2018 Season Preview: Washington Nationals

(Image Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports)
As winter draws to a close, temperatures rise—Ann Arbor aside—and Spring Training gets underway it can only mean one thing: Baseball is (almost) here! Welcome back to M-SABR’s Season Preview 30 Teams in 30 Days series, where our staff writers share their insights on what to expect from your favorite team and players in 2018 and get you ready for that very first first pitch.

by Theo Mackie

2017 Record: 97-65, 1st NL East

2017 Payroll: $189,292,654 (7th)

(All player projections for 2018 from Steamer)

Projected 2018 Opening Day Lineup:

  1. CF Adam Eaton: .284/.363/.419, 2.1 WAR
  2. SS Trea Turner: .297/.347/.464, 4.0 WAR
  3. RF Bryce Harper: .301/.418/.582, 5.7 WAR
  4. 3B Anthony Rendon: .282/.375/.479, 4.5 WAR
  5. 2B Daniel Murphy: .311/.368/.498, 2.5 WAR
  6. 1B Ryan Zimmerman: .269/.330/.490, 0.9 WAR
  7. C Matt Wieters: .245/.308/.398, 1.0 WAR
  8. CF Michael Taylor: .244/.304/.414, 1.1 WAR

Projected 2018 Rotation:

  1. Max Scherzer: 3.38 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 207.0 IP, 5.0 WAR
  2. Stephen Strasburg: 3.43 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 188.0 IP, 4.3 WAR
  3. Gio Gonzalez: 4.18 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 190.0 IP, 2.6 WAR
  4. Tanner Roark: 4.33 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 171.0 IP, 2.1 WAR
  5. AJ Cole: 4.79 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 91.0 IP, 0.6 WAR

Offseason Recap:

After a fourth NLDS loss in six years, the most eventful portion of the Nationals’ offseason came in the week after their premature exit. Eight days after dropping a crushing game 5 loss to the Cubs, general manager Mike Rizzo fired his manager Dusty Baker in one of the more surprising managerial moves of the offseason.

Baker had led the Nationals to a 192-132 regular season record and two division titles over his two seasons at the helm, bringing much-needed stability to the Washington clubhouse after a disastrous 2015 under Matt Williams. Ultimately, though, the front office decided they needed a change with their window closing and no NLCS series to show for it.

The Nats’ managerial search coincided with the Yankees firing Joe Girardi, leading many to speculate that they could be after the World Series-winning manager. After a 13 day search, though, the team placed the job in younger hands, naming former Cubs’ bench coach and Joe Maddon right-hand man Dave Martinez the team’s seventh manager since moving to DC.

Martinez’ addition was the most high-profile of the team’s many coaching moves. They lost acclaimed pitching coach Mike Maddux to St. Louis, who swapped places with former Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist. On the hitting side, Kevin Long comes over from the Mets to replace Rick Schu, Former Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale joins the staff as bench coach, while Tim Bogar will be the new first base coach.

While the Nats may have a new look in the dugout, the product on the field will look very similar to past seasons. Rizzo dipped his toes in the Jake Arrieta waters and reportedly engaged in talks with the Marlins’ ongoing fire sale over JT Realmuto but ended up pursuing neither move, though a mid-season Realmuto deal remains possible.

Instead, their biggest moves of the offseason were signing Matt Adams to replace Adam Lind as backup first baseman and re-signing Brandon Kintzler to a $5 million deal with a mutual option in 2019. In lower-profile moves, they also brought back utilityman Howie Kendrick and pitcher Edwin Jackson to compete for the fifth starting spot.

Season Preview:

The Nationals’ 2018 season will occur over five days in October. For Washington fans, the first 162 games are a glorified preseason–anything short of an NLCS appearance would be catastrophic with much of their core hitting free agency after the season. Despite the Phillies making splashes in free agency by signing Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta, FanGraphs projects no other team in the division to win more than 93 games, meaning the Nats should have another cakewalk to October.

Once they get there, though, it will be a different story. The Cubs and Dodgers should both push for 100 wins in a top-heavy NL East, meaning securing home field advantage throughout the playoffs could be huge–though 2012 and 2014 provide evidence to the contrary.

To challenge those teams for National League supremacy, the Nats will need strong performances from their bevy of superstars. On the mound, Max Scherzer has won back-to-back Cy Youngs and posted a 2.76 ERA in three seasons in Washington, while Stephen Strasburg finished third in Cy Young voting with a 2.52 ERA a season ago. Those two form the best one-two punch in baseball and Gio Gonzalez pitched to a 2.96 ERA in the three spot last year in front of Tanner Roark, who has a sub-3.00 in two of his four seasons in the Washington rotation.

The fifth spot is one of the Nats’ only question marks, as AJ Cole, Erick Fedde, and Edwin Jackson will compete for the role. Cole has mostly been a spot starter over the past two years, Erick Fedde was the team’s top pitching prospect a year ago in a thin system but struggled last year, and there’s a reason that Edwin Jackson has been a journeyman for half a decade. Joe Ross, though,  could return from Tommy John surgery midseason to regain the fifth spot after a rough 2017.

While the fifth spot may be a weakness, it seems unlikely that the bullpen–the Nationals’ achilles heel for the first half of 2017–will be. After a catastrophic start to last season, Rizzo added Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madsen from Oakland in mid-July and Brandon Kintzler a few days later from Minnesota. The trio soon molded into one of the National League’s premier late inning combos behind the resurgent Matt Albers. Albers has since signed with Milwaukee but Washington has a number of bounce-back candidates in the pen such as Koda Glover and Enny Romero to bridge the gap from their elite rotation to elite back end of the pen.

On the offensive side, the Nats return nearly their entire offense from a team that led the National League in runs a year ago. Third baseman Anthony Rendon led the league in WAR, while megastar Bryce Harper put up an OPS over 1.000 for the second time in three years and led the NL MVP race before a late-season injury kept him out for six weeks.

The only starter who won’t return is longtime left fielder Jayson Werth, who put up negative WAR last year. He’ll be replaced by projected leadoff hitter Adam Eaton, who tore his ACL less than a month into his debut season in Washington after coming over from the southside of Chicago, where he averaged 5.1 WAR from 2014-2016.

Stolen base machine and shortstop Trea Turner is projected to slot in between Eaton and Harper in the two-hole. Turner came onto the scene in 2016 with a .937 OPS in 73 games in his rookie season but suffered a sophomore slump at the plate with a .789 OPS, as he was limited to 97 games by a broken wrist. Over the last two seasons, though, the speedster has nabbed 79 bags in just 171 games.

Lower in the lineup, second baseman Daniel Murphy and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman return from fantastic offensive 2017 campaigns. Murphy has a .334 batting average in two seasons in Washington and Zimmerman–once a perennial silver slugger candidate at third base–blasted a career-high 36 home runs in a resurgent season. Further down, Michael A Taylor will play center field after a breakout 2017 while catcher Matt Wieters is the biggest weak spot in the Nats lineup, as the four-time All-Star hit just .225 and was worth negative WAR last year.

All in all, this is a stacked team with World Series aspirations. They won 97 games last year despite tons of injuries and are a serious candidate for 100 wins in an otherwise weak division that should be locked up by the All-Star break. After the season, Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Gio Gonzalez hit free agency, with Anthony Rendon set to depart after 2019. Over the last six years, this has been one of the best teams in baseball but with the window for contention potentially shrinking, it’s time to prove it in October.

Predicted Record: 99-63

Player to Watch: Bryce Harper

The Nats have no shortage of players with claims to the title of “team star,” but ultimately, it has to go to the biggest star in baseball (don’t freak out, I said the biggest star, not the best player). Harper dominated the league in 2015, putting up the best offensive season since Barry Bonds, and priming himself to break all sorts of records when he hits free agency next offseason.

He has yet to repeat his 2015 heroics but was the best hitter in baseball last year before getting hurt. Simply put: every Harper at-bat is must-watch.

Player to Watch: Victor Robles

Robles got his first cup of tea last September and impressed enough to earn a spot on the Nats’ playoff roster. However, he will likely be held in triple-A for at least the first half of the season to avoid having 2018 count toward his service clock, as well as to get him more seasoning because he has only played 37 games at double-A and none at triple-A.

While the Nats don’t have an immediate need for Robles with an already-stacked outfield, he is undoubtedly the future in Washington–potentially as Bryce Harper’s replacement. Robles is a true five-tool prospect who should be one of the game’s elite defenders in center field, steal 50 bases, and hit .300–as he has done in 4 seasons in the minors. He will never have Harper’s power, but at age 20, he still has much room to grow into a 20 HR hitter.

Player to Watch: Michael Taylor

Another center fielder, Taylor broke onto the scene in 2017 to earn a starting spot in the outfield. In his first three seasons of major league action from 2014-2016, Taylor was never able to produce at the plate as he had in the minors, leading many to believe he was destined to be a career triple-A player.

However, Rizzo’s faith in him finally paid off last year, as he broke out with a .271/.320/.486 triple slash to go along with 19 home runs, excellent defense, and postseason heroics that would have made him a legend in DC had the Nats not blown a 4-1 lead in game 5. Taylor’s breakout allowed the Nats to replace Adam Eaton with virtually no drop-off and gives them the luxury of not rushing Robles, as there are no holes in the outfield until Harper’s assumed departure.

The question for Taylor, though, is if he can repeat 2017. Fans are right to be skeptical of a breakout season of the caliber of Taylor’s 2017, especially given that his strikeout to walk and hard hit rates did not change much in 2017. But if Taylor can have a repeat of last year, it would be a huge boon to not only the Nats’ 2018 chances but also the front office’s flexibility going forward.

Categories: 2018 Season Preview, Articles

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