Nationals Are Vulnerable
As Mets fans, we obsess over the Mets, and we magnify each and every flaw in our favorite team’s roster. We see a team overelying on an aging player with a bad back in Adrian Gonzalez instead of going with their optimal lineup and defensive alignment. We see a pitching staff unable to stay healthy. We see the same thing with many of the position players. As a result, we may not be as excited about the 2018 season as we would normally be.
What is interesting, at the same rate, we do not look as in-depth into other team’s rosters to see their very same flaws. Specifically, we do not look at the Washington Nationals roster are really identify how that is a very flawed team at the moment, and just like in 2015, they may very well be a team ripe to be knocked out of their perch. Here’s why:
Over the past few years, Max Scherzer has emerged as quite possibly the best pitcher in all of baseball. He’s a virtual lock for a Top 3 spot in the 2018 Cy Young voting. After him ensues a group of question marks similar to what we see in Flushing.
Stephen Strasburg is great, but that is only when he stays on the field. He has only thrown 200 innings in a season once, and that was four years ago. While not quite as catastrophic as the injuries we have seen with the Mets pitchers, he continues to get nicked up, and he is usually good for at least one stint on the disabled list.
Gio Gonzalez may have had a bounce-back year last year with his finishing in the Top 10 of Cy Young voting, but the advanced numbers suggest he’s due for a messy regression. Last year, Gonzalez led the league in walks, and his strikeout rate continued its four year downward trend. Really, he was a large beneficiary of an unsustainable .258 BABIP and 81.6% stranded rate. That’s why his FIP was 3.93 and xFIP was 4.24.
Behind them Tanner Roark is coming off a disappointing year that saw him have a career worst 4.67 ERA, 1.335 WHIP, and 3.2 BB/9. For the fifth starter, the Nationals will start with the unproven A.J. Cole, who had a 5.20 FIP in 11 games for the Nationals last year.
Key Regression Candidates
One of the reasons why the Nationals had a great year last year was they had a numbers of unexpected career years. Heading into the 2018 season, the Nationals will be reliant on those players duplicating those dubious numbers.
First, there was Michael Taylor who shocked everyone by hitting .271/.320/.486. For Taylor to replicate that season, he is also going to have to go out there and repeat his insanely high .363 BABIP. For Taylor, it was not just at the plate, but in the field. Heading into last year, Taylor had a -7 DRS in 1287.0 innings played. Last year, he had an 8 DRS in 940.1. Even with him approaching his prime, it’s hard to believe Taylor is a truly transformed player.
Ryan Zimmerman seemed to bounce-back from two poor offensive seasons, and the injury plagued Nationals star put up a Zimmerman season of old. Like with Taylor, we did see those stats were BABIP fueled. For his career, Zimmerman has a .307 BABIP, but he had a .335 BABIP last year.
And while they were only brought in to be bench players, the Nationals are relying Howie Kendrick and Matt Adams, two players who had tough 2016 seasons, to repeat their strong 2017 offensive seasons.
After having microfracture surgery in the offseason, Daniel Murphy is going to start the season on the disabled list. It is expected he is going to be available mid-April, but that is only if he suffers no setbacks. And even if he does return and hits the way we all know he is capable of hitting, Murphy, who has never been a strong defender, may find himself even more limited in the field.
There is also a legitimate question what type of player Adam Eaton will be a year after having surgery to repair a torn ACL and meniscus. This isn’t comparing apples to apples because they are much different players, but in his first year back from his own torn ACL, Kyle Schwarber struggled mightily last year.
Also, Anthony Rendon is a bit injury prone. He has only played 150+ games in just two of his five Major League seasons. If he should suffer an injury, the Nationals may be in trouble because this offense is not on the same solid footing it was last year.
The Nationals have one of the worst catching situations in all of baseball. Matt Wieters is not only bad at the plate (81 OPS+ since 2015), but he continuously ranks as one of the absolute worst pitch framers in all of baseball.
Behind him is Miguel Montero, a player the Cubs released after he complained about how his pitching staff holds on runners. For his part, Montero has just a 90 OPS+ since 2013, and his pitch framing abilities had a noticeable drop last year.
There were many reasons why people do not believe in Dusty Baker as a manager. Really, you need not look any further than his decision to bat a completely washed up Jayson Werth second in a do or die game. That’s an indefensible decision from your manager.
However, while his strategy may have left much to be desired, Dusty was always able to control a clubhouse. Remember, this was the guy who inherited the mess Matt Williams left behind. Dusty had to manage a team who had both Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon. Dusty made it work because that’s what he does.
Now, despite the Nationals winning the division in consecutive years in franchise history, Dusty has been replaced by Dave Martinez. For many, Martinez was an inspired hire, and he very well might be. However, he is also largely unproven, and as such he remains a question mark.
Ultimately, many will point to just how much better and deeper the Nationals are on paper. The team also has top prospect Victor Robles waiting in the wings, and he could be a complete game changer next season. Another major consideration is the Nationals bullpen looks poised to be their best in years. With everything put together, you see why many are picking the Nationals to be the National League representative in the World Series even despite the team having never won a postseason series.
Now, it’s entirely possible the prognosticators are right, and the Nationals are that good. That would surprise no one. However, at the same token, let’s not pretend the Nationals winning the National League East is a fait accompli. It isn’t because the Nationals are dealing with a much narrower margin of error most believe they are as the season begins. Ultimately, while they are the favorites on paper, this is a team who is vulnerable.
Even if they are vulnerable, it’s going to take the Mets to give them everything they got. This Spring, the Mets looked and felt like a different team under Mickey Callaway. Maybe, just maybe, that is enough to help push this Mets team over the top. It will be fun watching the next 162 games to find out.