At this time last year, every expert – as well as yours truly – was predicting the Nationals to win the NL East in a landslide, approaching 100 wins. The Nationals have been a trendy World Series pick since 2012, which coincided with the arrivals of Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. Plus, they added Max Scherzer on a big free agent deal. But once again, the Nationals fell well short of expectations last season, winning only 83 games and finishing second in the NL East.
The Nationals didn’t get appreciably better over the offseason, as their most notable acquisitions were second baseman Daniel Murphy, outfielder Ben Revere, and manager Dusty Baker. Jonathan Papelbon, who choked Harper in a dugout altercation near the end of the past regular season, is still the closer and Drew Storen was traded to the Blue Jays. It took a while, but shortstop Ian Desmond left the Nationals for free agency and eventually signed with the Rangers to play in the outfield, leaving Danny Espinosa and Trea Turner to man the position.
So the question is: can this very slightly altered Nationals team overtake the Mets, who rode a young, elite pitching staff to the World Series last season? And the answer is: probably not.
Bryce Harper won the NL MVP award unanimously last season, hitting .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs, 99 RBI, and 118 runs scored, and even that wasn’t enough to push them on top. Harper should be expected to be elite once again in 2016, but not that elite. None of the projection systems listed on FanGraphs or Baseball Reference see him improving on last season’s numbers. With Harper expected to regress towards the mean, the club will need improved production from others and it’s tough to pinpoint an area where that’s likely to happen.
Jayson Werth turns 37 in May and is coming off a season in which he played in only 88 games and posted a meager .685 OPS. The projections see him improving, but only modestly, from a negative-WAR player to a player halfway between replacement level (zero) and average (two WAR). Though Werth managed to stay healthy with the Phillies, he has been injury-prone for as long as he has been playing baseball, so it’s not a shock he has averaged only 119 games in his five seasons with the Nationals.
To illustrate the position player side of things, here’s a table comparing the 2015 OPS the Nationals got from each position with the projected OPS of the starter at each position:
Scherzer threw two no-hitters last season with a career-low 2.79 ERA and posted the best defense-independent numbers of his career, as indicated by a 219/46 K/BB ratio over 196 innings. His average of 8.12 strikeouts for every one walk was historically great, as there had only been eight pitchers who had averaged more strikeouts per walk. But the Nationals aren’t expected to gain any ground here either, as the projections see Scherzer being marginally better or marginally worse.
Top pitching prospect Lucas Giolito is expected to make his major league debut this season, but that likely won’t happen until September. If he debuts earlier, it will be because the Nationals’ starting rotation is suffering from performance- or health-related issues. Giolito is considered by many to be the top pitching prospect in the game and will likely open the season at Double-A Harrisburg.
A full season of Papelbon is nice, but Storen was arguably pitching better than Papelbon before the veteran came into town, holding a 1.73 ERA through July 22. He fell apart once Papelbon donned a Nats uniform, compiling a 6.75 ERA between July 29 and the end of his season on September 9. Even Papelbon, who posted a 2.13 ERA last season, doesn’t represent a bolstered position.
For the Nationals to win the division in 2016, a few things need to happen:
- The Nationals need to hit way above average on a few projections (e.g. a return to form from Anthony Rendon)
- Harper and Scherzer need to repeat as elite performers
- Werth and Strasburg must stay healthy
- The Mets need to fall short of expectations, particularly with their starting pitching
- Papelbon can’t cause any more strife with his antics
Prediction: 85-77, second place in the NL East