Tonight’s the night. At least, it’s supposed to be. The weather in the nation’s capital doesn’t look great at the moment, so there’s a decent chance we have to wait one more day for Yankees baseball to begin. I really don’t like the whole day off after Opening Day thing, but I guess it may prove beneficial (psst…weather doesn’t look great on Friday either, but let’s take this one day at a time).
Now that the regular season is about to get underway, it’s time for our first series preview of 2020. The Yankees are down in Washington, DC to begin the campaign with a three game set against the Nationals. Let’s break down what’s upcoming this weekend.
We all know the Nationals’ 2019 fairy tale by now. Washington was 19-31 through 50 games last year — a start that would undoubtedly eliminate them this year! — yet secured a Wild Card spot with a 93-69 full season record. They snuck past Milwaukee in the Wild Card game, stunned the Dodgers in the NLDS after emerging from a 2-1 deficit, and then swept the Cardinals to reach the World Series. Once again, Washington upset the favored Astros in a see-saw series. The Nats were up 2-0 but lost Games 3 through 5 only to shock Houston in Games 6 and 7 on the road to win the franchise’s first World Series. Washington’s title defense begins now.
After a celebration and a parade, Washington entered a monumental offseason as two of its stars hit free agency: Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon. The former returned on a massive seven year, $245 million deal, while the latter departed to the Angels.
Replacing Rendon is an impossible task, but Washington brought in a number of bats in attempt to fill the void. First baseman Eric Thames and ex-Yankee Starlin Castro were the notable outside additions. Additionally, the organization re-signed NLCS MVP Howie Kendrick, Asdrúbal Cabrera, and Yan Gomes.
Lastly, the other noteworthy offseason move was signing free agent reliever Will Harris to a three year, $24 million deal. The 35 year-old righty was the loser of Game 7 of the World Series, but had a terrific 2019 in Houston’s bullpen (1.50 ERA and 3.15 FIP in 60 innings). He’ll certainly help Washington’s bullpen, which was a weak point last season. Nats relievers had a 5.68 ERA last year, second-worst in the league. And as you may remember, they basically only relied on Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle come October. So, Harris helps, although the bullpen still isn’t exactly a strength for the defending champs.
Even though Washington lost Rendon, the club is still in great position to reach the postseason this year. The NL East is a tough division, but none of Washington’s opponents are clear cut favorites. PECOTA still has Washington slightly favored with a 43.6 percent chance to win the East, with the Mets a close second at 33.4 percent. Fangraphs also has the Nats as favorites at 33.1 percent, though the Braves (30.3 percent) and Mets (24.9 percent) are right on their tail.
Washington is without two of its relievers: Wander Suero and southpaw Roenis Elías. Both health issues are undisclosed. Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross have opted out due to COVID-19 related health concerns.
Suero was one of manager Dave Martinez’s go-to relievers last year; he called on the righty 78 times. Though Suero’s ERA was unimpressive (4.54 ERA), his strong peripherals led to a 3.07 FIP. Elías isn’t a huge piece of Washington’s bullpen. Due to injury, he appeared in just four games for the team last summer following his acquisition from Seattle.
Spotlight: Carter Kieboom
22 year-old Carter Kieboom is set to replace Rendon at the hot corner. Although Kieboom may split duties with Cabrera in the early going, the position is expected to be his over the long-term. Kieboom had a cup of coffee in the majors last year, but didn’t find much success. He hit .128/.209/.282 (17 wRC+) with two homers in 43 plate appearances. On the bright side, he raked in Triple-A (.303/.409/.493, 123 wRC+), so the bat appears to be just about major league ready.
Kieboom isn’t to be mistaken with Rendon, but he’s certainly a strong candidate to fill his shoes. He’s the consensus top prospect in the Nationals’ system and is ranked highly leaguewide:
Considering his Triple-A performance and the vacancy at third base, now’s the time for Kieboom to shine. The former first round pick is actually a shortstop by trade, though he’s not defensively adept enough to unseat Trea Turner. His defensive grades vary a bit depending on your site of preference, but one thing is clear: he can hit.
I’ve included the Roster Resource projected lineup below and added ZiPS’ wRC+ and PECOTA’s DRC+ offensive projections in parentheses.
- Trea Turner, SS (104 wRC+, 111 DRC+)
- Adam Eaton, RF (105 wRC+, 110 DRC+)
- Starlin Castro, 2B (97 wRC+, 94 DRC+)
- Juan Soto, LF (149 wRC+, 139 DRC+)
- Howie Kendrick, DH (106 wRC+, 108 DRC+)
- Eric Thames, 1B (116 wRC+, 114 DRC+)
- Victor Robles, CF (98 wRC+, 94 DRC+)
- Yan Gomes, C (79 wRC+, 77 DRC+)
- Carter Kieboom (95 wRC+, 91 DRC+) or Asdrúbal Cabrera, 3B (103 wRC+, 104 DRC+)
Soto, of course, is this lineup’s biggest threat. Things are certainly are thinner without Rendon this year, but this order is still littered with above average bats like Turner, Eaton, Kendrick, and Thames. Kendrick is a career-long Yankee killer, as you may know. Further, guys like Robles and Kieboom may not have exciting projections, but either could be in for a breakout season. They’re two of the organization’s most promising long-term pieces.
Doesn’t get much better than this. Two of the best pitchers in the sport will square off against each other later tonight.
The Yankees haven’t seen much of Scherzer since his days with the Tigers in the American League, but who could forget that majestic bomb Aaron Judge stroked against him in last summer’s All-Star Game? More of that tonight, please. Anyway, Mad Max remains a perennial Cy Young candidate even at 35 years of age.
Cole is plenty familiar with this Nats lineup after facing them twice in the World Series last fall. He took the loss in Game 2 but was victorious in Game 5. He surrendered a couple of homers to Soto in the process, so that’ll be a fun matchup to watch.
The Nationals haven’t announced a starter yet, but I think it’s pretty safe to assume that Stephen Strasburg will get the nod. Last year’s World Series MVP and newly minted $245 million man is yet another tough opponent for the Yankees this weekend. Although most of the Bombers haven’t faced him, Giancarlo Stanton has seen plenty of Stras back when G was still with the Marlins. .313/.377/.667 with 8 doubles and 3 homers in 48 at-bats ain’t too shabby, even if batter-vs-pitcher matchups aren’t statistically predictive.
Paxton’s velocity will be the first thing to look for in his season debut. We haven’t seen him in front of a publicly available radar gun during Summer Camp, but he himself has mentioned that he’s not quite where he wants to be. Obviously, returning from back surgery threw a wrench into his 2020 plans, but hopefully it’s back sooner rather than later. The Paxton we saw from August and onward last year (61 innings, 2.51 ERA) was brilliant. It’s hard to envision a repeat performance without his fastball in the upper 90s.
Sunday (1:05 p.m. EDT): Bullpen game vs. TBD – likely Patrick Corbin (vs. Yankees)
Native New Yorker and almost-Yankee Corbin should get the ball in the final game of the series. The southpaw was terrific for the Nats in the regular season last year (3.25 ERA, 5.4 WAR) but had an up-and-down postseason. He started and relieved in October, and though his 5.79 postseason ERA doesn’t look all that special, his three shutout innings in relief of Scherzer in Game 7 of the World Series were pivotal. Corbin hasn’t seen too much of the Yankees, though Stanton has taken him deep a couple of times in 16 at-bats.
The Yankees are going with a bullpen game to round out the series. It sounds like Chad Green or Jonathan Loaisiga will open with Michael King following in relief. While I don’t love openers/bullpen games aesthetically, it does make sense to utilize Green against the top of the Nats order right away instead of throwing King right into the fire.
Rosters don’t have to be finalized until noon today, so we don’t have a complete picture of Washington’s bullpen yet. That said, we know that the key cogs of the team’s bullpen include righties Will Harris, Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey, and southpaw Sean Doolittle. Although Doolittle was the team’s closer last year, he may wind up splitting save opportunities with Hudson this season. Hudson seemed to eclipse Doolittle on the depth chart in the postseason.
Obviously, opening day is as fresh as a bullpen is going to get. And, weather permitting, any and all of these relievers could appear in each game this series thanks to tomorrow’s off day. That’s a plus for both teams, but it’s particularly helpful for the Nationals since the underbelly of its bullpen is especially uncertain.