Chris Sale

Can Nationals repeat as champions in 2020?

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The Nationals will have three and a half months or so to bask in the glory of winning their first championship in franchise history before getting back to work with the opening of Spring Training. In many ways, the Nationals’ 2019 run was improbable. They were 19-31 on May 23. Manager Dave Martinez was believed to be on the hot seat. Things really couldn’t have gone worse for the Nationals.

From May 24 through the end of the regular season, the Nationals went 74-38, securing home field advantage in the NL Wild Card game against the Brewers. They won, to advance into the NLDS against the Dodgers. Somehow, they upset the heavily-favored Dodgers to win the NLDS in five games. They ran right through the Cardinals in the NLCS with a clean sweep, but found the odds against them once again versus the Astros, who won 107 games during the regular season. The Nationals won the first two games of the World Series, lost the next three, then bounced back to win the final two games to seal the deal.

Winning a Wild Card only to have to face the Dodgers was so unappetizing that it prevented the Phillies’ front office from doing more to compete down the stretch. Yet for the Nationals, it was no big deal. Of course, it helps to have three ace-caliber starters in Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. It helps to have Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto on offense, too.

And that brings up the million-dollar question: Can the Nationals repeat as champions in 2020? The team stands to lose Rendon to free agency. Strasburg could opt out of his contract to become a free agent as well. Losing both players would be huge blows, and recovering from them might force the front office to wade into bidding wars for the likes of Gerrit Cole, or shell out more cash on a short-term deal for a player like Josh Donaldson. It may require trading prospects to recover the talent lost to free agency as well.

Let’s put into context how good Rendon and Strasburg are. This year, the only qualified third baseman who out-valued Rendon in terms of FanGraphs WAR was the Astros’ Alex Bregman, 8.5 to 7.0. The Athletics’ Matt Chapman was third at 6.1. Over the last three seasons, Rendon holds a narrow lead over Bregman, 19.9 to 19.5. José Ramírez is third at 17.9, followed by Nolan Arenado at 17.4. Rendon hit almost exclusively third in the Nationals’ batting order and played stellar defense at the hot corner.

Strasburg, meanwhile, logged 209 innings during the regular season and won 18 games, both of which led the National League. He crossed the 200-inning plateau for just the second time in his 10-year career. He also posted a 3.32 ERA with 251 strikeouts and 56 walks. According to the ERA retrodictor xFIP, found at FanGraphs, Strasburg was the fourth-best pitcher in baseball behind Cole, teammate Max Scherzer, and Jacob deGrom. Justin Verlander had a 3.18 xFIP. Since Strasburg started pitching regularly in 2012, he also ranks fourth in xFIP among pitchers with at least 500 innings, trailing Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, and Cliff Lee. Strasburg has also been money in the postseason, now holding a 1.46 career postseason ERA in 55 1/3 innings.

Beyond the superstars, the Nationals also stand to lose a handful of crucial bench and bullpen contributors: Brian Dozier, Fernando Rodney, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Gerardo Parra, and Daniel Hudson can all become free agents. Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Eaton, Yan Gomes, and Sean Doolittle all have club options. It stands to reason that not all of them will be picked up. This is a team that could look very different coming into Spring Training in February 2020 than it did winning the World Series at the end of October 2019.

To answer that million-dollar question — can the Nationals repeat in 2020? Of course they can. Will they? They will need to have an explosive offseason in terms of both free agent signings and trades to make up for the talent they could potentially lose. It will be an interesting next four months for the Nationals, that much is certain. For now, they will enjoy the sweet taste of World Series champagne.