The biggest need for the Washington Nationals this offseason was upgrading a lineup that was feeble during the shortened 2020 season. “The Nationals’ biggest need is offense, and their other needs are... offense, more offense” is how I put it in our offseason roundtable in November.
General Manager Mike Rizzo duly obliged.
As the winter months rolled around, the Nationals were able to make a pair of notable moves to shore up their lineup by trading for slugging first baseman, Josh Bell, and signing Kyle Schwarber after he was non-tendered by the Chicago Cubs.
Now with a couple of new toys on his roster, it’s over to manager Dave Martinez to figure out how he’s going to construct his starting lineup on a regular basis.
We may well have gotten a sneak peek at how the skipper would ideally like his lineup to look on Wednesday as the Nationals played the Miami Marlins in their third Spring Training game.
In that game, Martinez put Victor Robles atop the lineup for the second time this spring and then had him leading off again in Thursday’s game with the New York Mets.
The young center fielder has led off in every game that he’s played in so far this spring. It’s something.
“Right now I just kind of want to try some different things,” Martinez said of his decision to have Robles in the leadoff spot. “Nothing is set in stone right now.
“If Victor looks good at the leadoff spot, it may be something that we do down the road.”
As Martinez says, whether or not Robles actually hits leadoff to start the season is still up in the air. It all depends on if management likes what they see from him during the team’s Grapefruit League slate and whether he looks ready to handle himself in the top spot.
However, the fact that he’s hit first in all three games he's played so far is as good an indication as any that they want to give him every chance to hit there in their perfect lineup.
If Robles does take charge of that role, then that will likely leave Juan Soto and Trea Turner hitting behind him at second and third in the order, just as they did against the Marlins.
Again, it was something that the Nats’ skipper said he was just experimenting with, but he’s previously mentioned his desire to keep his two best offensive players together in the lineup.
“I kind of wanted just to stagger the lineup a little bit just right now to see what it looks like. I wouldn’t read into it too much,” Martinez explained.
“As we all know, it was vice versa last year, for the most part. Trea hit in front of Soto, which, they did well together, but I just want to see what this kind of looks like.”
After their homegrown sluggers, it was the new additions Bell and Schwarber in the order.
The two new bats have had solid starts to Grapefruit League play and both of them belted home runs off of Marlins pitching on Wednesday, another good sign for the manager.
“It was good to see them both hit the ball out,” Martinez told reporters after the game. “If we get some guys up in front of them, which I’m pretty confident we will, that’s encouraging for us.
“Those two guys are going to hit in the middle of our lineup, and also you see Starlin [Castro] do what he does, he had two strikes and hit a really nasty pitch to right field. He’s another guy that’s going to get on base for us and hopefully drive in some runs as well.”
As the manager alluded to, Castro was hitting sixth, right behind Bell and Schwarber in Wednesday’s game. That placement in the lineup suits him and his strengths a lot better than hitting third did before he was hurt last season.
In his career, Castro has been a high-contact, low-walk type of hitter. With that profile, he could thrive driving in runs with base hits hitting behind all of the team’s major threats with the bats instead of trying to get on-base for Soto who was frequently hitting behind him.
The Nats then rounded out their Wednesday lineup with Alex Avila at DH followed by Carter Kieboom and their catcher for the day, Tres Barrera, hitting ninth. These parts would figure to be pretty interchangeable at the bottom of the order, especially early on in the season.
If this is indeed a potential look at how the Nationals want to set themselves up on Opening Day, then it immediately jumps out as a more analytically-minded setup.
In previous years, Castro likely would’ve been a top-of-the-order hitter with his high batting average, with the lack of walks largely ignored. Yet with the way things are shaping up, he’ll use his hits to drive in runs and if he doesn’t walk, it’s only the lower-order being set up.
The analytical viewpoint also seems to indicate that you should have your best hitter hitting second in the order. That looks to be somewhere that Soto may hit frequently this season.
Is the lineup something the manager has consciously made a decision to be more analytical with? Or is there still an element of going with his gut when setting out the batting order?
“For me, it’s a lot of both,” Martinez explained. “The way we present information and the way I get information, I get it before I present it to the coaching staff and the players.
“I go over it with the analytical people, and then I give it to the coaches, whether it’s the hitting coaches or the pitching coach, we go over it, and then we present it to the players.
“Too much information sometimes isn’t very good for a player, so we’ll pick and choose when to use it, but I like it.
“I sometimes [do] our lineups with them, and do different things because we have this information and we value it.”
As the Nationals will undoubtedly continue to toy with some different lineup configuration as Spring Training carries on, the most important part for Martinez is that everyone gets their reps in to make sure that they’re ready for Opening Day against the Mets.
“The key right now is to try to get these guys at-bats and try to get them ready so that we can start off the season on April 1st and these guys are all rip-raring to go.”