2017 Washington Nationals Season Preview

Looking at the defending NL East champions

Steve Mitchell—X02835
Mar 29

The Washington Nationals won the National League East in three of the past five seasons, with a title in the even numbered years of 2012, 2014 and 2016.And rookie manager Matt Williams won the division in his first year at the helm in 2014 with the club, just as veteran skipper Dusty Baker did in 2016. And the club has yet to win a playoff series.So obviously Washington and general manager Mike Rizzo hopes those trends do not continue this season under Baker, getting ready for his second season in the nation’s capital. Baker enters the season in the last of a two-year contract he signed with the Nationals.Among the new faces in the everyday lineup are center fielder Adam Eaton and catcher Matt Wieters. In addition, Trea Turner, who played mostly center field as a rookie last year, will start at shortstop after he hit .342 with 33 steals in 73 games last season.Eaton was acquired during the winter meetings — held about 10 miles south of Nationals Park — in December as the Nationals sent young pitchers Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning to the Chicago White for the veteran outfielder.The trade meant the loss of Giolito and Lopez, who both made their major league debuts in 2016.”Adam is a real good (addition) for us,” Rizzo said during spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida. “He grinds out at-bats. He plays a great center field. He brings a lot of dynamics to the ballclub. He gives us another quality at-bat in the lineup. He will be a great grinder at the plate.”Wieters was signed as a free agent in February after he spent all of his big league career just north of Washington with the Baltimore Orioles. He is a switch-hitter who has taken a hit from the sabermetrics folks due to poor pitch-framing.”He was several weeks behind when he came here,” Rizzo said. “There is a big learning curve for him. He is a fine catcher who calls a great game. He makes our lineup stronger and longer. He will be one of the leaders in the clubhouse. He is a great addition to the ballclub.”The other returning regulars include several big personalities and/or contracts: right fielder Bryce Harper, left fielder Jayson Werth and right-handed starters Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.Harper dropped to .243 with 24 homers last year after he was the Most Valuable Player in 2015 when he hit .330 with 42 homers.Werth hit .244 with 28 doubles and 21 homers last year. Scherzer was the Cy Young Award winner as he went 20-7 with a 2.96 ERA while Strasburg, who will make the Opening Day start Monday against the Miami Marlins, was 15-4 with 3.60 ERA in 24 starts in 2016.Scherzer came to camp with a fracture on his right finger but pitched five scoreless innings on March 27 against the New York Mets. “I am on pace to start the season,” Scherzer said. “Our core is intact. We are always going to be fighting in September.”First baseman Ryan Zimmerman looks to bounce back after hitting .218 with 15 homers in 115 games last season. “Zim has been working on his approach and his mechanics,” Rizzo said. “He likes where his stroke is. He will be ready when the bell rings.”The big question mark is who will be the closer for the Nationals.Mark Melancon was very effective down the stretch last year after he was acquired in a trade from the Pittsburgh Pirates.But the Colorado native signed a four-year deal with the San Francisco Giants, and the Nationals also lost out on free agent Kenley Jansen — who stayed with the Dodgers. “We made competitive offers to both,” Rizzo said.The in-house candidates to start the year as the closer are right-handers Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen and Koda Glover. Rizzo said of Glover: “He has closer stuff.”ROOKIE WATCH: RHP Koda Glover rose quickly through the Nationals system, starting at Class A Potomac of the Carolina League in 2016 and ending up in Washington by the end of the year. An eighth-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2015, he was the second member of that draft class to make the majors. He was 3-1 with eight saves and a 2.25 ERA in 40 minor league games last year then struggled with the Nationals. Glover was 2-0 in 19 games and blew both save chances for the Nationals, while compiling a 5.03 ERA. Glover got the last four outs in a 6-0 win Monday over the New York Mets. “Last year is in the past. My focus is on staying healthy and seeing what I can do for the team this year,” he said during spring training.ON THE RISE: RHP Tanner Roark continues to impress as a former 25th-round pick of the Texas Rangers in 2008. The University of Illinois product was 16-10 with a 2.83 ERA last season in 34 games, with 33 starts. Roark gave up 173 hits in 210 innings and was named to the USA team for the World Baseball Classic held this spring as the Americans won the gold medal. Roark was acquired in a trade from Texas in 2010 and won 15 games in his first year as a starter in 2014. He was relegated to the bullpen for most of the 2015 season, then was back in the rotation last year. There is no reason to believe Roark won’t continue to be one of the top starters in the National League in 2017.BACKSLIDING: LF Jayson Werth will begin the last year of his seven-year contract that he signed before the 2011 season. The Nationals took some hits for the big contract, but Werth has been part of three division titles for an organization that had won none before he came. Werth was moved from right field to left field to allow Bryce Harper to play right prior to the 2015 season. Last year, Werth hit .244 with 28 doubles and 21 homers and there is reason to believe he could slip in those numbers this year, as he hit .174 in his first 19 spring training games over 46 at-bats. Werth also showed signs of less range in the outfield last year, especially early in the season.PLAYER NOTES:• RHP Max Scherzer threw two no-hitters in 2015 and then fanned 20 Detroit Tigers early last season. He was the only National League pitcher to win 20 games last season and he won the Cy Young Award last year, giving him awards in each league. Scherzer pitched five scoreless innings against the New York Mets on Monday in spring training and is slated to pitch Saturday against the Boston Red Sox at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. If all goes well, he would pitch against the Miami Marlins in the third game of the season.• RF Bryce Harper was the Player of the Month last April when he hit .286 with nine homers. But he hit 15 homers the rest of the way and many felt Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon messed with his psyche when he was pitched around during a May series. Harper ended up at .243 in 147 games with 24 doubles, two triples, 24 homers and 86 RBIs and will look to come closer to his 2015 numbers when he was MVP with an average of .330 and 42 homers. Harper had eight spring training homers through Monday.•SS Trea Turner was a Rookie of the Year candidate last season even though he played in just 73 games with Washington. He only played a few games in center field in the minors but that is where he was used most the year for the Nationals. With the trade of shortstop Danny Espinosa to the Angels, Turner will move to short this year — the position that he played at North Carolina State before he was a first-round pick of the San Diego Padres. Turner had a .937 OPS last year with Washington and stole 33 bases in 39 tries. Turner hit .342 last season with 14 doubles, eight triples and 13 homers in 307 at-bats.• 2B Daniel Murphy built on his postseason success of 2015 with the New York Mets and was one of the top hitters in the majors last season. His approach is to pull the ball into the air — easier said than done — but he had a .985 OPS and a .595 slugging mark with 47 doubles, five triples and 25 homers. For good measure, he had an average of .347 and drove in 104 runs in 142 games. He is an average defender at best at second base but certainly didn’t hurt Washington too badly in that department last year.