Playing Pepper 2018: Washington Nationals

In 2009, before my second full season of blogging the Cardinals, I reached out to other bloggers to other teams to get insights on their clubs.  This year, instead of going through the teams alphabetically, we’ll approach it a little differently, spending a week with each division.  For the tenth straight season, get ready for the upcoming MLB season by playing a little pepper.  

Washington Nationals
97-65, first in NL East, lost in NLDS
Website | Twitter

Last year’s Pepper

How has this team never won a postseason series?  Over the last few years, this has been one of the best collections of talent in the game but they’ve never quite been able to take that first step.  With the looming free agency of Bryce Harper, there may be a bit of urgency to get things done this year.  We’re talking to some great writers today about the present and future of Washington.

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

Drew: The Nats definitely improved over the winter. Several of their free agents returned to the team, such as Brandon Kintzler and Howie Kendrick, which is huge. They did lose some key players (Jayson Werth, Adam Lind, and Matt Albers), but have covered their losses. Adam Eaton‘s return will be huge, especially after losing Werth. Although Shawn Kelley played in 2017, unlike Eaton, he was pitching through various injuries. If he is able to remain healthy in 2018, he will do an excellent job of making up for losing Albers. Finally, the Nats were able to sign Matt Adams to replace Lind. Adams is coming off of a terrific season, and is essentially a younger version of Lind, so he is the perfect replacement. The Nats did not make any big moves this offseason, but definitely improved.

Audrey: The Nationals have practically the same team they had last season because there wasn’t much room for them to improve. The one player they needed was a reliable backup catcher. Did they get a backup catcher? No, because it’s the Nationals and their offseason priorities always seem rather desultory. The other big loss was Jayson Werth, not as an offensive force but as a clubhouse presence. That’s not something they can replace.

Justin: The Nationals only made one significant change: dumping Dusty Baker and replacing him at manager with Davey Martinez, Joe Maddon‘s longtime bench coach. Martinez may or may not be an upgrade–won’t know until they start playing real baseball.

The roster is largely unchanged. Jayson Werth’s contract finally expired, but he’ll be replaced by a healthy Adam Eaton, who missed most of 2017 with an injury. There’s an outside chance GM Mike Rizzo will jump into the static free agent market to get another starter or the Miami fire sale to get catcher JT Realmuto. But right now, the 2018 Nats will look a lot like the 2017 version and that’s not a bad thing.

JD: The biggest changes for the Nationals this past offseason had nothing to do with free agency or big blockbuster trades. With the front office rather unexpectedly dumping veteran manager Dusty Baker after two seasons, they’ll be calling on newcomer (and former Cubs bench coach) Davey Martinez to get Washington over the NLDS hump. As for the roster, the biggest change would be a healthy Adam Eaton, the big acquisition of the 2016-17 offseason, who missed almost all of last season due to injury.

C70: Is there a position up for grabs and, if so, who is in the mix for it?

Drew: The most notable positions up for grabs at the moment are the fifth spot in the rotation and backup catcher. A.J. Cole, Erick Fedde, Tommy Milone, and Edwin Jackson are competing for the fifth spot, but I think it’ll come down to Cole and Milone. Cole began the spring as the clear frontrunner, but Milone has impressed so far. With the bullpen lacking a bonafide long reliever, whoever does not earn the rotation spot could potentially slide into the bullpen. Behind the plate, Pedro Severino and Miguel Montero are competing to serve as Matt Wieters‘ backup. Severino has been considered to be the Nats’ catcher of the future, but he’s coming off of a dreadful, injury-riddled season. If Montero is decent this spring, I think it’s his job to lose. He provides a great veteran presence, and Davey Martinez is already familiar with him from their days in Chicago.

Audrey: There isn’t really a position up-for-grabs. Jayson Werth will be replaced by Adam Eaton in left field, Adam Lind is replaced by Matt Adams, and everything else will be as it was in 2017. Daniel Murphy is still recovering from a leg injury, so second base is technically available but will go to Wilmer Difo should Murphy not be ready for Opening Day. I think the most difficult position to determine will be the Opening Day starter. When the options are Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, you really can’t go wrong.

Justin: Two of the three starting jobs are filled by Bryce Harper and Eaton. The third spot will likely go to NLDS hero Michael A. Taylor, but top prospect Victor Robles may be too good to keep on the sidelines. If Taylor returns to his old habit of not making contact and/or Robles has a huge spring, the battle for that 3rd outfield spot may get interesting. Either way, don’t be surprised if Robles is being talked about as the breakout star of the season by the All-Star break. He’s that good.

JD: The major question mark on opening day is 2B Daniel Murphy, recovering from microfracture surgery after playing through a knee cartilage injury last September and October. Expect either Wilmer Difo or Howie Kendrick to fill in at second if Murph isn’t healthy by April.

C70: What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Drew: The one thing people overlook about the Nats is their organizational depth and how well Mike Rizzo has set them up to compete for a long time. There has been a lot of talk about their window to win potentially closing this year with Bryce Harper hitting the open market and an aging core, but they will be good for a long time. In Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, and Michael Taylor, they have solid, young talent already starting in the majors. They also have younger guys on the bench in Wilmer Difo and Brian Goodwin. Finally, they have several young prospects who will keep the ball rolling in the future. Victor Robles, Juan Soto, Carter Kieboom, Erick Fedde, and Seth Romero highlight the Nats’ farm system, but they are an exceptionally deep organization.

Audrey: Speed. Everyone knows Trea Turner is fast. Once he gets to first base, you may as well put him on third to save everyone some time. However, the Nats have some other oft-overlooked speedsters on the roster. Michael A. Taylor, the center fielder, is very quick and even had an inside-the-park grand slam last year. Adam Eaton is much faster than you’d think by looking at him. Wilmer Difo can also hustle around the bases. They have an excellent combination of speedsters and sluggers which makes for a very dangerous offense.

Justin: Bryce Harper will be a free agent after the season (more on that below), but people may overlook that GM Mike Rizzo is also in the last year of his contract. MLB GM free agency is rarely a big topic of offseason conversation, but this situation may be the exception. Earlier this winter, Rizzo publicly stated he wants to be paid as one of the top GMs in baseball, which is a signal his renegotiation with ownership on a new contract is either non-existent or not going well. It’s possible the Nats want to see a playoff series win before they pay Rizzo the money he wants. It’s also possible they’ve already decided to replace him with a GM who won’t command as much money. Either way, Rizzo has a lot riding on the 2018 season. If this team gets over the hump and wins the World Series, there could be a major bidding war for his services. If the Nats make another early playoff exit–or miss them altogether–the Nats owners might put their baseball operations under new management for the first time in a decade. This is the most important subplot on the 2018 Nationals. 

JD: It’s easy to overlook the issues the Nats have at first base, considering Ryan Zimmerman‘s return to respectability last season. He’ll need to repeat or improve for the Nats to play at full power this year.

C70: Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Nationals to do well?

Drew: I think Trea Turner is an enormous x-factor in 2018. I wouldn’t say that they need him to do well in order to have a good year, but he is a game-changer. With his elite speed, he can single-handedly generate offense. He struggled in the postseason last year after returning from a fractured wrist, and the Nats’ offense stalled. Fortunately, there won’t be as much pressure on Turner to perform in 2018 with the return of Adam Eaton. In Eaton and Turner, the Nats have two phenomenal table setters at the top of the lineup. If they are both able to get on and run in front of Bryce Harper, the Nats offense could produce a historic season.

Audrey: Yikes. The Nationals really are a team in that sense, because it’s difficult to pick one person. I’m tempted to say Bryce Harper, but during his MVP season the Nationals imploded in spectacular September fashion. If I have to pick one I’m going with Ryan Zimmerman. He’ll bat fourth, behind Bryce, and when the cleanup guy struggles it’s hard for the rest of an offense to compensate. That being said, his 2017 season was bananas with 36 homers and, you know, being the starting first baseman in the All Star Game is kind of a big deal. I think he’ll succeed in 2018, but if he doesn’t it could weigh heavily on the Nationals’ offense.

Justin: Some of the most notable players on the 2017 Nats missed time due to injury last season and they still won the division by 20 games, so I can’t really answer this question. The most important player, though, is Max Scherzer. Scherzer, who won the 2017 NL Cy Young, got hurt on the last weekend of the season, preventing him from making 2 starts in the NLDS. Then he melted down in Game 5, giving up 4 runs and getting the loss in a relief appearance. We’ll never know if the injury played a role in that, but a completely healthy Scherzer probably gets the 2017 Nats into the NL Championship Series. The Nats need Scherzer more than any other player on the roster. 

JD: It’s tough to choose one player from this loaded roster that must succeed for the Nats to achieve. The finalists have to be Scherzer and Harper, two perennial all-star and postseason award candidates. All in all, I can’t see the Nats performing to expectations if Scherzer isn’t the Scherzer we’ve come to expect these past seasons.

C70: What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

Drew: PECOTA, which is notoriously conservative, projected that the Nats would win the NL East with 89 wins. I believe that they will win the NL East relatively easily, but they will win more than 89 games. If I had to put a number on it, I’d go closer to 95 wins. If everyone is able to remain healthy, this could be a 100-win season.

Audrey: I’ll be surprised if the Nationals don’t win 100 games. The NL East is so weak. A team as stacked with power as the Nationals will be competing against rebuilding Marlins, Phillies, and Atlanta clubs. The Mets are a perpetual question mark, so I’m not saying hand them the NL East title right now, but if there are no serious injuries to the lineup or in the rotation, I don’t see how any of those teams can really compete with the Nationals. I think their record will end around 102-60.

In the postseason, the Nationals win game 5 against the wild card team. (Unless it’s the Cardinals, in which case there is always a Pete Kozma.) They will implode in the Championship Series, getting swept by either the Dodgers or the Cubs. Which I hope doesn’t happen. I would love to have a World Series parade down Pennsylvania Avenue! However, you know what it’s like when you’ve wanted something for an unbelievably long time and you finally get it. You don’t know what to do with it! The Nationals getting past game 5 is like them landing in Narnia.

Justin: The Nationals will win the NL East again absent a complete collapse from them or a miracle season from one of the other division rivals. But we’re at the point where a division title no longer means very much to this fanbase after 4 NLDS losses in 6 years, including three Game 5 losses at home where the Nats had the lead in the 5th inning or later. So while I think the Nats will win the division again–the intra-division competition is dubious at best–I can’t make a playoff prediction. Postseason results are just too dependent on matchups, injuries, or just plain luck. But while the MLB playoffs are indeed a crapshoot, this team has also earned its share of bad fortune, with Game 5 meltdowns (Drew Storen in ’12, the bullpen in ’16, Scherzer in ’17) and questionable managing (all 4 NLDS losses). Until it actually happens, I cannot predict this team go any further than the NLDS.

JD: I see Washington winning about 90 games this season, somewhat off their more recent win totals but good enough to win the NL East by a hefty margin. They’ll likely have to defeat a stronger NL team to reach their first LCS, possibly against LA or Chicago once again. This may be their last chance to advance beyond the first round for some time, with Harper likely moving on in 2019.

C70: What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Drew: Is 2018 the year that the Nats finally put it all together and do damage in the postseason? If the Nats are able to remain relatively healthy, 2018 is their year. Losing Adam Eaton hurt a lot in 2017, but Michael Taylor did an excellent job filling in. Now, Eaton will return and Taylor has an entire season as a starter under his belt. Trea Turner struggled down the stretch, which was due to his fractured wrist. If he stays healthy, he and Eaton will form a dynamic duo at the top of the lineup. Look for Bryce Harper to produce a historic season in his contract year. According to his workout partner, Joey Gallo, he had the most productive offseason of his professional career. This will translate to an enormous season, assuming he remains healthy.

Pitching-wise, Stephen Strasburg is finally coming into his own. He finished third in NL Cy Young voting in 2017, and should dominate once again this year. Obviously, Max Scherzer has won two consecutive Cy Young Awards; chalk him up for another 20 wins. Tanner Roark is coming off of a bit of a down year, presumably due to his participation in the WBC, but should bounce back in 2018. In the bullpen, the Nats have their most dominant bullpen in team history. Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, and Brandon Kintzler form an unhittable trio in the back of the bullpen, and will be set up by Sammy Solis, Enny Romero, Shawn Kelley, Koda Glover, and Joaquin Benoit.

If the Nats are able to remain relatively healthy, which has proven to be a big if in the past, 2018 will be the year they finally get over the hump. Davey Martinez helped end the Cubs’ drought, and he will do the same in DC.

Audrey: How does having yet another new manager affect the Nationals? The answer? I don’t know. There’s no question that the Nationals did Dusty Baker dirty. I’m no fan of Joe Maddon and Davey Martinez seems to be Maddon Lite. He is the Nationals’ sixth manager since 2011 and no manager has lasted three full seasons since the Nats returned to DC in 2005. Perhaps this time they’ve finally got someone who can help get them past the dreaded game 5? The Nationals may benefit from something different, even if “something different” is Sunday Fundays and camels at the ballpark or batting the pitcher 8th.

Justin: I am surprised you did not ask about Bryce Harper. His free agency will be one of the bigger storylines next offseason, and most reasonable Nats fans have accepted that he’s probably going somewhere else. So what do I think about Bryce Harper’s free agency? First, Harper may not be worth the money it will take to sign him. He is one of the youngest players to ever hit the market, and he’s doing it with at least one MVP award under his belt. But aside from his unanimous MVP 2015 season, he hasn’t put together another healthy, complete season. He had a knee injury in 2013, a thumb injury in 2014, a mystery injury believed–but not confirmed–to be a shoulder injury in 2016, and another knee injury in 2017. While we don’t have evidence that any of these (mostly) on-field injuries are chronic, there are enough concerns about his durability to question the wisdom of giving him $400 million. Good luck to whoever does that.

Second, as long as he doesn’t go to a division rival like Philadelphia (they have the money and rebuilding timeline to sign him) or New York (the world is a sadder and lonelier place when the Yankees are winning), Nats fans will wish him well. He was a huge part of this franchise’s rise to prominence, and Nats fans consistently defended his antics when the rest of the baseball world called him arrogant and immature. It’s been really fun watching him grow up and develop, but all things come to an end. If he goes to a place closer to home like Los Angeles for the biggest contract ever, nobody will blame him and no one is booing him on his return to D.C. Finally, the team will be fine without him. There’s a reason the aforementioned Robles was untouchable in trade talks. It’s hard to replace a bat like Harper’s, but this franchise has been developing young talent well, and they’ll have plenty of payroll flexibility to remain competitive. Life will go on. 

JD: What are the Nationals going to do at the catcher position? They definitely don’t want another season of below-replacement Matt Wieters, and Miguel Montero’s probably not the answer there either. This could be Pedro Severino’s chance to break out and shine, or Washington may be looking to pick up a consistent, productive backstop on the trade market this summer.

Thanks to all that spent the time filling us in on what should be the class of the NL East.  Of course, anything can happen, but you’d expect Washington would have another chance to take that next postseason step this October!

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