With the DH likely headed to the National League, at least for 2020, we’re going over each NL roster to find their best and most likely candidates to reap the rewards of the extra at-bats. We’ve already looked at the Cardinals and Reds from the Central, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks out West, as well as some free agent options still available. Let’s dip our toes into the NL East, and what better place to start than with the defending World Series champs: the Washington Nationals.
If there’s a team ready for post-coronavirus baseball, it’s the Nats. Last we saw of the Nationals, they were stomping the Astros on Houston’s turf en route to becoming the first team in history to win a World Series with four road wins. The Nats floundered with NL rules, scoring one run per game in front of their home crowd – but with Howie Kendrick at designated hitter, Dave Martinez’s club cannot be beat. They’ve proven they can win with their fans watching from home and their pitchers keeping a safe distance from the batters’ box.
Obviously, even the seven most high-pressure games in baseball is a poor stand-in for large sample data, and those games alone don’t suggest much of anything at all about how the Nats will actually transition to the universal DH. That said, Howie Kendrick remains their likeliest DH candidate, and that bodes well for Washington’s offense. Being able to let Kendrick DH most days should loosen Martinez’s strickly regimented rest schedule for his 36-year-old utility slugger. Given the discipline Martinez showed in limiting a healthy Kendrick to 70 starts last season – even as he put up a .344/.395/.572 line – it’s unlikely Kendrick suits up on an everyday basis. But two years removed from Achilles surgery in a shortened season with a DH: that might be the recipe for an everyday Howie Kendrick.
There could do a flip side to a shortened season, however, such as fewer rest days or stacked doubleheaders, so the Nats will need other options beyond Kendrick. Luckily, Washington has other options on the roster beyond its NLCS MVP, and if they want to station Kendrick in the field a time or two a week, he can capably man first, second, or even third.
In terms of alternative, Eric Thames should be liberally deployed against right-handers. Thames joins the roster in place of Matt Adams, who shouldered much of the first-base burden against tough righties last season. Beyond serving as injury insurance for Adam Eaton in right, that’s the role Thames should step into in Washington. With an extra bat in the lineup, the former KBO star ought to find himself in the lineup against right-handers most days, whether at first base, right field, or DH. Coming off a 25-homer season in which he slugged .529 against righties, he’s a weapon in the right spot.
As in 2019, the Nats will play a three-man game at first base, with no less than Mr. National himself taking up that third slot. Ryan Zimmerman should slot in for Thames or Kendrick on occasion against righties, but expect to find him in the lineup while Thames comes off the bench against lefties. Zim’s numbers last season could be construed as a vet nearing his last legs (.257/.314/.415), but the problem wasn’t his legs: it was his feet. Plantar fasciitis slowed Zimmerman for most of the season, but he came up with some big hits in the postseason, and the extra time to rest and recuperate this offseason should benefit the long-time National
The final consideration for the Nats’ DH spot is this: if top prospect Carter Kieboom starts the season in the minors, Asdrubal Cabrera will man third base. But if the Nats deem Kieboom ready from the jump, then Cabrera could cycle through the DH role a bit as well. Cabrera was excellent after joining the Nats in 2019, finishing the year with a total line of .260/.342/.441 with 18 home runs and 91 driven in. For what it’s worth, Cabrera reached base at a higher rate while batting right-handed last year (.357 OBP to .337 OBP), but he slugged better while hitting from the left side (.452 SLG to .410 SLG).
If indeed the National League plays with a DH this season, Dave Martinez will juggle the role as he did with his veterans’ playing time in 2019. With the Kendrick/Thames/Zimmerman triumvirate time-sharing at-bats between first base and DH, the Nats may need the extra oomph from having two of the three in the lineup up every day to help offset the loss of Anthony Rendon. If nothing else, the Nats proved in the World Series they could thrive living the American League lifestyle. Soon, they may soon get the chance to prove it for a full (shortened) season.