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

Braves sweep Mets, take 2-game lead in East with 3 remaining

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Adam Hagy/Getty Images
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ATLANTA — Matt Olson knew the Atlanta Braves were too talented to stay in a season-long slump.

That’s why no one panicked when the New York Mets’ division lead swelled to double digits in May. Now the Braves are on the cusp of another NL East title.

“It’s a clubhouse full of guys who want to win,” Olson said. “That’s all it’s been since the moment I walked in. That’s No. 1 on the program.”

Dansby Swanson and Olson homered for the third straight game, Travis d'Arnaud hit a go-ahead two-run single in the third inning, and Braves beat New York 5-3 on Sunday night, completing a three-game sweep of their NL East rival and taking a two-game lead in the division with three games to play.

The defending World Series champion Braves have been chasing the Mets the entire season. In the final series of the season, any combination of one Atlanta win or one Mets loss would give the Braves their fifth straight division title.

New York plays its final three games of the season against worst-in-the-majors Washington. Atlanta closes out the regular season with a three-game set in Miami. Should the season end Wednesday in a tie, Atlanta would win the division after claiming the season series 10-9 with Sunday’s victory.

“We’ve felt this confidence since the beginning of the year,” d’Arnaud said. “It just didn’t go our way early in the year, but pulling on the same rope, having each others’ backs, not trying to do too much. We’re just trying to play the game of baseball and have fun with it.”

The Braves won five of the last six games in the series, outscoring the Mets 42-19 over that stretch. New York had a 10 1/2-game lead on June 1 but now is the lower in the standings than at any point this season.

It was a lost weekend for New York, which came to Atlanta hoping to clinch its first division title since 2015. Instead, aces Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer lost Friday and Saturday before Chris Bassitt lasted just 2 2/3 innings on Sunday.

“We still have three games left in the regular season, we’re still going to the postseason, that doesn’t change, but there’s a lot of learning points that we can take from this series moving forward,” Mets slugger Pete Alonso said. “I thought we played well, but the Braves played better. They played excellent baseball this entire weekend.”

Swanson took Bassitt deep to right-center in the first with his 25th homer, and Atlanta took charge with a three-run third. Bassitt (15-9) issued a bases-loaded walk to Olson before d’Arnaud delivered a single up the middle to score Ronald Acuna Jr. and Austin Riley for a 4-3 lead. That chased Bassitt, who was charged with four runs, three hits and three walks.

Olson connected for his 33rd homer to make it 5-3 leading off the sixth, his 410-foot shot landing in the seats in right-center. Olson, in his first year with Atlanta, surpassed 100 RBIs for the second straight season.

“Everyone knew we were underperforming when we were flirting around that .500 range,” Olson said. “It was one of those things where it was trusting the talent we have and the guys in the clubhouse. Everybody was solid, head down, do your work, it’ll turn around and you wind up winning.”

Charlie Morton stranded runners on first and second in the first, but he gave up Daniel Vogelbach‘s 18th homer that tied it at 1 in the second. The righty struck out Francisco Lindor with runners on first and second to end the threat.

Jeff McNeil went deep off Morton in the third and Vogelbach followed with an RBI single to put the Mets up 3-1. Morton entered the game having allowed 28 homers, sixth-most in the NL.

Morton scuffled throughout his start, giving up three runs and nine hits in 4 1/3 innings as the 38-year-old made his first start since signing a $20 million, one-year contract to remain with Atlanta next season.

Dylan Lee (5-1) relieved Morton and pitched 1 1/3 innings, leaving after a walk to Brandon Nimmo with two outs in the sixth. Collin McHugh entered and struck out Francisco Lindor.

Raisel Iglesias faced four batters in the seventh, A.J. Minter faced the minimum in the eighth and closer Kenley Jansen converted his third save of the series with a clean ninth.

Jansen leads the NL with 40 saves in 47 chances.

The Braves’ bullpen, which posted a 1.70 ERA last month, pitched 8 2/3 scoreless innings the last two nights.

BIG NUMBERS

Atlanta leads the NL with 241 homers. And the Braves have their first 100-victory season since 2003.

TWO, DARN HOT

McNeil went 3 for 5 and has multiple hits in five straight games. His average is .326, one point behind the Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman for the NL batting title. In 23 career games at Truist Park, McNeil is hitting .395 with 12 runs, nine doubles, two homers, seven RBIs and four walks. … Jansen tied Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley for eighth place on the career list with 389. He’s also is the 10th closer to have four different seasons with at least 40 saves.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets All-Star RF Starling Marte (right middle finger fracture) has yet to begin swinging or throwing. … Braves 2B Ozzie Albies (broken right pinky finger) is still wearing a cast. … Braves RHP Spencer Strider still has not thrown as he gets treatment on a sore left oblique.

ATTENDANCE

The Braves drew 42,713 in their regular season finale, the club’s 42nd sellout of the season. Overall. that’s 3,129,931 for the season – and the most tickets sold since 2000. In 2019, the team’s last full season before the COVID-19 pandemic, Atlanta drew 2,655,100.

UP NEXT

Mets: RHP Carlos Carrasco (15-7, 3.95 ERA) will face Nationals RHP Cory Abbott (0-4, 5.11).

Braves: RHP Bryce Elder (2-3, 2.76 ERA) will face Marlins LHP Jesus Luzardo (3-7, 3.53).