Know Your Foe: Washington Nationals Preview or "The Bryce Harper Farewell Tour"

That boy's fast...

That boy's fast...

When last we saw the Washington Nationals, they were dejectedly watching the Cubs celebrate on the field at Nationals Park following a Game 5 win in the 2017 NLDS. That game featured all sorts of weirdness, including multiple comebacks by the Cubs, a strike three/passed ball/run scored/probably should've been interference play, a blown save from Max ScherzerWillson Contreras' rally killing pickoff of Jose Lobaton in the 8th inning that made people hate replay even more and ended with Bryce Harper striking out swinging instead of hitting an "of course he did" magical game tying homer run to cap off the second longest save in postseason history from Wade Davis. You may remember that game.

That game ended the Nationals season, but that hard fought series virtually ended the Cubs' season as well.

Since then, the Cubs lost two of their secret weapons from that series when the Nats fired Dusty Baker as manager and then somehow allowed Jayson Werth to take his .222 slugging percentage with him into free agency. The Nationals didn't make any major offseason moves, mostly bolstering their bench with 1B Matt Adams and backup catcher Miguel Montero. They were loosely linked to Jake Arrieta and Greg Holland, and while Holland is still available GM Mike Rizzo has said it's not likely.

So Washington may not have made any major trades or signings, it's not like they needed much help.

Projected Starting Rotation

  • Max Scherzer (R)
  • Stephen Strasburg (R)
  • Gio Gonzales (L)
  • Tanner Roarke (R)
  • AJ Cole (R)

Yeah...that's pretty good. Almost certainly the top 1-2 combination in baseball and really solid options in the 3 and 4 slots. Scherzer is Scherzer, which is better than almost anyone else in the sport. Strasburg finished 3rd in the Cy Young balloting last season despite missing a handful of starts last summer with injury. Gonzales posted another really solid season in 2017, but he continues to see a drop in velocity and far outpitched his peripherals a year ago. Roarke on the other hand pitched better than his numbers indicated in 2017 and could be even better this season. Cole is fighting 2014 first rounder Erick Fedde and veterans Edwin Jackson (yes, seriously) and Jeremy Hellickson for the 5th spot. Cole is out of options, so he will make the team in some fashion, but even if he wins the 5th spot, he could just be keeping it warm for Joe Ross who is due back from elbow surgery this summer. This rotation is strong at the top and the team has enough depth to overcome an injury to any starter whose last name doesn't begin with "S".

Projected Bullpen

  • Sean Doolittle (L) - Closer
  • Brandon Kintlzer
  • Ryan Madson 
  • Shawn Kelley
  • Joaquin Benoit
  • Enny Romero (L)
  • Tim Collins (L)
  • Matt Grace (L)
  • Sammy Solis (L)

The bullpen was a major question mark for Washington last season before the team acquired Doolittle, Madson and Kintzler in July to fortify the back end. That trio should be pitching the late innings again this season, which seems a bit underwhelming to me. All three are very good relievers, but adding Holland to the back end does seem to make a ton of sense. The 40 year old Benoit was also added this offseason but has struggled so far this spring. And obviously all four of the non-Doolittle left-handers won't make the roster, but expect two of them to be on the final roster. I'd expect one spot to go to Solis who the team has been high on for years. Collins is looking good so far in his comeback, while Romero has the biggest arm of the bunch, but hitters seem to get a really good look at his pitches. Grace meanwhile has been getting stretched out as a starter this spring, so he could win the last spot as a swingman.

As a group, there's definitely some potential here, but it feels like it could be one late inning arm short. The team also has one-time closer Koda Glover looming after he was shutdown with a shoulder injury last season. Glover has a big time arm, but a short track record and no one is quite sure when he will return. Glover has yet be cleared to throw, but the team hopes to have him back at some point this season.

Projected Lineup

  • Adam Eaton (L) - LF
  • Trea Turner - SS
  • Bryce Harper (L) - RF
  • Anthony Rendon - 3B
  • Daniel Murphy (L) - 2B
  • Ryan Zimmerman - 1B
  • Matt Wieters - C
  • Michael Taylor - LF

That's not bad. Gone are Werth, his homeless man's beard and his negative fWAR. Replacing him in left field is last winter's big acquisition in Eaton, who appeared in only 23 games during his first season with the Nats before tearing his ACL. Eaton posted a 6+ WAR season in his last full year with the White Sox and should add a high OBP guy to the top of the Washington lineup. I'm a little biased when it comes to Turner, who was my big draft crush in 2014 and has just stupid amounts of speed,  stealing 46 bases in just 98 games last season. Future Cub Bryce Harper of course anchors the lineup, but his looming free agency could be a distraction this summer. Rendon was criminally overlooked last season and Murphy is still giving Cubs fans nightmares. Zimmerman had a bit of a renaissance in 2017, but faded in July and August. Washington pursued a Marlins Fire Sale deal for catcher J.T. Realmuto to replace Wieters and an upgrade at catcher is still possible. Taylor announced himself loudly in the NLDS with a pair of home runs and eight RBIs, but has to watch his back for stud prospect Victor Robles who should be up for good this summer.

Matt Adams can provide some power off the bench and is a capable fill in at 1B if Zimmerman goes down with injury. Veteran Howie Kendrick will play 2B while Murphy recovers and will provide experience and versatility in a reserve role. Wilmer Difo can play all over the field and brings speed in the late innings.

This Nationals lineup promises to be a good one, especially the top six hitters, but there are certainly some question marks. Murphy is still recovering from offseason surgery and is expected to start the season on the DL, though should be ready fairly early. Eaton is coming off a major knee injury and just played in his first game this spring over the weekend. Zimmerman will turn 34 this season, experienced a drop-off in the second half  last season and has only two at bats this spring. Wieters doesn't add much offensively and Taylor struggled away from Nationals Park last season (137 wRC+ at home vs. 73 on the road).

Still, this team has elite offensive talents in Harper, Rendon and Turner, with Eaton and Murphy capable of joining them. This team will score a lot of runs and should have a deep lineup that will wear out opposing pitchers all season long.

Prediction

This team has to potential to be scary, especially come October, and not just because Dusty is gone. Realistically, there are three elite teams in the National League with the Cubs, Dodgers and Nationals. As we saw last year, two of those teams will play each other in the Division Series while the other plays a Wild Card team and then has home field advantage in the NLCS. I think the Nats have a very good chance at getting that Home Field Advantage this season, which could leave them well rested and lining up Scherzer for a Game 1 start against an exhausted Cubs/Dodgers (Cubs) team.

The Nationals will play 76 games against the N.L. East this season and 57 of those will come against the Marlins, Mets and Braves who just aren't ready to compete this season. Or in the case of the Marlins, who aren't trying to compete this year. The Phillies should be decent, but are fringe Wild Card contenders at best. It's not hard to picture Washington using that easy schedule to roll to an early clinch and resting their players in September. In fact, Fangraphs predicts the Nationals to have the easiest strength of schedule in the majors.

There is still plenty that can go wrong, especially healthwise. Murphy, Eaton and Zimmerman are still recovering from previous injuries, while Strasburg always seems to miss a few starts each season. However, the Nats are fairly deep in SP options and have reinforcements on the way in Ross and Glover. Plus Robles is one of the top prospects in baseball and should be a star when the team finds an outfield spot for him. Washington also has a solid collection of pitching prospects to reinforce the bullpen through promotion or trade.

There is also the question of how a first time manager in Davey Martinez will fare leading a team with both World Series expectations and a history of playoff failure. And of course there is Harper's looming free agency which raises questions of how both Bryce With the Good Hair and his teammates respond to the onslaught of questions they will face all season long. Not to mention the full blown media circus every time they visit a potential landing spot for Harper.

But this is a team that is built to win now. Their lineup will feast on bad pitching during the regular season and their rotation stacks up against any team come playoff time.

I'm going with 97 wins and yet another division title.

 

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Comments

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  • I think Washington is the best team in the NL by a nose over our guys. Their rotation on paper is a better playoff rotation but a worse regular season rotation and a lot can happen in 6 months. I do kind of disagree that they'll get fat on a weak NL East though as I think the Mets and Phillies both look like slightly above .500 teams to me and the Braves could easily be the same with breakout years from some of their young pitchers as well as Ronald Acuna and others. Last year the AL East had only 1 team with more than 77 wins, this year I think there will be four. That said I think the Nats are still a lock and are in the same 95 or so win range as the Cubs. I really like our club's chances of getting back to the World Series this year but the Nats scare me. If it isn't to be I'm pretty sure they'll be the team in the way.

  • In reply to TC154:

    Yeah - I think 95+ Wins are what we'll see from the Nats this year. As long as they don't get derailed by injuries - they are going to be hard for their division to beat regularly.

    The NYM and Phills could both be better than expected though, and decidedly should be better than they were last year.

  • In reply to TC154:

    We beat them last year in the playoffs with a team that was running on fumes. This year we look even stronger. I am not worrying about the Nats. If the Cubs take of business, they will win.

  • In reply to John57:

    It's just predictions. I thought Washington was a much better team than the Cubs last year and as you say they beat them anyway. Objectively though if I'm looking at the NL I think Washington, Chicago and LA are the three best teams on paper and I would rank them just like that. Of course I also think our boys have a legit chance to get back to the World Series so I;m not being negative at all, just calling the teams as I see them.

  • If money is all it takes we get Harper. Who will be traded to make
    room for him?

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    If they are going to be spending "Harper" level money the next few seasons - I would much rather see it go to retaining Bryant, Baez, Contreras and Schwarber.

    But that decision ain't up to me - and I figure that the front office will make the right decisions when the time comes.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    I would add Rizzo to that list also.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    Agreed. His contract is up about the same time those other guys start getting more expensive and he's been a workhorse and productive at 1B.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Damn the luxery tax. We'll have a network deal.

  • In reply to SFToby:

    It used to be that simple. The new CBA significantly increased the penalties for exceeding the threshold to not only $ but draft picks and slot money, especially for repeat offenders, which is why the Dodgers and Yankees "re-set" their penalty clocks in anticipation of next year's free agent class. We'll go over, probably next year, but have to do it cautiously and with a longer-term plan.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    The penalties compound based on the dollar amount over the threshold and the number of consecutive years a team goes over. I'm a bit of a legal nerd that has done some research, and Michael wrote an excellent article this offseason looking forward to the Cubs roster and possible options for the next few years. I've been making notes on how these two paths could merge to extend our competitive window, trying to figure out how we could sign Harper or Machado, retain what core members we want to/are able to extend, the salaries coming off the books, and what those overage penalties may look like. I'll try to comment soon, though the filter is sure to gobble it up, as it seems to do with all "manifesto"-type comments. I have faith; the staff is very efficient at fishing them out.

  • Signing our core player to long term extentions should come first

  • Signing our core player to long term extentions should come first

  • "and not just because Dusty is gone" - well played, sir.

  • In reply to Cubswin09:

    Very much so. I love everything about Cubs Den and all the writers on staff, but I really dig North Side's sense of humor.

  • In Dusty they no trusty... Poor Davey Martinez... He’s gonna be expected to win right from the get go.

    And in other former Cub news... Jeff Samardzija having shoulder issues... yikes. And Paul Blackburn with fore arm strain. I liked Blackburn, wish him well.

  • In reply to Milk Stout:

    Considering the team he has been handed and his training under Joe Maddon, I think an expectation that the Nats will win is justified. I fear Washington more than I do Los Angeles this year!

  • I know it's pipe dream but would love to see Hayward start the year on the 60 day DL. Give him time to work on his new ugly swing in extended ST. Hopefully he gets it together against minor leaguers and pitchers rehabbing enough to have confidence coming into June.
    Otherwise I see him as an expensive 4th OF/Defensive replacement at best. Imagine what this line-up could do with a thumper in RF.

  • In reply to CubFanStuckInStl:

    He has been hurt the last two years. I would like to see him stay healthy and have a good year.

  • In reply to John57:

    Yeah - as long as 'we' are paying him that kind of money - it would be nice to see him available to be on the field the whole year, and ideally with offensive productivity more like what we saw from him that season in StL, and less like what we have seen the last two seasons.

    I would really hate to see him be the best-paid 4th OF in the league.

  • In reply to CubFanStuckInStl:

    I watched the game last night, and to my untrained eye, Heyward did not look good. Of course, it’s only Spring Training. But...

  • In reply to Cubswin09:

    To steal a line from Zo about Javy taking pt from him at second "I have eyes". I know a hitter when I see one, Heywood doesn't look the part.

  • In reply to CubFanStuckInStl:

    Heyward will not start the year on the DL. Changing the swing is over rated.. If it was that easy everyone would be a 300+ hitter. He will get a chance to play everyday for at least a couple months.

  • In reply to CubFanStuckInStl:

    I don't see him starting on the DL, but how long he stays as the starter in RF will really depend on how the other outfielders are hitting. I can easily see an outfield of Schwarbs - Almora - Happ with Zobrist and Heyward on the bench in reserve.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    A bench reserve until we eat a huge chunk of salary next offseason to trade him and clear a roster spot for a mystery free agent right-fielder.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Thank goodness Heyward is a great teammate, human being, and a defensive wizard because at the plate in my opinion he looks like a newborn colt trying to walk for the first time, all legs, no coordination, and incredibly uncomfortable. With the recent money paid for free agents, Heyward can't be worth more than $5-$7million a year player so I can't see the Cubs eating roughly $100 million just to jettision to another team.
    Living in SD for most of my life I was fortunate to watch the best hitter in my generation Tony Gwynn and although Tony was a little more than a slap hitter, I think Heyward and the Cubs would benefit if he just catches the ball with the bat, outside pitches slap soft lines over the SS head, inside pitches equal soft liners over the 1st, or 2nd baseman's head and only turn on one when you guess the right pitch and location. If I see Heyward roll over to the 2nd baseman again I'm going to puke. Learn to bunt better, move the runners over when the situation presents itself. This advice from someone who could not hit a curve if my life depended on it so take that for what it's worth. The Cubs have enough power up and down the lineup to put Hayward 7th and hope for the best.

  • In reply to Rock:

    Not to be negative but Zobrist is looking like the the 2017 version so far as well. Nagging injury and little production.

  • In reply to Rock:

    Good observations, and I made several similar points about a week ago. Former hitting coach Mallee was renowned for fixing mechanical flaws, and worked with Heyward extensively to reproduce his power stroke from his early Braves days. For whatever reason, that may no longer be possible. New hitting coach Chili Davis is more approach-oriented and I'm hoping he can guide Heyward toward something he is more capable of. If that is more of a slap-hitting, .280/.350/.420 slash line a a spot in the 7 or 8 hole, so be it.

    The Cubs structured Heyward's contract with flexibility on both sides in mind. He could opt out for greener pastures, but we retained some limited trade options. I believe we will attempt to trade (dump) him, and eat massive salary. I don't think we'll have to eat $100M, but it may be close. I do think, from all the hints and track record of this FO that we make a strong effort at signing Harper, and that plan was worked into Heyward's contract.

    As you mentioned, J-Hey is an awesome teammate and human being. We should all hope for maximum productivity. That could only help no matter which direction we decide to go.

  • I see Zobrist only starting 50-60 games this year. But they brought him in to get us over the hump and it worked.

    As far as Heyward goes, this will be the year to find out what he can do. He may just end up being .230/.300 type guy.

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