As position players arrive at the Washington Nationals spring training facility in West Palm Beach, the count today should be 62-players in big league camp this year. There is always the remote possibility that another move(s) could be made. If everyone is healthy, the Opening Day roster is most likely 85 percent set. Last year, the roster changed dramatically due to injuries as the Nats placed three players on the 10-day IL to pare down the roster to the required 25 players. Those 2019 IL moves were fairly well-known as Michael Taylor was nursing a strained knee and hip, Howie Kendrick was working his way back from a strained hamstring, and Koda Glover was rehabbing a sore shoulder in his right arm. What it did was give other players opportunities like Jake Noll who was an NRI.
Maybe the most startling fact is that the current bullpen will only feature two players from last year’s Opening Day ‘pen if Sean Doolittle and Wander Suero are part of it. The bullpen’s ERA finished at 5.66 and was over 11.00 at one point in May. When Daniel Hudson arrived at the July trade deadline, it seemed as some fans said that the Nats went “cheap” as they did not go all out for top 2019 relievers, thought available, such as Kirby Yates, Felipe Vazquez, Ken Giles, Aaron Bummer or Shane Greene. In fact, Greene was traded to the Atlanta Braves, and all the others remained with their current teams at the time.
In the end, it was Daniel Hudson who was the greatest deadline trade in Nats history, and he was not in the names the Nats were attached to. Nats’ general manager Mike Rizzo picked him up for Kyle Johnston while also finishing the season under the salary cap because his other pickups like Roenis Elias and Hunter Strickland had cost certainty and Asdrubal Cabrera, Gerardo Parra, and Fernando Rodney were all league minimum pickups indirectly through DFAs.
“Last year things were so bad [in the bullpen] that they couldn’t get worse. The only way to go is up,” said Hudson about the state of the bullpen before he arrived. “How much better can we be? Everybody in this bullpen has a chance to be really, really good.”
Interesting words from Hudson as he was wrong because things could have turned worse if those bullpen arms had collapses like the Nats’ NLDS bullpens of 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017. One flawless record previous Nats postseason teams shared was bullpen meltdowns. The names changed but the postseason results stayed the same until 2019. Hudson might not have known the history of all of the failures, but Nats fans sure remember. This 2020 bullpen can hopefully reverse the season’s course from last year. Manager Dave Martinez is already talking about “run prevention” and that is how you win games if your offense is not scoring many runs. In the end, wins come from outscoring your opponent, and there are a variety of ways to get to that end result.
“This year I am going to be talking about another edge, and for me it’s run prevention. We’re really focused on run prevention,” Martinez said.
Run prevention is all about:
- Defensive shift analytics
As Will Harris said it is about defending to your pitching and vice versa where defenders are shifted also to account for the location of the pitches. Give his former team, the Astros, some credit that they defended well on balls that stayed in the park keeping BABIP on some players well below Mendoza and the team under .279 overall with a .241 batting average during the 2019 World Series. Fortunately, you cannot defend against balls that landed in the Crawford Boxes and the big one that clanked off of the foul pole which Harris knows about all too well as he was the pitcher of record on that
But run prevention also extends beyond the bullpen as the starting pitching must also step up. Even though the Nats starting rotation could be identical to what you saw in the World Series, Fangraphs is projecting some regression across the unit.
So what changes are we looking at in the projected personnel:
That could be your 26-players who make the Opening Day roster. You can debate some of the roster moves, and perhaps we will never know last year if the top prospect, Robles, in fact was going to be the starting centerfielder if Michael Taylor was not injured as there seemed to be Spring Training lineups that pointed to Taylor as the favorite as he started off the preseason blazing hot. His injury sealed the deal that the Nats top prospect Victor Robles would be the starting centerfielder.
Last year, there was certainly some debate as to whether Austen Williams would make the bullpen ahead of Suero, and Adrian Sanchez ahead of Jake Noll who was not on the 40-man roster previously and entered spring training camp as a non-roster invitee making him a long-shot.
This year, there could be some debate with Carter Kieboom who is going to compete for the starting third baseman’s position. Other than that, there will be the competition for the fifth starter, seventh and eighth bullpen spots, and the fifth outfielder.
All in all, we will see what happens with the bullpen and run prevention as the Nats save runs. Last year the Nats gave up 724 runs (683 earned) and this year Fangraphs is projecting 731 for the season which is an increase of seven runs overall at a time when the Nats runs scored could decrease. That will be the Nats “SHOW ME” in 2020 for the starting rotation as they take a lot of pride in what they do. Still, there does not seem to be a better starting rotation in baseball. Prove Fangraphs wrong and blow away those projections where they are taking the Nats from the actual of 93 wins last year to 88 wins this year. Fangraphs shows major regression in the Nats starting rotation (3.98 ERA) while projecting a 4.10 ERA for the bullpen which is a marked improvement.
So maybe it will be the starting rotation who has to step it up in 2020. The Nats starting pitchers were No. 1 in Fangraphs final ratings at a +21.4 WAR with a 3.53 ERA which is .45 runs better than those 2020 Fangraphs projections. That is nearly a half run per game over nearly 939 innings for the season. Of course starters do not pitch all nine innings so the impact isn’t exactly a half run per game but that is still significant as it means 47 runs per season.
Run prevention will start there.