Posted on March 20, 2019, by Bryan Zarpentine
Once again, the Washington Nationals fell short of expectations in 2018, finishing the season 82-80. With Bryce Harper signing elsewhere, there’s a different feel around the club heading into 2019. However, the Nationals still feel like they have a chance to win the NL East for the fifth time in the last eight seasons. Can Washington reclaim their spot at the top of the NL East standings or are their days of dominating the division officially over?
Knowing they probably wouldn’t re-sign Harper, the Nationals spent their money this winter improving an already strong rotation. The club signed Patrick Corbin to pair with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the top of their rotation. When healthy, those three could make up the best rotation trio in baseball. Of course, all three will need to stay healthy. Strasburg tends to make at least one or two trips to the injured list every year. He has failed to reach 30 starts in four consecutive seasons. Scherzer is also due to turn 35 this summer despite showing no signs of slowing down last season. At some point, he’s bound to have some arm issues.
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The good news is that the Nationals made it a point to shore up the back end of their rotation this winter. The club re-signed Jeremy Hellickson, who was steady if unspectacular for them last year. They also signed Anibal Sanchez, who had a renaissance last season in Atlanta. Youngsters Joe Ross and Erick Fedde are also around in case Washington needs to dip into their farm system for help.
Washington’s bullpen was merely middle of the pack last year, but it was a big improvement over the previous year, and they should be at least as good this season. Sean Doolittle seems to have settled into the closer’s role, saving 49 games in 52 opportunities over the past two seasons. The Nationals also signed Trevor Rosenthal and Tony Sipp and traded for Kyle Barraclough over the winter to give them a few veteran setup men pitching in front of Doolittle. While not a dominant quartet, that group should be reliable most of the time.
In addition to those four, Justin Miller and Matt Grace both proved to be reliable middle relievers last season. The Nationals also remain high on Koda Glover, who has late-inning potential if he can stay healthy. Youngsters like Wander Suero, Austin Voth, and Tanner Rainey also have a chance to contribute. Overall, the Nationals don’t have as many established relief pitchers as they did a year ago, but their bullpen may have a higher ceiling depending on how some of their younger pitchers develop.
Offensively, it’ll be difficult for the Nationals to replace both Harper and Daniel Murphy, who were both so vital to their lineup the last few years. On the bright side, third baseman Anthony Rendon and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman are still around to anchor their lineup. Those two will be vital to Washington’s success this season, especially the aging Zimmerman.
Meanwhile, the Nationals will be watching the development of outfielders Victor Robles and Juan Soto, who will be 21 and 20, respectively on opening day. Soto was instance offense when he came up last May while Robles flashed his massive upside in September. With both Harper and Murphy missing, those two will instantly become prominent members of the Washington lineup who will be relied upon on a daily basis. Whether they can live up to the hype and meet those expectations remains to be seen.
Of course, the Nationals still have a couple of trustworthy table setters in Trea Turner and Adam Eaton. Turner saw his numbers dip last season despite hitting a career-high 19 home runs. But he’s still only 25 and should get better as a hitter and continue to wreak havoc with his blazing speed. Eaton, meanwhile, has been forgotten because he’s been hurt for much of his time in Washington. But he had strong numbers when he was healthy enough to play last year. The Nats also signed Brian Dozier to handle second base, upgraded behind the plate with Yan Gomes, and still have Matt Adams and Howie Kendrick as veterans coming off the bench, so their in good shape in terms of their overall depth.
On paper, the Nationals are a well-balanced team with few obvious weaknesses. Their rotation is potentially lethal if Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin all stay healthy, and their lineup could also be among the best in baseball if their young players continue to develop. However, those things aren’t exactly guarantees, and it remains to be seen how some of their hitters will function without Harper hitting alongside them. Look for the Nationals to finish 86-76, which is a good record, but it doesn’t guarantee them another division title in what looks like a balanced and competitive NL East.