Two years ago, the Nationals had just signed Max Scherzer, and they were going to win 105 games. They were so loaded with pitching, they took Tanner Roark and his 2.85 ERA out of the rotation. If I had known about the season that Bryce Harper was going to have, I would have guessed the Nationals were going to win 110 games.
They finished 83-79, seven games behind the Mets.
This, then, is the opposite of that offseason. The Nationals were noisy in spurts this winter, melting down the farm and trading the ingots for Adam Eaton, but they didn’t have an “Uh, oh. The Nationals are loaded now” offseason. They didn’t pick up a stray Scherzer on the way home, just because they could. They paid market price for a premium, young center fielder, and they nabbed a couple of catchers. They’re the 2016 Nationals, Now With Adam Eaton (And Maybe Better Health).
And they’re gonna chase that 105-win season this time.
That is a stupid, overly confident prediction, and there is at least a slight dusting of hyperbole dust on it. It’s not like the Matt Wieters deal pushed the team over the tipping point. It turned a team with two solid catchers into a team with three solid catchers.
But I have arguments that support my super-team theory. And they go like this:
The Nationals will have four of the 20 best players in the National League this year, according to WAR
It’s an absurd notion, until you tick off the names. Consider that over the last two seasons, Max Scherzer has been the third-most valuable player in the NL (just behind Kris Bryant and Paul Goldschmidt), Harper was the eighth-most valuable, and Eaton would have been the 14th-most if he were in the league. Turner probably isn’t going to hit .342 all season, but he had one of the most impressive debuts from any midseason call-up in baseball history, and now he’s moving back to his natural position.
That’s before getting to the enigmas like Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon, any of whom could get award votes at the end of the year without anything seeming out of place.
Basically, Trea Turner is like the Kevin Durant of the baseball world, except he didn’t get to choose his super team. The Padres were the Durant’s ego and superego of the baseball world, then? This metaphor is off the rails, but the important part is to remember that the Padres traded Turner on purpose, and the Rays needed a third team involved because just wasn’t going to do it for them.
The Nationals can remove their weak links just a little easier this year
Ryan Zimmerman hasn’t been good for three years, according to Baseball-Reference’s WAR, but the Nationals gave him more than 400 at-bats last season because, well, they’re paying him, and the abject misery of his 2016 season crept up on them.
Jayson Werth hasn’t been good for two years, according to Baseball-Reference’s WAR, but the Nationals gave him more than 600 at-bats last season because, well, they’re paying him, and it’s not like they were overflowing with better options.
This is the year where it will be much, much easier for the Nationals to make an upgrade. Zimmerman’s contract isn’t up for three more seasons, but there isn’t a team in baseball that would put up with another season like his 2016. Werth’s contract is up this year, and the light at the end of the financial tunnel will make it easier mentally to transition to a new solution.
If one or both of them enjoy a renaissance, that’s great! Found money. That’s a common expression, but in this case, it would really be like the Nationals finding sacks of cartoonish cash that they had previously thrown down a well. But if either of them repeats their 2016 seasons, the Nationals will feel a little more comfortable phasing them out.
In Zimmerman’s case, that means Adam Lind could get the bulk of the at-bats. In Werth’s case, it could be that someone like Brian Goodwin or Rafael Bautista breaks out, or it could be a July trade that’s suddenly obvious. Victor Robles arriving one or two years ahead of schedule would be 35-grade weird on the 20-to-80 baseball-weird scale, if not lower.
They’ll figure it out, and the 2016 season being entered into evidence will make it a lot easier for the Nationals to make whatever decision they need to.
No, seriously, this is the year that Stephen Strasburg puts it all together
Does that header need an “again” at the end? I’ll leave that up for you. But for five seasons, Strasburg has been baseball’s greatest latent ace, the top-o’-the-rotation tease of a generation. His strikeout rate has been improving every season, and he’s further removed from Tommy John surgery than he’s ever been, but the overall value keeps steady, somehow.
WAR, by season
2012 - 3.0
2013 - 3.1
2014 - 3.5
2015 - 2.1
2016 - 3.3
Those are good, valuable seasons! Yet they’re so, so underwhelming compared to the Stephen Strasburg Spectacle that’s usually on every fifth day, where a mythological pitching beast shows us all the wonders of physical form and the upper limits of athletic ability. Max Scherzer has been roughly as valuable for the Nationals over the last two years as Strasburg has been over the last four.
This is the season, then. My evidence is this: dunno, seems right.
I’m not selling you on this, am I? OK, fine, then all of the above optimism, but shoveled in the direction of Joe Ross, if you prefer. But after a couple seasons of Max Scherzer being lonely at the top, this is finally the year that Scherzer/Roark/Strasburg/Gonzalez/Ross is as ridiculously productive as it feels like it should be.
Reminder that the Nationals got Ross in that same Trea Turner deal, just because.
Bryce Harper is still just 24, and he’ll win the MVP again
Oh, maybe not the 2017 MVP. But he’s good for another one at some point, so it’s not like we should be shocked if it happens this year. He’s still a generational talent.
I’m not sure who’s going to give Harper that $400 million contract that Scott Boras will stuff and hang above his fireplace, but he’s still a top-10 pick for any team in a hypothetical draft
You know the Nationals won 95 games last year, right?
The Nationals are imperfect, of course, just like most teams. Their bullpen, which has helped with their demise in previous postseasons, is weaker. Werth and Zimmerman are in the lineup to start the year, and it’s not like Derek Norris or Wieters are coming off excellent offensive seasons. There could be a soft spot at the bottom of the order.
The Nationals are replacing Danny Espinosa and Ben Revere with a full season of Trea Turner and Adam Eaton. They’re replacing 2016 Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg with the upgraded 2017 versions. They’ll have the flexibility to make tough decisions that flummoxed them last year. And, sure, they’ll have depth behind the plate, which is the almost-exciting news that got me thinking about their roster in the first place.
Expectations were high for the Nationals before the 2015 season, and everything fell apart. Expectations are modest this year, perhaps as modest as I’ve ever seen for a team coming off 95 wins, but they shouldn’t be. It’s not the Cubs alone on an island. It’s not the Cubs and Dodgers wrestling and knocking down skyscrapers while tanks fire at them futilely. The Nationals are right there at the top with any team, and they have been since the World Series ended.
All they’ve done is get better.