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MLB Preview: The Nationals Look to Win Their First Back-to-Back NL East Titles

John Bazemore/Associated Press

The Nationals had a busy offseason, trying to improve a team coming off a division title — its third in the last five seasons — but couldn’t get out of the NLDS. With C Wilson Ramos moving to the Rays in free agency, the Nationals looked to acquire a veteran presence with a proven offensive track record behind the plate rather than relying on light-hitting C Jose Lobaton as the starter. Early in the winter, they acquired C Derek Norris in a trade with the Padres. He will likely serve as a backup, though, because just days before spring training the Nats signed C Matt Wieters, who has spent his entire career in the region as a member of the Orioles. Wieters should get the starting job at catcher. The Nationals also made a trade with the White Sox, getting OF Adam Eaton in exchange for a trio of prospects, led by SP Lucas Giolito, who saw some time in the majors last season. The Nationals also traded away 2B Danny Espinosa, who didn’t have a starting role in a crowded infield that includes 2B Daniel Murphy and young SS Trea Turner up the middle. And early in spring training, they signed veteran P Joe Blanton, who may compete for a spot at the bottom of the rotation but will likely provide bullpen depth if he doesn’t get a starting role.

While not excelling on offense in 2016, the Nationals finished in the top half of MLB in most offensive categories, including batting average, home runs and OPS. Leading the offensive attack was Murphy, who had a career year in his first season with the team. He hit .347 with 25 home runs, and he led the National League with 47 doubles, .595 slugging percentage and .985 OPS. Murphy’s offensive WAR of 5.7 was good for third best in the NL. Those numbers helped him finish second in NL MVP voting, behind Cubs 3B Kris Bryant. Murphy’s performance helped pick up the slack for the disappointing year from OF Bryce Harper, the 2015 MVP, who hit .243 with 24 home runs and a .814 OPS — all career lows for a year in which he played in more than 100 games. HIs 1.6 WAR was also the lowest of his career, save for injury-shortened 2014, and a big drop-off from the 9.9 WAR he had in 2015. 3B Anthony Rendon and OF Jayson Werth each hit at least 20 home runs while hitting .270 and .244, respectively. In 73 games after being called up from the minors, Turner hit .342 with 13 home runs and 33 steals in 307 at-bats. With the Orioles last season, Wieters hit .243 with 17 home runs.

On the mound, SP Max Scherzer led a pitching staff that posted a 3.51 ERA,  which ranked as the second-best in the majors behind the eventual World Series champion Cubs. The Nationals’ 1,476 strikeouts was also second, and their 155 home runs allowed were the third fewest in the majors. Where the pitching wasn’t as good was in the bullpen, with the Nationals’ 46 saves slotting in near the middle of the pack. In his 34 starts, Scherzer struck out a career-best and NL-leading 284 batters en route to posting a 2.96 ERA over 228.1 innings, earning him the NL Cy Young Award. Scherzer also led the NL with 20 wins, a 0.968 WHIP and a 6.2 WAR for pitchers. Pitching behind Scherzer in the rotation, SP Tanner Roark went 16-10 with a 2.83 ERA and 172 strikeouts, and SP Stephen Strasburg won 15 of his 24 starts, posting a 3.60 ERA with 183 strikeouts. RP Jonathan Papelbon — currently a free agent — led the team in saves. RP Shawn Kelley had 7 saves last season to go along with his 2.64 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 67 appearances.

The Nationals should be improved with the additions they made to their roster, but there are some question marks that could hamper expectations for the team that won 95 games last year. One is injury-related, with Scherzer dealing with a hand injury that could cause him to miss the beginning of the regular season. A bigger worry is the bullpen and the Nationals’ lack of a bonafide closer. Kelley looks like he’ll get the first shot at the role, but his limited experience closing games could limit his success at the end of games.

The team also shouldn’t expect to get a repeat performance from Murphy, who played well above the level people have come to expect from him. In his 32-year-old season, he should regress back toward his career averages of .296 batting average and 13 home runs. On the other hand, Harper should bounce back from his down year in 2016. The 24 home runs he hit last year is around what he typically does — 2015’s 42 homers are definitely an outlier in his career stats — but he should be able to raise his .243 average significantly. Turner is a wild card with his limited experience in the majors, but if he can keep up the strong pace he got off to in his rookie season, he could be a 20-homer, 40-steal guy if he can keep up the power and speed he showcased in the second half of last season.

The Nationals look like they have a good chance of winning back-to-back division titles for the first time in franchise history, including the Montreal days. The Mets are still a good team, but the Nationals remain the class of the NL East. It may be hard to win 95 games again but the Nationals appear to be on track for another season of 90-plus victories, which should be enough for another division title. If that happens, the question becomes whether the Nationals can advance out of the NLDS for the first time since moving to D.C.

Sources: http://www.nationals.com, http://www.baseball-reference.com

Scott Jenkins
I am a writer who enjoys writing about sports, with a focus on baseball. You can read more of my writing on my blog at http://thoughtsfromscottj.wordpress.com
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