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NL East Preview: The Washington Nationals

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What to expect from the reigning division champs

MLB: NLDS-Washington Nationals at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

2016 Record: 95-67

2017 Projected record (per FanGraphs): 90-72

After a 2015 where just about everything not having to do with Bryce Harper went wrong, the Washington Nationals enjoyed a significant reversal of fortunes last season winning the NL East. In the playoffs, they didn’t last too long, being ousted in game five by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Still, if October is where this organization feels it should be playing, and there are reasons to believe it is, getting back there I a sign of a successful season.

Last Season the Nats rotation was arguably the best in the Majors. By fWAR they fell behind the Mets vaunted group, though only by a marginal 0.2 Wins (18.3 to 18.1). At the same time the Washington unit was able to pitch more innings, produce a higher K/9, and keep their ERA lower than their rivals in Queens. The good news for Nats fans, and bad news for Marlins fans, is the five main members of last season’s rotation are all returning, and project to be about as good as they were in 2016. That group projects as follows.

1. Max Scherzer

2. Stephen Strasburg

3. Tanner Roark

4. Gio Gonzalez

5. Joe Ross

By the projection system Zips each of those players is predicted to reach at least 3.0 WAR. The Nats Rotation should be a distinct strength.

Switching to the Bullpen we find a slightly different story. The Nationals bullpen was very good in 2016 producing the 6th highest combined WAR in the Majors and 2nd lowest ERA. The problem; however, is that last year’s relief ace Mark Melancon has moved to the west coast leaving the unit without it’s best arm. Shawn Kelley will step into the role, assisted by Sammy Solis and Blake Treinen, all three of whom are capable pitchers. The bullpen in 2017 will take a bit of a hit, but should still be reasonably solid.

It’s been a very quiet off season for the Washington Nationals. Nowhere Is this more obvious than in their batting order as the same 8 starters from last season project to take the bulk of the at bats once again this year.

The biggest question marks perhaps, are in the Outfield.

In right Bryce Harper has had one of the strangest past two seasons in the Majors. Cthulhu with a bat in 2015, Harper produced the highest batter WAR in the Majors, and his 197 wRC+ ranks as the 40th best offensive season of all time. In 2016 he crashed back to earth, finishing with a 112 wRC+ and 3.5 WAR, good but not as amazing as we’ve come to expect. There are outside reports that he was playing hurt last season, though neither the Nats nor Harper have admitted that. Zips has taken the cautious approach when projecting Harper, estimating him to finish with around 5 WAR, the best among all Nats hitters, but still human.

In center, young Trea Turner will get his first taste of action in the bigs. It took awhile for the legendarily veteran biased Dusty Baker to give him a chance, but when he got it the kid didn’t waste it. Posting a .342 batting average, stealing 33 bases, and unexpectedly hitting 13 home runs in just 73 games, Turner was amazing. This season the power is likely to regress a bit, he never hit more than 5 HR’s in any season in the minors, but the average and stolen base totals should stand. He’ll be moved to his natural position of Shortstop this season and that should see him become a more helpful part of the defense.

Taking Turner’s place in center will be the recently acquired Adam Eaton. Eaton joined the Nats this off season in a deal centred around prospect Lucas Giolito. The veteran provides excellent outfield defense and a solid offensive contribution,

Finally patrolling left field will be veteran Jayson Werth. Now entering his age 38 season, Werth is likely going to be worth negative value in 2017. Then again in 2016 the projections said the same thing and he produced 1.1, so there is a possibility that he beats the odds, but as always with beating the odds it isn’t very likely. Every player eventually just gets too old and this is likely the time for Werewolf Werth.

Around the Infield there isn’t too much to say. Anthony Rendon (3B), , and Daniel Murphy (2B) both return and project to provide solid contributions. At catcher, newly acquired Derek Norris will take over for the departed Wilson Ramos, splitting time with Jose Lobaton, and eventually promising prospect Pedro Sevirino. At first-base Ryan Zimmerman is in much the same boat as Jayson Werth. A slow injury riddled decline over the past few seasons has brought him to the point where producing any value above replacement is an unlikely prospect.

The Nats batters by fielding order will look like this on opening day.

2. Derek Norris

3. Ryan Zimmerman

4. Daniel Murphy

5. Anthony Rendon

6. Tre Turner

7. Jayson Werth

8. Adam Eaton

9. Bryce Harper

Unless something goes wrong the Washington Nationals are still the best team in the NL East. We’ve seen that happen of course, as just two years ago they fell flat on their faces despite being projected to be the best team in baseball. Still, using the data we have available now to it’s best extent the Nats are quite clearly the team to beat in the division.