2019 Season Preview: Washington Nationals

2018 Record: 82-80 (2nd in NL East)

2018 Payroll: $181,382,609 (5th)

Projected 2019 Lineup:

  1. OF Adam Eaton, .283 AVG/.366 OBP/.412 SLG, 2.2 WAR
  2. SS Trea Turner, .287 AVG/.350 OBP/.447 SLG, 4.5 WAR
  3. 3B Anthony Rendon, .287 AVG/.373 OBP/.487 SLG, 5.0 WAR
  4. OF Juan Soto, .292 AVG/.393 OBP/.517 SLG, 4.3 WAR
  5. 2B Brian Dozier, .242 AVG/.327 OBP/.433 SLG, 2.1 WAR
  6. 1B Ryan Zimmerman, .263 AVG/.328 OBP/.476 SLG, 1.1 WAR
  7. OF Victor Robles, .274 AVG/.335 OBP/.417 SLG, 2.1 WAR
  8. C Yan Gomes, .241 AVG/.295 OBP/.408 SLG, 1.0 WAR

Projected 2019 Rotation:

  1. Max Scherzer, 208.0 IP/3.14 ERA/1.04 WHIP, 5.7 WAR
  2. Stephen Strasburg, 177.0 IP/3.67 ERA/1.19 WHIP, 3.1 WAR
  3. Patrick Corbin, 182.0 IP/3.44 ERA/1.21 WHIP, 3.5 WAR
  4. Anibal Sanchez, 144.0 IP/4.30 ERA/1.31 WHIP, 1.7 WAR
  5. Joe Ross, 55.0 IP/4.59 ERA/1.35 WHIP, 0.4 WAR
  6. Jeremy Hellickson, 106.0 IP/4.84 ERA/1.37 WHIP, 0.6 WAR

It is year 1 A.B.—after Bryce—in our nation’s capital, and the NL East is shaping up to be a slugfest of the highest order. How will the Nationals shape up? Let’s find out:

Offseason Recap:

At the end of another ultimately disappointing season in Washington that saw a very talented Nats roster finish only a win above .500, the first order of business was putting an offer on the table for Bryce Harper. The 10-year, 300 million dollar contract offer felt at the time more like a market setting bid than a serious attempt at retaining their homegrown superstar. However, when Harper ultimately settled for a lower annual average value on his 13-year, 330 million dollar deal with the Phillies, it appeared the Nationals had already removed themselves from negotiations and that the initial offer consisted of significant deferred money—something that has become commonplace with long term contracts under the Lerner ownership.

Fortunately, Harper moving down I-95 to Philly did not make this a disappointing winter for GM Mike Rizzo and the Nats. Yes, losing a player of Harper’s ability hurts, but when he was one of the main consistencies on a series of teams that either fell off entirely the second the playoffs began or worse yet underperformed their way to missing the playoffs altogether, somewhat of a fresh start might not hurt. Moreover, with an abundance of outfield options remaining and other key holes being amongst the real reasons for a disappointing 2018 (looking at my two Gallardo Award winners Pedro Severino and Wilmer Difo), Washington focused on plugging those holes effectively rather than putting all its eggs in the Bryce basket.

Instead, Rizzo looked at last year’s glaring weaknesses—second base (Washington placed dead last in MLB in WAR from its second basemen), catcher (here Washington only placed dead last in the NL), and rotation depth—and addressed them aptly.

While the predominant free agency story league-wide has been how long teams are holding off from signing players, Washington wasted no time acquiring both Kurt Suzuki via free agency and Yan Gomes via trade within two months of Pedro Severino’s last disappointing strikeout.

One month later, in January, the Nats took a chance on former Twins second baseman Brian Dozier, who finished top-15 in back to back AL MVP votings in 2016 and 2017, before a down year in 2018 that still featured 21 home runs and a World Series run after a midseason trade to the Dodgers. At 1-year, 9 million dollar, Dozier should represent a low-risk gamble with 30 home run upside at the position at which the team was weakest last year.

Finally, in February, the big move was made. The Nationals love a big contract free agent pitcher, and the 6-year, 140 million dollar contract given to former Diamondback Patrick Corbin, makes Corbin just that. His track record might not be as long as the money suggests, but pairing a 29-year old coming off of a phenomenal 2018 in which he posted a 2.47 FIP, 11.07 K/9, 6.3 WAR and a top-5 finish in NL Cy Young voting with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg has scintillating potential.

Bringing last year’s surprisingly solid Matt Adams, and relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough put the finishing touches on an excellent all-around offseason.

Season Preview:

As mentioned initially, the NL East—Marlins aside—should be a clash of the very good teams aiming for wins in the high 80’s, low 90’s while hoping to beat up on each other and once again the Marlins. The good news is that Nationals look like they should be able to hang, and offer a little more experience than their counterparts in Atlanta and Philadelphia, and a little less Mets-iness than their rivals in New York.

It all starts with the front of the rotation, where Max Scherzer will look to continue one of the most dominant multi-year stretches in recent history, Patrick Corbin will try to keep his 2018 form going, and Stephen Strasburg will aim to hopefully, please, knock on wood, stay healthy.

Now Scherzer should not be a wild card in that equation, as his past season was even better than his two previous Cy Young winning seasons, as he posted career bests in K/9, FIP, and WAR. Strasburg meanwhile faces the same questions as always, alternating between stretches as dominant as his 2.52, third place NL Cy Young 2017 and seasons like his 130.0 IP, 3.74 ERA 2018 seemingly every other year. But if Strasburg and Corbin both deliver alongside Scherzer’s inevitability, D.C. might just have the best three-headed monster in baseball.

Less stability and upside arise on days 4 and 5 of the rotation, as Joe Ross, Anibal Sanchez and Jeremy Hellickson will battle for the final two spots. Don’t count out disappointing former first-rounder Erick Fedde throwing his hat in the ring, but a career 6.44 ERA hardly evokes much confidence. Look out for Hellickson though, who turned some unexpected heads in Washington last year to the tune of 3.45 ERA in 19 starts, even if the 4.22 FIP points to some regression.

A serious NL East challenge might come down to how the relievers following some of those excellent starters fare. It feels like each of the past 5 years the Nats have been clamoring for bullpen help at the trade deadline, but this year they might have made some of those moves ahead of time. Sean Doolittle has been flat out elite since coming to D.C. and should lock down ninth innings with his 12.00 K/9 and 1.60 ERA from 2018. Granted, he might be pushed to the eighth should the Nationals make a surprise run at the still unsigned Craig Kimbrel, but with the Braves and Phillies also in the mix that seems like more of a pipe dream than a serious possibility. Yet if Rosenthal and Barraclough reward the Nationals for the faith they put in them this winter, the bullpen should be much less iffy than in years past either way.

On the other side of the diamond the Nationals boast an impressive offense. Led by the perennially underrated but consistently excellent Anthony Rendon at the hot corner, the lineup features a bevy of above-average or better contributors. And while Tony Two Bags has become a near lock for 40ish doubles, 20+ home runs and 5.0 fWAR, he might not even be the best hitter on the team.

While the price point might be atop the list of reasons for not retaining Bryce Harper, having the greatest teenage hitter of all time ready to take his spot in the lineup was not far behind. In 2018, rookie Juan Soto did his best Bryce Harper impression and then some—obviously not peak power, world beating 197 wRC+ MVP Bryce Harper, but the Bryce Harper with excellent plate discipline, power, and a .280ish batting average with upside. His .923 OPS barely bested Mel Otts long standing .921 mark for the best ever by a teen. Not only is Soto’s walk rate of 16.0 % above Harper’s 14.8% career total, but it also does not fall far below his 20.0% strikeout rate, painting the picture of a hitter that is poised beyond his years. He might not have won Rookie of the Year or offer the same flash as his cross-division counterpart Ronald Acuña Jr., but watching their respective careers unfold should be one of the most exciting subplots in all of baseball.

Joining Childish Bambino in the DC outfield will be Adam Eaton and long-time top 5 prospect Victor Robles. While the 30-year old Eaton might not ever reach the heights of his final 5.8 fWAR season in Chicago, injuries aside, he has been a great hitter since joining the Nationals, putting up a 125 and 123 wRC+ respectively in two shortened seasons in DC. The defense is not quite there anymore, but the man they call Mighty Mouse is about as pesky of a leadoff hitter as you’ll find and should be an excellent asset at the top of Davey Martinez’s lineup if he can reach his .301 batting average from 2018. Robles meanwhile is expected to break camp as the team’s everyday center fielder after impressing enough in his first two brief MLB stints to make the Nats’ 2017 playoff roster. In 2018, the 21-year old Dominican outfielder produced a 131 wRC+ in a small 66 PA sample, but slugged his way to 3 home runs, 3 doubles, and a .525 slugging percentage. All things considered, the outfield should be a team strength Harper or no Harper.

Meanwhile, rounding out the infield alongside Rendon are Trea Turner at short, Brian Dozier at second, and National for life Ryan Zimmerman.

Let’s start with Zimmerman, who following a couple of up and down seasons might be the biggest question mark of the bunch heading into his age 34 season. While he slugged 36 home runs and 108 RBIs with a .303 batting average back in 2017, his 2015, 2016 and 2018 raise some doubts both health and production-wise. Granted the .218, 66 wRC+, -1.4 fWAR production from three seasons ago looks like a clear outlier, but with only 85 games played last year and a .108 drop in OPS the decision to bring back Matt Adams to back Zimm up seems like a smart hedge by Rizzo. Before he was traded back to St. Louis at the trade deadline, Adams had produced 18 home runs and a 123 wRC+ for the Nats, including some impressive hot stretches. Best case scenario, Zimmerman builds off his MLB 5th best 9.9 Barrels/Plate Appearance % from 2018 though, and Adams remains a useful backup when called upon.

Over at shortstop, Trea Turner is right up there on the list of young Nationals with the most tantalizing upside, along with Soto and Robles. If the 146 wRC+, .342 batting average hitter is still to be found somewhere inside his speedy, 6’2 body, the sky’s the limit for Turner. His 4.8 fWAR 2018 already was a vast improvement from a disappointing sophomore season in 2017, as he played in every game and nearly broke the 20 home run mark. While the .271 average is not what DC was hoping for, a significant improvement in walk rate helped him once again steal 40 bases. Let’s hope he puts it all together because if he does, he can be one of the more exciting players in baseball.

At second base, new addition Brian Dozier and the returning Howie Kendrick will have to do almost nothing to exceed Wilmer Difo’s production from 2018. While Dozier offers the 20 home run and previous MVP conversation caliber upside, Kendrick has been instrumental since his 2017 arrival in Washington, reaching base at a .331 clip last year, and is a beloved figure in the clubhouse.

Finally, catcher is a similar story. Pedro Severino could not hit to save his life, and the Matt Wieters experiment failed, with Washington catchers producing a combined -2.2 WAR per Baseball Reference. With Yan Gomes and the return of Kurt Suzuki Washington fans will be hoping that there will just have to be more output from behind the dish. Fortunately, each of them broke 2.0 fWAR in 2018 and with 28 home runs between them they should present the team with a much better catching situation.

All things considered, this Nationals team has a high floor and an even higher ceiling on paper. On paper remains the key phrase, just as it has every year since the first NL East title in 2012. And while the 6 seasons since have produced inevitable disappointment, whether a first-round playoff exit or no playoffs at all, never has DC gone two years in a row without winning the division or at least 95 wins. So after 82 wins in 2018, the feeling within the team is much more positive this year, and the Nats have the roster to bear that out. If they can go 15-4 against the Marlins—as every NL East team will be hoping to do—and hang tough against their direct competition, there is no reason 92 wins and a fifth division title is out of the picture. No matter what though, keep your eyes on the NL East.

Predicted Record: 92-70

Player to Watch: SP Max Scherzer

He might be 34, but the man they lovingly call Mad Max keeps getting better. His aforementioned 2018 featured not only career highs in various categories and an incredible 300 strikeouts but also the addition of a brand new cutter. His dominant fastball remains his best pitch as he threw it 50.3% of the time and consistently for first strikes, but the confidence he displayed in his newest pitch—throwing it 9.8% of the time—was the sign of a pitcher who remains hungry and willing to improve no matter how accomplished he is. Can he make it three Cy Youngs in four years in 2019? That remains to be seen, but tuning in to Mad Max starts every fifth day remains the most fun thing a Washington, or any fan can do.

Player to Watch: 3B Anthony Rendon

From the leader of the rotation to the leader of the lineup. Coming off two straight years as a top-two player in the National League by fWAR (6.7 in 2017, 6.3 in 2018), Rendon is another one of the reasons many Nationals fans were okay with letting Harper leave. Why pay 30 million dollars a year for flash and not always consistent production, when your quietly best hitter might hit the market only a year later and potentially present an even more promising future? Granted, Rendon is another on the long list of Scott Boras that ply or have plied their trade in DC, so an extension is far from guaranteed or even probable, but if Stephen Strasburg’s pre-Free Agency extension from 2017 is any indicator, a new contract for Rendon ahead of him hitting the open market is not off the table. As such, contract year production with a massive eventual extension could be a best case scenario for both the Nationals and Boras alike because if Rendon walks next winter as well, DC fans might not be quite as understanding.

Player to Watch: OF Victor Robles

Picking three players to watch on the Nationals is tough, and Juan Soto and Trea Turner are indeed good options, and even MLB’s number 18 prospect Carter Kieboom almost made the cut, but ultimately Victor Robles could be one of the make or break players on a hopeful division champion team. With aforementioned previous production in short stints and 70-grade scouting ratings in speed, fielding and throwing per Fangraphs, Washington might be looking at its center fielder for years to come, and 2019 could be his breakout. Only 21 games in 2018 or not, a .873 OPS from a 20-year old is nothing to scoff at, and his blazing speed should allow him to be productive on the basepaths no matter what. Power might never be his calling card, but if the .288 average was a sign of things to come, the young Robles could be a luxury hitting out of the lowered pressure eight hole this season. Come for Soto and Eaton, stay for Victor Robles, who has the potential to be the calling card for the Nationals outfield in 2019.

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