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 Scherzer, Willson 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".
- 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.
- 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.
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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