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Why Nationals May Not Be Better Than Last Year

Surprisingly, even with losing Bryce Harper, the Nationals are projected to win the National League East. For example, Fangraphs has the Nationals as six games better than the Phillies with a 55.9 percent chance of winning the division.

The reason is the Nationals rotation is deeper and stronger with the addition of Patrick Corbin. Their bullpen, which is a perpetual problem, is much stronger with Kyle Barraclough, Trevor Rosenthal, and Tony Sipp. All of these pitchers will be much better with Yan Gomes behind the plate. Moreover, they will have a full season from Juan Soto and Victor Robles.

That’s even before you consider Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon, both of whom can realistically be MVP candidates in 2019. It is a lot to get excited about, but it’s far from perfect.

First and foremost, the Nationals have injury issues. Stephen Strasburg hasn’t reached 30 starts since 2014. Sean Doolittle has been on the DL in each of the past six seasons. Barraclough has spent time on the DL in each of the past two. That’s just from their top end pitchers.

Adam Eaton has had two injury prone seasons. Gomes hasn’t played at least 115 games since 2014. After having a healthy 2017 season, Ryan Zimmerman was back on the DL last year. Speaking of Zimmerman, there’s an issue regarding older players performance.

Even with Zimmerman reducing his strike out rate and increasing his walk rate, his wRC+ dropped 19 points. If he reverts back to his career norms while seeing his ISO and other power numbers decline, he could revert back to his pre-2017 form.

The Nationals are also trying to replace Daniel Murphy with Brian Dozier. Last year, Dozier cratered hitting .215/.305/.391 in an injury plagued year. While his production may rebound with better health, Dozier will be 32 in May, and he has seen a three year drop in his wRC+ and his HR/FB.

With respect to Gomes, he had a bounceback 2018 season offensively, which does not seem repeatable. His walk rate dropped, and his BABIP was the highest it was since 2014. If he reverts to what he was the past few seasons, he’s not the upgrade the Nationals will need.

Now, the Nationals have younger players who could have breakout seasons, which could offset the decline and under-performance of their veterans. To that end, they’ll need Soto to replicate his surprise 2018 season, which he could do, and they’ll need Robles to be the player they’ve been touting for years. Based on a small sample size last year, he can do that.

The question is whether that’s enough. Arguably, there are very few teams in baseball who could tout a top four position players like Turner, Rendon, Robles, and Soto. That’s a dangerous core made all the more dangerous by the presence of Max Scherzer. There’s also Corbin, who they desperately need to be the pitcher he was last year and not the pitcher who was league average (101 ERA+) over the prior two seasons.

Still, the Nationals had Turner, Rendon, and Soto playing at a high level last year, and Scherzer was as dominant as he always was. The team had Harper last year, and he was the fourth best hitter in the division last year. That all amounted to an 82 win season. So certainly, it’s possible for things to break right for the Nationals and for them to be on the outside looking in come postseason time.

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