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Scouting the opponents: Washington Nationals

The Red Sox get to play the defending World Series champs.

Washington Nationals... Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

As we get closer to the start of the season, we are going to spend some time focusing on the opponents on the Red Sox schedule for 2020. In this strange season, Boston will be playing only nine teams, so we will go one by one and look at each individually. Today, we look at the Washington Nationals.

Overall

The Red Sox get the pleasure of facing off against the defending champions in the Nationals this season, though it’s not exactly the same team that won it all in 2019. They lost one of their top hitters with Anthony Rendon moving out west to the Angels, and a few of their players have opted out of the season. Despite that, they are expected to be right in the thick of things yet again. There are some bullpen issues, but they still have a ridiculous top three in their rotation as well as a talented lineup including one of the best young bats in the game, who we’ll be talking about in just a second. I don’t know that they are even the best team in their division, but they are certainly a wildcard contender at the very least and clearly have a shot in the NL East.

Best Hitter

Juan Soto

There was a lot of talk about how amazing it was for the Nationals to win the World Series after letting Bryce Harper walk in free agency. That was a great achievement of course, but a big reason was because they had the young Juan Soto ready to come up and mash. The outfielder is an absolute treat to watch do his thing at the plate, and he showed everything he can do at just 20 years old last year. He has about as good of an approach as anyone in baseball, leading to a 16 percent walk rate, and he pairs that with a solid contact rate and big power. He somehow already has two major-league seasons under his belt and he has wRC+’s of 145 and 142. He’s not just the best hitter on this team. He is one of the best hitters in baseball and has a chance to be for the better part of the next two decades.

Washington Nationals v Miami Marlins Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Best Starting Pitcher

Max Scherzer

This was a legitimate challenge, which is kind of crazy considering Scherzer is... Well he’s Max Scherzer. Stephen Strasburg is damn good himself, too, and that Patrick Corbin isn’t even really in the debate speaks to how good the top of this lineup really is. All of that being said, we’re still talking about Max freaking Scherzer. He’s getting up there in age so there is always the risk of injury or even a talent drop off, but I’m not going to believe that as a real possibility with him until I actually see it. He hasn’t had an ERA above 3.00 since 2014 and he has had just one FIP above 3.00 since 2012. That is banana pants. Bet against Max Scherzer at your own risk.

Best Relief Pitcher

Sean Doolittle

If you’re looking for a weakness on this Nationals team, it is probably in the bullpen. They have a handful of good to very good relievers, but they could really use a true, dominant shut down arm for late innings. Doolittle isn’t quite that, but he’s the closest thing they have got. The lefty was right on the edge of the elite or near-elite tier a couple of years ago, but he’s coming off a down year in which his strikeout rate fell considerably and his home run rate jumped to a career high. In a shortened season he may be able to let things fly a little more and maybe we can see more vintage Doolittle, but it’s far from a guarantee. Either way, it seems like the Nationals are going to playing matchups a bit late in games with Doolittle and Daniel Hudson getting the bulk of the chances with Will Harris maybe getting some shots as well.

X-Factor

Howie Kendrick

This could have been a lot of different players as the real X-Factor is the Nationals finding another hitter to be a consistent threat along with Soto behind the table-setters at the top of the lineup in Trea Turner and Adam Eaton. This could also include Starlin Castro or prospect Carter Kieboom, but Kendrick is the most interesting to me. I’ve already mentioned that the Nats have a ridiculous top of the rotation, and they have some names in the bullpen though it lacks the elite force at the end. They also have a great top three in the lineup, but after that there is a little more variance. There is some tough competition in the NL East this year with four teams that could feasibly see themselves in the playoffs. If the Nationals are going to make it out of that group, they need the bottom half of the lineup to contribute as well, and Kendrick is my favorite to step up and be that guy.

Prospects

Carter Kieboom, Luis Garcia, Jackson Rutledge, Wil Crowe, Matt Cronin, Tim Cate, Seth Romero

For a team in contention, the Nationals actually have a lot of prospects to boast here, though Kieboom is the real guy to watch. He has the pleasure of getting the first chance to replace Rendon in the lineup, which does not seem super fun for a rookie. Still, the talent is there for him to make a real impact right away as he has done nothing but hit his whole way up the minor-league ladder.

Beyond Kieboom, most of the names on this list are on the mound with Garcia being the only other position player, and he’s unlikely to help much this year. Of the pitchers, look for Crowe to be the most likely guy who could come up and help right away.

Old Friends

Anibal Sánchez, Roenis Elías

Washington has a couple of old friend pitchers in their organization this year, with both having a chance to contribute. Sánchez is in their rotation to start the year after a really solid year for them last year. He’s turned things around in a big way the last two years, but it still feels like he could fall back to his old ways at any time.

Elías, meanwhile, has turned himself into a solid left-handed option out of the bullpen who can go a couple of innings if need be. He’s going to start this year on the IL, though.