

Thus, the objective entering 2021 is rather simple: Be better. Hopefully better enough to return to the postseason and then make a run at another title.

But are they better? And if so, how much better? Though there’s still the chance of more transactions before pitchers and catchers report next week - or even sometime later in spring training - we do now have a pretty good sense what the Nationals’ roster is going to look like. So it’s fair to compare that roster as it stands today to the roster that performed last year.

Are the 2021 Nats better, worse or the same as they were in 2020? Let’s break it down by position, starting today with the position players and continuing tomorrow with the pitching staff ...

CATCHER: Worse offensively, better defensively
Did you know Nationals catchers ranked eighth in the majors last season with a .792 OPS? Which was a healthy improvement from 2019, when they produced a .743 OPS? I’ll admit I did not realize that. It felt like Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki underperformed last season, but that wasn’t the case (at least, at the plate). Gomes hit a respectable .284/.319/.468 while Suzuki actually was better at .287/.370/.426 ... as a catcher. Suzuki was an awful 1-for-12 as a DH or pinch-hitter, so that dragged his total numbers down. He’s now catching in Anaheim, leaving Gomes to team up with recent addition Alex Avila. Avila isn’t going to hit for average, but he does draw walks (career .348 on-base percentage) and hits for a little power. Most importantly, he’s a defensive upgrade over Suzuki. The new tandem probably won’t hit as much as the previous one did, but it will be better behind the plate.

The Nationals thought they had a good plan in place at first base entering last season. But Eric Thames was awful, Howie Kendrick was hurt and Ryan Zimmerman opted out. The end result: a combined .784 OPS out of the position, and only 10 homers and 32 RBIs in 60 games. Josh Bell is hardly a guaranteed star after his struggles last season, but the former Pirate is an accomplished hitter who should be able to out-produce last year’s Nats first basemen. And if Zimmerman is used properly (facing mostly lefties and serving as a defensive replacement) and stays healthy, he’ll boost the numbers. There’s every reason to believe they can combine for 30-plus homers and an OPS in the low .800s.

Castro-Breaks-Wrist-Blue-Sidebar.jpgSECOND BASE: Better
We don’t talk enough about how much the Nationals missed Starlin Castro last season. The veteran infielder played in only 16 games before breaking his wrist, and though it was fun to see 19-year-old Luis García get a shot, the kid wasn’t as good as Castro would’ve been. Nats second basemen finished with a .687 OPS, which ranked right in the middle of the pack. Castro owns a career .733 OPS, which would’ve bumped the team up to eighth in production by second basemen. He’s not a star, but he’ll be solid, and that will represent an improvement this year.

SHORTSTOP: Slightly worse
It’s hard to imagine Trea Turner could be any better than he was last year. The man led all major league shortstops in batting average (.335), on-base percentage (.394), slugging percentage (.588) and OPS (.982). So, there just really isn’t much room for improvement. And though it’s certainly possible he could duplicate those numbers, a slight regression is probably more reasonable to expect. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Turner is the real deal. And if Davey Martinez can figure out a way to get him to the plate with runners on base more regularly, the final numbers could really be something.

Just as it’s hard to imagine the Nationals getting more production out of their shortstops, it’s awfully difficult to imagine them getting any less production out of their third basemen. That group was bad in 2020, with an abysmal .575 OPS that barely topped the Brewers for 29th out of 30 clubs. This isn’t to suggest Carter Kieboom is a guaranteed success story. There’s plenty of concern about the longtime prospect’s ability to actually live up to his potential. But one of two things will happen this year: Either Kieboom will be better, or Mike Rizzo will put someone else out there who is.

For these purposes, we’re going to compare this year’s left fielders with last year’s right fielders. That’s because Juan Soto is switching positions, so he can be judged against himself. Which means Kyle Schwarber is being compared to Adam Eaton and Co., who really struggled in 2020 (.226/.295/.417). Like Bell, Schwarber isn’t guaranteed to hit at a high level after a disappointing year with the Cubs. But he owns an .816 OPS for his career. He draws walks and he hits homers. And that should result in better overall numbers from Nationals left fielders. One concern: Will someone else be starting against lefties? At the moment, the only right-handed backup outfielder is utility man Josh Harrison. Maybe he gets a good number of starts in left field when Schwarber’s out. But the Nats shouldn’t expect corner outfield production from Harrison.

Victor Robles was a huge disappointment last season, both at the plate (.220/.293/.315) and in the field (minus-4 Defensive Runs Saved). The Nationals really need him to be better, much better. In a perfect world, the 23-year-old would have the breakthrough season many have always believed he has in him, play elite defense and ascend to a spot near the top of the lineup. But even if that doesn’t happen, Robles almost certainly will be better than he showed in 2020. And if he somehow struggles so much that he merits a demotion, Andrew Stevenson is a solid fallback plan who should be able to hit some and will play good defense.

RIGHT FIELD: Slightly worse
It’s really tempting to predict improvement from Soto. Or at least a duplication of his ridiculous 2020 stat line (.351/.490/.695). But come on, nobody’s put up those numbers over a full 162-game season since Barry Bonds. So let’s try to remain somewhat realistic here. Soto is incredible, and he really should be an MVP candidate this season. But you can’t flat-out predict a 1.185 OPS, right? (Somewhere right now, Soto is shuffling his feet, nodding his head, grabbing a certain body part and thinking: “Go ahead and believe that, buddy.”)

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