2017 MLB Preview: NL East- Washington Nationals
2016 Record: 95-67 (1st Place)
Manager: Dusty Baker
Even after a 95-win 2016 season, the Washington Nationals continued to make additions to their immensely talented roster this offseason. Their most notable addition was center fielder Adam Eaton, who was acquired from the White Sox in early December for a hefty package of prospects. Eaton has established himself as one of the most well rounded leadoff hitters in the game, finishing last season with a .284 average and 14 home runs, in addition to a career high 59 RBI’s.
The team also added switch-hitting catcher Matt Wieters right before the start of spring training, who logged over 400 at bats last season for the first time since 2013 after years of injury struggles. A four-time All Star, Wieters possesses rare power for a catcher and has been praised for his game-calling abilities. Even with these attributes, it’s hard to call Wieters an upgrade to Wilson Ramos, who the team lost to the Tampa Bay Rays in free agency.
Yet all eyes will rest on Bryce Harper, who put up a disappointing post-MVP campaign in 2016. After a red-hot start to the season, Harper was enormously inconsistent at the plate, ending the season with a .243 average with just 24 home runs. This was a huge step back from the .330/42 HR season that earned him the great honor in 2015. Still just 24 years old, Harper will remain in the heart of their order and certainly won’t surprise anyone with a bounce back, MVP-caliber season.
If anyone was deserving of an MVP in 2016 it was second baseman Daniel Murphy, who fell just short of a batting title with a .347 average, in addition to showcasing his power with 25 HR and 103 RBI’s. Trea Turner also exceeded expectations in his rookie season, hitting .342 with 13 HR and 40 RBI’s in just over 300 at bats. While he spent most of the year in the outfield, Turner will return to his home position this season as the team’s everyday shortstop.
The Anthony Rendon of last season looked more like the player that won a Silver Slugger back in 2014, finishing the season with 20 HR and 85 RBI’s while managing to stay on the field. Jayson Werth also managed to stay healthy, hitting over 20 home runs for the first time since 2013. The 37-year-old Werth has still seen a dramatic drop in batting average over the past two seasons, and could find himself losing at bats to the young Michael Taylor, who the Nationals still hope could blossom into an offensive force.
Ryan Zimmerman is another veteran who will end up in a part-time role, with free agent addition Adam Lind joining the roster as a left-handed platoon partner at first base. Once a gold glove third baseman, Zimmerman hit an all time low in 2016, posting an abysmal .218 batting average in 427 plate appearances. It’s hard to believe that Zimmerman will ever return to the player he once was, and could find himself completely out of the starting lineup if his struggles continue.
The Nationals rotation has been their strong suit over the past couple seasons, a theme that will continue in 2017 as they enter the season with one of the most well rounded rotations in the game. Their ace Max Scherzer took home the 2016 NL Cy Young Award in landslide fashion, after posting a 20-7 record with a 2.97 ERA and a career high 284 strikeouts. Scherzer was also a workhorse, leading the National League with a whopping 228.1 innings pitched. Scherzer is currently dealing with a stress fracture in his right ring finger, but should be ready to dominate hitters by opening day.
Stephen Strasburg began to look like the ace that the Nationals have been hyping him up to be for years, maintaining a perfect record into July last season. This success however would not last, surrendering 20 runs in just 17.2 innings in his four starts in the month of August. He would still end the season with a 15-4 record and a 3.60 ERA, in addition to earning his second career trip to the All Star game. Yet if Strasburg wants to earn the ace-status that he has the talent to achieve, he must extend the sort of dominance he saw last season over a 200-inning stretch. Tanner Roark did just that season, going 16-10 with a 2.83 ERA over 210 innings. While many don’t consider Roark as ace-caliber, another season with similar numbers should have the 30-year-old in the conversation.
2016 was a down-year for Gio Gonzalez, who’s 4.57 ERA marked the first time he finished a season with an ERA above 4.00 since his 2009 rookie season. Even if the 31-year-old begins to fall off, the Nationals can still count on Gonzalez to throw for at least 170 innings, having not made a DL appearance since 2014. Joe Ross will get the final spot in this loaded rotation, who went 7-5 with a 3.43 ERA in 19 starts last season. Still just 23-years-old, the Nationals have high expectation for the former first round pick as he continues to develop more pitches into his arsenal.
If there are any weak spots on this Nationals roster it’s in their bullpen, as they lack any relievers with long-term closing experience. The team opted not the spend the big bucks to bring back Mark Melancon and instead are in the midst of a closing competition, with Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen, and Koda Glover competing for the gig thin spring. Kelley got a small taste of the role last season, saving 7 games in 9 opportunities. Yet the 28-year-old Treinen has emerged as the favorite to win the job, who has put up a career ERA of 2.91 over three seasons with the club. The 23-year-old Glover could be the dark horse in the competition, who struggled in limited action last season but could win Dusty Baker over with a strong spring.*
Bottom Line: It’s difficult to poke holes in this Nationals roster, a roster that is perfectly capable of winning over 100 games. If Harper bounces back and their core players stay healthy, the Nationals will remain in the mix to win a World Series trophy.
*Stats and Info from Baseball Reference
-Featured image from Sporting News