The Washington Nationals finished 2016 as the National League East championship with a 95-67 record. Despite some excellent offensive season from the likes of 2B Daniel Murphy and C Wilson Ramos, the team's offense, as a whole, was basically MLB average as it ranked 17th in batting average and 12th in the MLB in terms of OPS. The key to the Nationals season was their pitching.....both in the rotation AND in the bullpen. Led by ace SP Max Scherzer, the Nats starting rotation was 2nd best in baseball with a 3.60 ERA and the bullpen was also 2nd best with a 3.37 ERA. So what does 2017 look like for them?
The Nationals have some serious payroll constrictions due to their continuing battle for TV rights in the state of Maryland. This pretty much limited the team to only offering deferred money contracts like they did with Max Scherzer.
At catcher, an significant knee injury killed any chance that Wilson Ramos, along with his .307 AVG and 22 HR, had at signing a new contract with the team. Instead he ended up settling for an incentives laden contract with the Tampa Bay Rays. To replace him the Nationals traded a minor leaguer to the San Diego Padres for Derek Norris. At least.....that was the plan.....until Matt Wieters found himself still on the free agent market as spring training camps opened. The team decided that Wieters was a better option than Norris, released Derek, and signed Matt to a 2 year contract worth $21M, deferring half of contract to be paid in future undisclosed years.
The team also made a large trade with the Chicago White Sox sending top prospects SP Lucas Giolito and SP Reynaldo Lopez to them in exchange for RF Adam Eaton. Eaton is a solid lead-off contributor who is good for a .280+ batting average, 10-15 HR, and 15-20 SB. However, with Harper already in RF, the Nationals plan to use Eaton as their CF, as position he was recently moved AWAY from due to poor defensive metrics in 2015 and 2016. As a result of this move, Danny Espinosa was shipped out of town to the Los Angeles Angels allowing rising star Trea Turner to return to his natural position at SS.
Besides the moves above, the rest of the offense is pretty much the same. Going from Ramos to Wieters is going to be a significant decline but this is offset by the improvement from swapping Espinosa with Adam Eaton. Overall, this is an offense that is going to hinge on 2 things.
A) Can Daniel Murphy continue being a middle of the line-up offensive force? If he regresses back towards his normal career numbers, the Nationals don't really have any other options for the 3 hole as Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman have both declined to replacement level players.
B) Which Bryce Harper is the real one? Is he the MVP Caliber .330 AVG with 40+ HR power that he displayed in 2015? Or is he the guy who hit .270 AVG with 20-25 HR and a 21% K rate in the other 4 of his 5 seasons thus far?
If the answer to both of these is Yes....than expect the Nationals to have one of the better offenses in the MLB this season capable of finishing Top 10. If not....then another mid level finish is probably safe to assume.
To date the club has still not decided on who will be controlling the 9th inning but manager Dusty Baker has stated that it will most certainly not be a "by committee" approach. Reportedly they are leaning towards Koda Glover which would put Kelley into the 8th inning set-up role and Joe Blanton/Blake Trienen in the short inning relief roles with Oliver Perez as the LOOGY. While this gives the club a lot of K potential....there is also a lot of BBs there. We could very well see some games unravel quickly if teams are able to work counts and push the National starter out of games early.