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NL East Roundup: Washington Nationals

Here I’ll be continuing my NL East review with the Washington Nationals.  You can also see my thoughts on the Phillies, Braves, and Marlins.

The Nationals, despite ending with a winning record, were perhaps one of the more disappointing teams last season.  For the second straight year they came in as the preseason favorite to win the National League and failed to deliver, missing the playoffs entirely in 2015.  The team started off strong, but began faltering in the second half of the season, and ended up collapsing by the end.

The Nats, however, look to shrug off last season’s blunders and make a statement this season.  They are in a strong position to do so, with new manager Dusty Baker, along with last year’s unanimous NL MVP Bryce Harper and pitching ace Max Scherzer.  Baker provides a much needed mix up in the dugout, as previous manager Matt Williams certainly had his fair share of questionable decisions last year, especially during the Nationals second half slump.

Michael Taylor will look to earn the starting spot in center field for the Nationals. Taylor hit 14 home runs and stole 16 bases in 19 attempts in 2015. Photo courtesy of Washington Post

The Nationals return a majority of an offense that was top 3 in the National League in both runs and home runs in 2015.  The team brings a lot of experienced hitters to the plate, along with a couple of seasoned veterans in Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth.  Honestly with Spring Training starting March 2nd for the Nationals, I still think there is a fair bit of malleability in who makes the starting 9 for Opening Day.

I think the battle for center field between Ben Revere and Michael Taylor is probably the highlight as we head into Spring Training.  With the loss of Denard Span, the Nationals are going to want a consistent bat and speedy baserunner out of his replacement. Of the two, Revere is definitely the safer option at the start of the year, as he has more professional experience and has proven his ability to hit for average. With that in mind, I think Taylor has the higher potential of the two. While he does need to work on cutting down the strikeouts, he is absolutely lights out on the bases, and has shown that he is the superior of the two when it comes to power (Revere has 4 homers in his 6 year career, Taylor had 14 last year).  I think both players will be given ample opportunities to prove themselves in both center and left field, as current starter Jayson Werth’s endurance is beginning to fade after 13 years of playing.

The rest of the batting order looks very strong as well.  The acquisition of Daniel Murphy from the Mets in the offseason looks to be the most fruitful acquisition for Washington.  Murphy absolutely exploded in the postseason series against the Dodgers and the Cubs, homering in 7 of 8 games and being named NLCS MVP.  Fans are certainly hoping Murphy will continue to swing that hot of a bat come April.

On the other side of second base, it will be interesting to see how Danny Espinosa does in the field. Longtime shortstop Ian Desmond seemed to be somewhat of a liability there, so it can only be hoped that this offseason provided him with enough time to acclimate himself.  I think that regardless of who the Nationals choose for their starting 9, there will be plenty of talent at the plate.

For Jonathan Papelbon, strangling the National League MVP may not have made the best first impression with Nats fans. Photo courtesy of:

The real concern for the Nationals pitching-wise doesn’t come from their rotation. If Strasburg can stay healthy and Scherzer can have even half the season he did last year, I think they should be in good shape.

The real concern comes from the bullpen. The Nats had the 5th lowest save percentage in the NL, converting just over 64% in 64 opportunities.  Jonathan Papelbon seems to be the undisputed closer now, with Drew Storen moving to Toronto. While Papelbon did have issues meshing with the team originally, (including one altercation where Papelbon seemed to strangle Bryce Harper) the players seem willing to move past them.

With a lot of firepower on offense, and arm in every slot in the rotation, the Nationals are primed for another great season. Hopefully the team chemistry will continue to increase throughout Spring Training, and some veteran ex-starters (Oliver Perez and Yusmeiro Petit) will be able to adapt to their new bullpen roles with some of the younger talent. The offense should be consistent throughout the year, so the Nats success will hinge a lot on Stephen Strasburg remaining healthy in the rotation, along with Tanner Roark and Joe Ross continuing to improve as young starting pitchers.  If these three can live up to their potential, it will then be up to the bullpen to ensure that their efforts are converted into curly W’s.

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