Washington Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez and Nats’ GM and President of Baseball Ops Mike Rizzo talked over the final weekend of the 2020 regular season about building a lineup around stars Trea Turner and Juan Soto, both of whom put up some MVP-worthy numbers in 2020’s 60-game COVID campaign, with Soto finishing fifth and Turner seventh, in voting for the National League’s MVP.
Soto, 22, put up a .351/.490/.695 line with 14 doubles and 13 home runs in the 47 games he played and 196 plate appearances he made, over which he was worth 2.4 fWAR.
Turner, 27, finished at .335/.394/.588 with 15 doubles, four triples, and 12 home runs over 59 games and 259 PAs.
“You haven’t seen the best of Juan Soto yet, that’s for sure,” Martinez said after Soto took the NL Batting title for the shortened season.
“I mean, he’s going to continue to get better in all aspects of the game. You’re talking about not only a potential MVP this year, but for many, many years.
“He’s good, he’s really good, and like I said, he wants to get better.”
And Turner? “He’s another one,” the Nats’ skipper said.
“Not only on the field, but in the clubhouse, off the field, everything that he does, he’s matured so much, he’s become a leader and it shows.
“Another guy that had a tremendous year through a difficult season, but came out and played hard every day.”
“Just what you’re going to get from Trea. Once again, I appreciate those two guys just like I appreciate the rest of these guys for coming out here this year and giving me everything they’ve got.”
Turner and Soto, the Nationals’ GM said, were key players to build around as the club began trying to reboot its roster following a disappointing 24-36 follow-up to 2019’s World Series win.
“I think we have the beginnings of putting together a very good, very long, very talented lineup,” Rizzo said.
“That’s not to say that we don’t need to be supplemented from maybe an outside source, a free agent, or maybe a trade scenario to put us in a better position.
“We’ve got 3-4 very good young players that we hope take the next step forward.
“We saw a couple of them take a side-step this year, but we’re still very optimistic about the good young core group of guys that we have. And we think with a full offseason, and a full Spring Training that I think we’re going to see our young group of core guys take the next step that they need to take for us to be successful. It’s not to say that we’re not going to do everything we can to improve our club, as far as offensively, defensively, pitching, both starting pitching and relief pitching. We’ve got a full wish list of things that we’d like to accomplish this offseason. And as you’ve seen in the past, we try to systematically check those items off the list as we get closer to Spring Training and Opening Day.”
Three months later, in a Zoom call with reporters in mid-December, Martinez talked about trying to revamp the roster this offseason, after a disappointing run in his third season on the bench in D.C.
Martinez did what he could to move Turner and Soto around to maximize production over the 60-game season last summer, but surrounding them with complementary players, he said, is the goal this winter.
“I moved those guys around quite a bit, hit them back-to-back, it seemed like that worked really well there for a while.
“I’m hoping that getting Starlin [Castro] back will help a little bit. We’re working diligently to maybe add a few players here, time will tell.
“But you know, I’ve got to keep these guys — for me it’s about keeping Soto and Trea engaged all the time, and getting Juan pitched to, that’s a big thing.
“Juan, every time you see him he gets better and better.
“The biggest thing for him with me is — I told him, ‘Accept your walks.’ I say this all the time, but one of the best power hitters walked 200 times and it didn’t seem to bother him, which was Barry Bonds. He took his walks. I said, ‘Just keep in mind ... when you get a pitch to hit, those are the pitches you’ve got to hit and you’ve got to make contact and you’ve got to put it in play.’”
Martinez said he and his staff were hard at work this winter, looking at areas they thing that they can improve upon in his fourth season in Washington.
“I’m looking at all different things. Running some numbers. Like I said, when [Turner and Soto] hit 1-2, they were phenomenal, but we need some guys who can actually drive those guys in as well.
“Having Howie [Kendrick], which he’s a free agent now, but he helped when he was healthy.
“Missing [Ryan Zimmerman] all year last year was tough. [Asdrúbal Cabrera] did a great job in his role.
“We’re just going to have to see how this all works out and see who’s here come February.”
Kendrick has since announced his retirement, and Cabrera, who put up a .323/.404/.565 line in 38 games and 146 PAs after he was signed by the Nationals in 2019, finished the 2020 season at .242/.305/.447 in in 52 games and 213 PAs. Will he be brought in again for another run in the nation’s capital?
Neither represent the kind of offensive upgrade the Nationals were talking about this winter, however.
Finding a big bat who could bolster the lineup was priority No. 1 on Rizzo and Co. in the D.C. front office’s offseason checklist.
“I think our top priority in our search is — via the free agent market and even the trade market — is trying to get a bat to fill in the middle of the lineup and trying to complement the rest of our middle of the lineup bats,” Rizzo said in mid-December.
“It’s no secret that we’re a pitching-oriented team. We’ve got three great strong starting pitchers coming back.
“We’ve got a bullpen that we feel is built with a lot of depth and versatility. We’ve got some good veteran guys back there and some good young arms, more on the come, so we felt that our best bet would be to kind of surround the guys we have in the middle of the lineup already with some more bats and make offensive production a little bit more of a priority this offseason.”
A couple weeks later, the Nationals pulled off the Christmas Eve trade for Josh Bell, adding a big bat to the lineup and clearing up the question of who would start the majority of games at first base in 2021.
“This is a big upgrade for us,” Rizzo said after the deal for Bell with the Pirates was officially announced. “And like I said, middle of the lineup presence that we’ve been looking for. We never stop trying to improve the club. We certainly won’t this offseason, but this fulfills a big part of our wishlist in getting this middle of the lineup bat.”
With obvious needs in a corner outfield spot, the pitching corps (starting and relief as Rizzo said), and one (or two more) catcher(s) on the aforementioned wishlist, there is still some work to be done this winter, but the addition of Bell (along with some other moves they’ve made on the “fringes” of the roster this winter) is a big one, and his bat makes the lineup a little longer and tougher for opposing pitchers to navigate.
“The lineup construction, that is something that’s fluid. When we find out what the roster is going to look like we’ll really dive into that,” Rizzo said, “but suffice it to say that we’ve got quality hitters that will be up and down the lineup. Don’t forget [Starlin] Castro, he’s a 200- hit guy a year, and we’ve got some young players that we feel are going to break out.
“You throw Josh in the middle of those perennial, big-bat, All-Star-type of players, we like where the lineup is, and we think that we’ll have enough thump to play long ball, but we’ll also have the ability to manufacture some runs, and I think that’s kind of the mantra we’ve had for our success.
“We’re a team that can score in multiple different ways. We can steal you a base, we can steal a run, we can hit it over the wall. We like to have a well-rounded offense so we don’t have to rely on one factor, so I think that’s the type of lineup that we’re going to try to put together for ‘21.”
“Josh is a big acquisition for us,” Rizzo reiterated at another point. “He’s the middle of the lineup bat that we were looking for. Again, we’re never done improving the club, and if we see an opportunity to improve the club offensively, we’ll certainly be aggressive and try to get that thing done.
“We still have options in the trade avenues and in the free agent avenues, so we’re going to continue to be aggressive and try to put together a championship-caliber club.”