For the past few seasons, baseball analysts and pundits tabbed the Washington Nationals as one of the favorites to win the World Series. On paper, it is not hard to see why. Their roster is filled with top level talent in their lineup and their pitching staff. However, they always seem to underachieve. Since their ascent from the basement of the National League East, the Nats oscillate between losing in the Division Series and missing the playoffs altogether. For Washington, 2017 is more of the same.
Fangraphs projects the Nationals to win 91 games this year. Looking at the roster, it is hard to argue against them. They improved on a lineup that ranked eighth in MLB in runs per game. They traded for center fielder Adam Eaton, replacing Ben Revere’s atrocious 49 OPS+ (100 is league average). A full season of young shortstop Trea Turner (.937 OPS) also represents an upgrade over the departed Danny Espinosa and his .209 batting average.
Eaton and Turner join a talented lineup headlined by left fielder Bryce Harper. The 24-year-old saw his numbers from his MVP 2015 season, as teams stopped pitching to him. Still, Harper posted a healthy .814 OPS.
Harper will have plenty of help. Second baseman Daniel Murphy rode his hot streak in the 2015 postseason to a career season in 2016, slashing .347/.390/.595. Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon also turned in solid seasons and hope to do the same in 2017.
The talent surplus also extends to the pitching staff. Last year, Washington ranked second in MLB in starters ERA. They should remain near the top with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the front of the rotation. Scherzer was outstanding last year, he pitched to a 2.96 ERA and struck out 11.2 batters per nine innings.
Strasburg also served as a strikeout machine, also fanning 11.2 per nine. The former first round pick finished with a 3.60 ERA, but his 2.92 fielding independent pitching suggests he had some bad luck. The Nats are more than just a two man rotation. Tanner Roark, Joe Ross, and Gio Gonzalez provide steady, if not unspectacular support for the two aces.
Washington got good production from the bullpen last year. Nats relievers ranked second in MLB in ERA. However, this group recieved a slight overhaul over the offseason. Chief among them was the promotion of Blake Treinen to closer after the departure of Jonathan Papelbon. Treinen pitched to a 2.28 ERA, but now must get outs in tougher situations this year.
There is no reason to think that the Nats will finish anywhere other than first or second in the NL East. The New York Mets and their superb pitching staff will give them a run for their money, but Washington should still win the division. Ultimately, people will judge them on their playoff success, whether that is fair or unfair.