Despite winning the NL East three out of the past five seasons, the Nationals haven’t made it past the NLDS in any of their playoff appearances. With the 2017 season on the horizon, let’s take a look at how Washington shapes up.
After failing to make the postseason in 2015 and watching the division rival New York Mets make it to the World Series, the Washington Nationals bounced back in 2016 and took the NL East crown. An impressive feat after a down year from Bryce Harper and an injury-plagued second half for Stephen Strasburg.
Newly acquired Daniel Murphy, sensational rookie Trea Turner and Max Scherzer carried the Nationals into the playoffs for the third time in five seasons. With the second-best record in the NL, they faced off against the NL West-winning Los Angeles Dodgers.
In a hard fought series, the Dodgers proved victorious despite their 2-1 series deficit. The Nationals needed just one win in Game 4 or Game 5 to advance to the NLCS. They failed to win either game. Game 5 resulted in a nightmarish seventh inning collapse where four pitchers combined to give up four runs. Clayton Kershaw earned his first career save in Game 5 and the Nationals walked away with another disappointing NLDS loss.
The Nationals now look toward the 2017 season as a chance for a deep playoff run. With one of the strongest rosters in baseball, the Nationals looked poised for championship contention. Here’s what they need in 2017.
A Better Season from Harper
After winning his first MVP award in 2015, Harper seemed ready for another MVP campaign in 2016 with a great April. The following months turned into a nightmare for Harper. He struggled and finished with a .243/.373/.441 slash line, 24 home runs, 86 RBI and 84 runs.
For a typical player, those numbers don’t seem bad at all. For Harper, those numbers are not what the Nationals expect from an MVP-caliber player. In 2015, Harper hit 42 home runs, drove in 99 runs, scored 118 times and owned a slash line of .330/.460/.649.
Compare the two seasons and clearly 2016 was a down season for Harper. With the Mets’ pitching staff healthy and ready for 2017, the Nationals need Harper to return to MVP form if they want to defend their NL East title.
A Healthy Season for Strasburg
With his past two seasons revolving around injuries, Strasburg needs his health in 2017. Last season, Strasburg suffered an elbow injury and missed most of September and the NLDS.
Throughout Strasburg’s career, he’s dealt with injuries including Tommy John surgery. 2016 started off well for the right-hander, but the Nationals need a full season of success from him in 2017. When Strasburg is healthy, the Nationals possess one of the best rotations in baseball.
With the 2017 regular season just two and a half weeks away, let’s take a look at the Nationals’ offseason additions, the players they lost, along with a team projection and some predictions.
Throughout the offseason, the Nationals stayed busy upgrading the team. They were active during the Winter Meetings and they also struck deals as recently as February.
One of the more surprising moves during the Winter Meetings was the White Sox trading outfielder Adam Eaton to the Nationals for pitching prospects Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning.
Many questioned if Eaton’s value matched the prospects’ worth. MLB.com’s top 100 ranks Giolito No. 11 and Lopez No. 46. But the Nationals did receive one of the most underrated players in the game in Eaton.
Last season, Eaton hit .284/.362/.428 with 14 home runs, 59 RBI, 91 runs, 14 stolen bases and nine triples. He’ll provide the Nationals with great speed on the bases and a scrappy leadoff presence. He also plays well defensively in center field. His dWAR on baseball-reference.com reached 1.8 last season. His overall bWAR sat at 4.1 in 2016.
At the beginning of the offseason, Washington traded for catcher Derek Norris. As the offseason continued the Nationals decided to make another deal for a catcher. In February, the Nationals signed free agent catcher Matt Wieters to a one-year, $10.5 million deal with a player option in 2018.
The Wieters deal resulted in the Nationals placing Norris on waivers and then releasing him on Wednesday.
More than likely, Wieters will handle the catcher’s duties for the Nationals in 2017. He missed a majority of the 2014 and 2015 seasons because of Tommy John surgery.
In 2016, Wieters played in 124 games for the Baltimore Orioles. He hit .243/.302/.409 with 17 home runs, 66 RBI and 48 runs. Wieters spent his first eight seasons in Baltimore, so the 2017 season in Washinton might provide a nice change of scenery for him.
Utility Backup/Pinch Hitter:
Also in February, the Nationals signed veteran left fielder and first baseman Adam Lind to a one-year, $1.5 million deal with a 2018 mutual option. As a left-handed bat, Washington can use Lind off the bench in pinch-hit scenarios or platoon him at first with Ryan Zimmerman.
Lind played in 126 games for the Seattle Mariners in 2016. He hit 20 home runs and drove in 58 runs last season. His slash line was .239/286/.431. He also hit 20 home runs in the previous season for the Milwaukee Brewers. He probably won’t see much starting time in 2017, but he’ll provide the Nationals with a powerful bat off the bench.
An underrated signing for the Nationals was pitcher Joe Blanton. They signed him to a one-year, $4 million deal. With the Dodgers in 2016, Blanton found success out of the pen.
His numbers in 2016 included a 2.48 ERA, 80 strikeouts and just a .194 opponent’s average against. The Nationals remain without a true closer, but Blanton adds depth to an already good bullpen.
Even though the Nationals look like a winning team heading into 2017, that doesn’t mean they didn’t lose some key players from 2016. Below are a few players that no longer play for the Nationals.
After seven seasons in Washington, Wilson Ramos agreed to a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays in the offseason. Besides his short seven-game stint with the Minnesota Twins, Ramos spent his entire major league career with the Nationals.
Ramos is a career .269/.313/.430 hitter, with 83 home runs, 321 RBI and 224 runs. He also provided veteran leadership for the club.
It was a rough ending in Washington for the catcher. In a September game versus the Arizona Diamondbacks, Ramos suffered a torn ACL trying to catch a high throw to the plate. Ramos missed the remainder of September and the NLDS.
It wasn’t a long stint in Washington for closer Mark Melancon. After the team acquired him at the 2016 trade deadline, he became a free agent in the offseason. In the offseason, he signed with the San Francisco Giants.
Melancon pitched in 30 games for the Nationals in the regular season. He converted 17 out of 18 save opportunities, with a 1.82 ERA and 27 strikeouts. He appeared in four NLDS games where he earned one save and didn’t allow a run.
Just like Ramos, Danny Espinosa had played his entire career in Washington. In the offseason, the Nationals traded Espinosa to the Los Angeles Angels for two minor league pitchers.
Along with his epic beard, Espinosa provided pop from both the second base and shortstop positions for Washington. His biggest flaw is hitting for average. In his seven years, Espinosa hit 92 home runs, drove in 285 runs and scored 337 times, with a slash line of .226/.302/.378.
As mentioned in the Adam Eaton trade, the Nationals traded away two top prospects in Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez. Both pitchers look on track for successful major league careers, but not all prospects pan out. The Nationals took a risk. Their hope is that Eaton can help them win now.
Dusty Baker‘s 2017 team looks similar to the 2016 squad. Trea Turner moves to shortstop and Adam Eaton takes over in center field. The rotation remains the same and the bullpen saw the addition of Joe Blanton and the subtraction of closer Mark Melancon.
The NL East contains two top teams, the Nationals and the Mets. Those two teams will battle for the NL East Crown in 2017, but ultimately, Washington prevails. They’ll win the NL East for the second straight season and for the fourth time in six seasons.