Examining the team's MLB season ahead.
Were the 95-win Washington Nationals of 2016 victims of the cruel, crapshoot mentality of October, or were they just flawed enough to lose in the NLDS to Los Angeles? That question hung over their offseason, and it hangs over them again as 2017 arrives. Their relative lack of free-agent activity suggests they believe the former, but their failed pursuit of ace lefty Chris Sale, and the subsequent trade for center fielder Adam Eaton — which cost the Nationals three top pitching prospects — suggests something else.
In the short term, the Nationals have a chance in 2017 to be even better than last year’s version, with Eaton patrolling center field, dynamic leadoff hitter Trea Turner at his natural position of shortstop and a rotation headed by Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. But the long-term vision of the team’s ownership and front office will also be tested. Bryce Harper’s looming free agency at the end of 2018 colors the decision-making process, and signs are already in evidence that the Nationals expect to lose him. Potentially facing a two-year window before Harper is gone, the Nats have a growing sense of urgency.
The Nationals considered their pursuit of Sale a one-off deal. They didn’t view themselves as needing a starting pitcher — not with a rotation of Scherzer, Strasburg, Tanner Roark, Joe Ross and Gio Gonzalez — but when the White Sox’s ace lefty became available, they were prepared to mortgage a big chunk of their future to get him. By losing Sale to Boston, the Nationals not only failed to fulfill their dream of a super-rotation, but they also wound up sacrificing some of their 2017 rotation depth by sending prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez (along with 2016 first-rounder Dane Dunning) to Chicago for Eaton. While this is still a formidable fivesome, the Nats will be praying more than most teams for good health, as the next men up in case of rotation injury (and barring any late-winter roster pick-ups) would be unproven righthanders Austin Voth and A.J. Cole. And on the health front, the progress of Scherzer, who is recovering from a stress facture in the knuckle of his right ring finger that was misdiagnosed last season, is something to keep an eye on. At minimum, Scherzer will be behind the rest of the starters in spring training and could end up missing the first few starts of the season. Washington will gladly trade a few games in April for a healthy Scherzer come September and, hopefully, October.
If Harper indeed departs after 2018, the Nationals already have the next young star they will build around in Turner. Debuting in 2016 as the primary center fielder down the stretch, Turner was a hit-knocking, big-slugging, base-stealing revelation as an everyday leadoff hitter, posting a .342/.370./.567 line in essentially half a season. Now, after shifting him to shortstop following the trade of Danny Espinosa, the Nationals will get a better look at Turner’s highly touted infield defensive skills. Turner’s double-play partner, Daniel Murphy, was a revelation himself in 2016, enjoying a career year of .347/.390/.595 in his first season in D.C. and finishing second in MVP voting. While Murphy is never going to win a Gold Glove, the Nationals don’t mind as long as he doesn’t kill them on defense — and keeps hitting the way he did in 2016.
Once considered the face of the franchise, Ryan Zimmerman has struggled through injuries, throwing issues and overall poor performance, to the point where he can’t be counted on anymore to justify his place in the order. His OPS declined for a fourth straight year in 2016, to a paltry .642. If he gets off to another poor start, there will be cries to replace him at first base, even with $48 million still owed to him over the next three years. What Zimmerman needs is a big bounce-back year, such as the one third baseman Anthony Rendon produced in 2016, when, unlike in 2015, he stayed healthy and produced to the tune of .270/.348/.450.
The Nats’ interest in Eaton was equal parts production and cost-certainty. They liked his bat; they loved his contract, which, including club options, could tie him to D.C. for five years at a cost of only $38 million. And while defensive metrics peg him as being better in the corners than in center field, the Nats believe he will excel in center, allowing them to keep Harper in right. Harper’s production in 2016 took a nosedive in the second half, leading to rampant speculation that he was hurt. But at age 24, he remains the straw that stirs the drink — though the Nats would prefer the high-octane version of 2015. Meantime, left fielder Jayson Werth returns for his seventh (and presumably final) season in D.C.
Difficult as it was to let Wilson Ramos walk away, the Nationals could no longer count on his health following a second major knee injury in 2016. Instead, they signed Matt Wieters to a two-year, $21 million deal (with a player opt out after the first year) after the start of spring training. Wieters made the All-Star team four times in his eight seasons with the Orioles, but health has been an issue for him. He’ll be backed up by Derek Norris, who came in a December trade with San Diego. Norris spent his first five pro seasons in the Nationals’ system, before being shipped to Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez trade. He is a top-notch defender and game-caller, with advanced metrics ranking him second among catchers in the majors in defensive runs saved. Should something happen, there’s also well-regarded backup Jose Lobaton and prospect Pedro Severino waiting in the wings.
Chris Heisey turned a non-roster spring invite in 2016 into a one-year guaranteed deal for 2017. He hit nine homers, some of them huge, in just 139 at-bats, while seeing time at all three outfield positions. He will anchor a 2017 bench that should also include first baseman/corner outfielder Adam Lind and some combination of Clint Robinson, Stephen Drew and 24-year-old utility infielder Wilmer Difo. Lind’s signing could be particularly important, especially if Zimmerman struggles again. An 11-year veteran, Lind is a left-handed bat who has averaged 25 home runs over the six seasons in which he played in at least 125 games.
Mike Rizzo has batted pretty close to 1.000 on his trades since taking over the GM duties in 2009, which should have earned him the benefit of the doubt in the much-dissected Eaton trade. Yes, the cost in prospects was steep, but one suspects Rizzo has a fair degree of certainty that none will come back to haunt the Nationals. Dusty Baker proved to be an excellent hire as manager in 2016, replacing the suffocating atmosphere under Matt Williams with a looser, more player-friendly vibe.
Ninety-five wins, the same number as 2016, would be a pretty good over-under for the Nationals in 2017. They shouldn’t have too much trouble winning the NL East, a division they carried by eight games last year. But the question remains whether they have the firepower to get past whatever other team emerges as playoff competition in October. But success in October is fickle, and this year could be the Nats’ year, if only because the law of averages says it should be.