After 2016 ended with more playoff disappointment, the Nationals have entered “win-now” mode.
BY MITCHELL WESTALL, SPORTS EDITOR
In the 2016 National League Division Series, the Nationals came oh-so-close to winning the franchise’s first playoff series since they beat the Phillies in the 1981 NLDS. Of course, they were still located in Montreal and known as the Expos, so D.C. fans care nothing for this little piece of history. After holding a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series, the Nationals lost a pair of games by one run, ending their playoff run.
With a rotation as strong as any in baseball and a lineup ridden with talent, the Nationals return as one of the favorites in the National League to contend with the defending champion, the Chicago Cubs.
As opening day draws closer, the Nationals will carry a similar roster to the one they had last season, but there are a few glaring questions. Their largest needs entering free agency are at the catcher and closer positions after the departures of Wilson Ramos to Tampa Bay and Mark Melancon to San Francisco.
Unless the Nationals make an unexpected trade, it appears as though the Nationals are going to turn to Blake Treinen, Shawn Kelley or rookie flamethrower Koda Glover.
With his fastball that flirts with the triple digits, Glover is considered to be the future for the Nationals at closer, but that future could be as soon as opening day. Kelley and Treinen are more suited for setup rolls due to their lack of strikeouts.
Last season, Glover made his MLB debut and showed flashes of brilliance, but he was far from perfect. In eight spring training appearances, Glover has pitched eight innings with 11 strikeouts and a 1.13 ERA. Granted, it is just spring training, but it’s hard to ignore those numbers.
The Nationals’ biggest move this offseason was trading their top two pitching prospects in Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito to the White Sox for 28-year-old centerfielder Adam Eaton.
The trade was confusing for some fans, as they were very excited about Giolito’s potential. However, after performing well in his rain-shortened debut against the Mets last season, Giolito’s performance took a nosedive. Lopez showed more flashes of brilliance, but also struggled overall in his first taste of major league action.
So while they still hold top-prospect value, General Manager Mike Rizzo cashed in and filled a hole in centerfield with a very team-friendly contract and a .284 career batting average. Eaton is under team control through the 2021 season.
Another question that is very important to the Nationals success is will Bryce Harper return to form this season? Or will he continue to be a shell of his 2015 MVP self?
His batting average dropped from .330 in 2015 down to a mere .243 in 2016, and his home run totals were 42 and 24 respectively. That makes the low average much tougher to swallow for the Nationals, especially if Harper is commanding a $400 million salary when his contract runs out after the 2018 season. His play in 2017 will be key in determining whether the Nationals will want to keep him around for the long haul, and at what cost.
The last glaring question facing the Nationals this season is whether or not a pair of beloved veterans of the ball club will return to form, or if they will continue to hold the team back. Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth have had two straight disappointing seasons. Werth, who turns 38 in May, is also in the final year of a contract that the team will gladly take off the books following this season. Many people consider this season to possibly be the final one of Werth’s solid career due to his age.
Ryan Zimmerman, who turns 32 in September, should have a few years left in the tank. The former face of the franchise is under contract through at least 2020, and he has been the weakest link in an otherwise dominant lineup over the past two seasons. However, Zimmerman has had a strong spring training, sporting a .303 average in 33 at-bats.
I see the Nationals making a playoff run that ends in a loss in the NLCS. This is a very strong team, but I don’t think it will be enough to get over the hump in the playoffs.
Bryce Harper may not play as strong as he did in 2015, but he will be very good. I’m thinking we should see Harper hit around .285-.290 with 30+ home runs.
Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg will both finish in the top five in Cy Young voting, and one of them will win it. This might be the safest bet on this list. If Strasburg stayed healthy last season, he would definitely be a candidate for the award.
Trea Turner will be in the running for NL MVP. His rookie season was absolutely jaw-dropping. He didn’t even play half the season, yet finished second to fellow phenom Corey Seager in Rookie of the Year voting. I expect his average to drop to around .320, but he will still be the best player on one of the top teams in the NL.
This will be the final season Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth play in Washington. If Werth doesn’t retire, I will be shocked. I don’t expect Zimmerman to improve much on his numbers from last season, and the Nationals will need to move on from their first-ever draft pick if they ever want to get over the hump. The Nationals will be forced to eat his $14 million salary unless Zimmerman retires.