2016 Preview: Washington Nationals

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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:

Pos. 2015 2016 proj. Diff.
C .609 .673 .064
1B .753 .759 .006
2B .718 .748 .030
3B .769 .773 .004
SS .663 .653 -.010
LF .701 .735 .034
CF .743 .692 -.051
RF 1.053 1.023 -.030
.047

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

Yankees pound Hyun-Jin Ryu, beat Dodgers 10-2

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“We haven’t had many games like this,” Dodgers manager Dave Robert said after last night’s loss to the Yankees. That’s for sure.

There were no wild walkoff hits. There were no home runs by Dodger batters. There were two, including a grand slam, from Didi Gregorius, however, and he and New York batters pounded Hyun-Jin Ryu, perhaps the stingiest pitcher in baseball this year, for seven runs on nine hits in four and a third as the Yankees beat the Dodgers 10-2 in Dodger Stadium.

Aaron Judge, who has been slumping something terrible, opened up the scoring with a solo home run in the third. Two batters later Gary Sánchez matched him with a blast of his own. An A.J. Pollock RBI single in the bottom half of the inning made it a 2-1 game but after that the Yankees stepped on the gas with a five-run fifth highlighted by a Didi Gregorius grand slam. Gleber Torres would homer in the sixth, Judge would single home a run in the eighth and Gregorius would strike again in the ninth with a solo homer for his second blast of the night. That one gave the Yankees 57 bombs in the month of August, which sets a team record. There’s still a week left in August too.

As for the Dodgers, Ryu was uncharacteristically rusty, though it probably should be noted that this was his second poor outing in a row. struggled through his second straight sub-par outing. The last time out he lost to Atlanta. allowing all four Braves’ runs in 5 2/3 innings as the Dodgers fell 4-3. His ERA came in to this game at a still-MLB-best 1.64, but those seven runs in fewer than five — his shortest outing in nearly two months — puffed it up to an even 2.00.

The Yankees scored just nine runs in their three losses in Oakland. Last night they beat that by one. And they brought themselves to within one game of the Dodgers for the best record in all of baseball, which would determine home field in the World Series should these two powerhouses meet.

For now, though, Roberts is limiting the implications of all of this to Friday night, saying “fortunately, it only counts for one loss.” Yep. But man, it was an ugly one.