Playing Pepper 2017: Washington Nationals

Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Washington Nationals
95-67, first in NL East, lost in NLDS
Last year’s Pepper

Unlike in years of old, this Washington team has become a consistent winner.  In the last five years, they’ve finished either first or second in the division and the three times that they’ve taken home the divisional title, they’ve won at least 95 games doing it.  Yet they’ve never been able to get past the first round of the playoffs (hello, Pete Kozma!) and with Bryce Harper getting closer and closer to free agency, that window has to at least feel like it’s starting to close.

We’ve got a couple of bloggers to talk about the Nationals and what they chances are they can break through this year.  Dave’s an old hand (and recently got a job covering the Mariners for The Spokesman-Review, so the blog link is where he’d been writing) and Justin’s a welcome newcomer to the annual tradition.  Give them a look!

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Dave Nichols Federal Baseball DNicholsSR
Justin Howard Half Street Heart Attack HalfStreetHeart

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

FB: The Nats had a decent offseason, picking up CF Adam Eaton and C Matt Wieters as the main additions. They didn’t acquire a “proven closer,” instead rolling with a combination of Shawn Kelley as the veteran, Blake Treinen as the unproven and Koda Glover as the hard-throwing heir apparent. Adam Lind was signed as Ryan Zimmerman/Jayson Werth health insurance.

HSHA: It was a weird offseason. Closer was biggest hole on the roster–everyone expected the Nats to sign someone–and they did nothing. Now the Nats are toying with different possibilities and we’re still not sure what the back end of the bullpen will look like. It’s almost like they deferred the closer decision to midseason, when more trade options might be available.

Almost everyone in baseball panned the Adam Eaton trade, thinking the Nats overpaid. It’s hard to disagree. Lucas Giolito was considered
the biggest prospect in baseball a year ago. Had they sold high, Giolito might have been able to get Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman. It just seems like a missed opportunity.

I would have loved to see the Nats sign Harper to a long term deal this past offseason. Now that he’s two years away from free agency, it’s less likely to happen now. Never say never–Strasburg’s extension was a huge surprise–but it’s likely the Nats’ window has closed.

C70: Is there more of an urgency to win in the next couple of years, given the statements this offseason regarding Bryce Harper and, if so, how will that manifest itself?

FB: Simply: Yes. Harper will test free agency regardless of Nats’ success. He becomes a free agent a year after Werth’s contract clears and the year before Zimmerman’s is up though, so if he re-ups it’ll come then. We’ve already seen Mike Rizzo give up the Nats’ two top pitching prospects (Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez) to obtain his everyday center fielder (Eaton), so if he feels he needs to trade for a closer he will.

HSHA: None, whatsoever. This team has already started to plan for life after Bryce Harper. Adam Eaton was acquired because he has 5 years
left on his contract. OF Victor Robles, one of the top prospects in baseball, was mostly untouchable in trade talks this past offseason. No, you can’t really replace a player like Harper, but the Nats will have a plan. The money they budgeted for Harper’s extension will be redistributed elsewhere. Bryce will leave a lot of talent in DC when/if he signs somewhere else.

C70: What’s the major weakness of this team?

FB: We’ve mentioned the lack of proven closer a few times already. Another weakness is position depth. There are no position prospects pushing for playing time now that Trea Turner is locked in at short. When (not if) Zimmerman and Werth go down, the Nats will have to rely on Lind and players like Chris Heisey and Clint Robinson.

HSHA: Bullpen, obviously, could be a problem. I also worry about middle infield defense. Murphy is not a plus defender and Trea Turner is untested at SS. But the biggest weakness on this team is durability. Werth, Zimmerman, Rendon, and Strasburg have all missed significant time over the past few seasons. Assuming Harper was hurt last year (I think he was), he’s had 1 healthy season in 4 since his rookie year. There are just way too many key contributors on this team who always seem one play away from a month-long DL stint.

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

FB: This is a veteran team, outside of Turner – and he’s getting plenty of attention after his second place NL rookie of the year campaign last season. Perennially overlooked Tanner Roark is probably the most anonymous two-time 15-game winner in the bigs. Maybe Treinen or Glover if one emerges as the closer?

HSHA: Honestly, Bryce Harper takes so much oxygen out of the room, I feel like every quality player on this roster is unheralded. Tanner Roark
was one of the most consistent and reliable starters in the league last season (13 games with 7 inn or more & 1 ER or less). Daniel Murphy is well known from his Mets playoff heroics, but he legitimately put up an MVP-quality season last year (he finished second in voting). Trea Turner’s rookie season was so spectacular I started calling like Mike Trout-lite, and I wasn’t entirely joking. SP Joe Ross is another name fans should know and watch this season.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and/or where will they finish in the division?

FB: First place, 93 wins. Again, Nats will get to feast on building Atlanta, Philadelphia and Miami to boost the win total.

HSHA: A lot of things broke right last season (Murphy, Ramos, Scherzer), so it’s not hard to imagine a slight regression in 2017. On the other hand, if Bryce Harper becomes Bryce Harper again and Trea Turner repeats his 2016 second half over a full season, this team could win 100 games. I think the Phillies and Braves improve, giving the Nats fewer easy victories, and this team grabs the NL East with 91 wins.

C70: Who is your all-time favorite National and why?

FB: Tough one. I have a lot of respect for John Lannan, two-time opening day pitcher who toiled on some really, REALLY bad teams and took the ball every fifth day and usually kept them in game. I loved John Patterson’s curveball, shame he couldn’t stay healthy. For fun factor, Adam Dunn trudging around the outfield. And Ryan Zimmerman for being the team’s first “face” and all-star.

HSHA: I’m going to answer your question very literally. Walter Johnson. That’s right, there was professional baseball in Washington D.C. prior
to 2005. The Washington Nationals (commonly referred to as Senators) were one of the original 8 American League franchises. They won a World Series title in 1924, when Walter Johnson pitched 4 scoreless innings in a 12 inning Game 7. Johnson had 417 wins and 110 shutouts. He was likely the greatest pitcher of all time, and he played his entire career in Washington D.C.

Thanks to Dave and Justin for their thoughts on the club in the nation’s capital.  This may be the year that first-round exit bit is broken!

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