bryce

The Washington Nationals are due for a big year. The former Montreal Expos’ franchise have been pretty darn good for the past few years after being perennially awful in the late 2000’s. They’ve now been ousted in the NLDS on three occasions in the past five seasons and really have to get over the hump. Is this the year they finally do it? The answer… yes as their division is awful and they have the pieces to make a decent playoff push.

The Players

Third basemen, Anthony Rendon missed half of 2015 and the Nationals missed the playoffs. Rendon was unbelievably good in his 2014 season where he was a great hitter and defender and after getting over his 2015 injury he returned backin 2016 to his 2014 performance level of production. Rendon is a very good baseball player. He plays plus defense, has great plate discipline (10% walk rate), strikes out slightly less than league average, has some speed to snag bases, and can hit for some power. The scary thing is I think he can do better then his 2016 season and his 2014 level (6.4 WAR) is closer to his true talent level. In 2016 he hit more infield pop ups and more overall fly balls then ever before. If he can even turn 2% to 3% of these fly balls into line drives his batting average will go up by .30 which would make him a .300 hitter. I really cannot find any fault in the former 6th overall picks game.

At shortstop the Nationals have a pretty good prospect emerging as a front line star. Trea Turner had his first September call up in 2015 and he was over matched at the plate. But after his 2016 call up where he will now stick for good, Turner was a terror. In 73 games last year he hit .342/.370/.567 added 13 home runs and 33 steals for good measure. That kind of performance creates unrealistic hype for fans. In reality Turner has never shown that kind of power at any point in his minor league career so he’s going to regress. He’s clearly shown that he has speed and will be able to beat out infield hits more often then the average Joe, but his average is also likely to drop as his BABIP was a ridiculously high .388. End of the day Turner is only 23 years old but he should be one of the top performing shortstops in baseball and I expect that he will hit .292/.339/.452 with a whole lot of steals but diminished power.

Former New York Met, Daniel Murphy had an incredible year in 2016. After coming off a hot playoff with the New York Mets where he hit 7 home runs in 14 games, he signed a lucrative free agent deal with the division rival Nationals. Murphy was always a good hitter, but he batted around the .280 to .290 range. Suddenly though he started batting .350 and next thing you know he’s the NL batting champ. What Murphy does do very well is avoid strike outs. As the MLB as a whole tends to strike out more every year (20% in 2016), Murphy has actually decreased his K rate over time and has struck out at a 7.1% and 9.8 rate in 2015 and 2016.

Nonetheless, the batting average is destined to fall back to the .300 range due to inflated balls in play luck, but that’s still pretty damn good. The other career high that Murphy hit was home runs with 25. His newfound power from the 2015 post-season carried over as he had a .249 ISO which is elite. I’d expect a drop to the 18 to 20 home run range to be realistic but that’s still good as well. His defense is slightly sub par but when you mash like he did in 2016 who cares.

If the Nationals have a weakness it would be at first base where they will likely utilize a platoon of Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Lind. Zimmerman can’t seem to stay healthy anymore and is a shell of what he used to be as he was a -1.3 WAR player last year which is horrendous. Lind can still hit righty’s for some decent power but has historically struggled against lefties. Lind was also below replacement level for the Mariners last year as he had one of the worst seasons of his career. He took less walks then previously and hit into a ton of shifts as he has gotten even more pull happy as he ages. If Lind and Zimmerman are platooned properly I supposed they should improve upon their piss poor 2016 performances but I am not very excited about those chances for major improvement. Zimmerman is still owed 46 million dollars over the next three years which is too bad because he used to be a very good baseball player and The Nationals as contenders are going to have a black hole at what should be a power spot in the lineup.

Trivia time… who won the NL MVP in 2015? Clown question bro, it was Bryce Harper who is still only 24 years old but it seems he has been around forever. After being named the most valuable player in the National League he had a down year in 2016 where he “only” contributed 3.5 WAR to the squad. In 2015, Harper was a beast and did EVERYTHING. His slash line during the MVP season was Barry Bonds like with a .330/.460/.649 line while smoking 42 home runs, 119 RBI’s and stealing a handful of bases. He was pretty, pretty, pretty… pretty good. But in 2016 he just didn’t hit as well and only slashed .243/.373/.441. The power regressed to below his career average, the batting average for balls in play fell to .264 so he had some bad luck but ultimately he hit more pop flies and fly balls than ever before which make for easy outs. The one thing he did do better last year was steal 21 bases. I guess if the bounces aren’t going your way you just go take what’s rightfully yours eh?

So what do we make of Bryce in 2017? I don’t think we will see the second coming of Barry Bonds again but he will improve. The power should spike back up, the average will rebound, he’ll continue to take a lot of walks (17% walk rate!) as pitcher’s will want to avoid his bat, and he will hopefully continue to sprinkle in steals like last year.

In the off season the Nationals made a big trade to acquire White Sox outfielder, Adam Eaton. The Nationals gave up top pitching prospect Lucas Giolito and a couple other prospects. Eaton is another player on the roster who had a phenomenal 2016 season. He played outstanding defense in right field after being pretty average in centre for the prior two seasons. In Chicago he hit lead off and was one of the league’s leaders the last couple years for scored runs out of the lead off spot. It’s not a certainty that Eaton hits lead off in a loaded Nationals line up and this could limit his value and a move to centre field is a bit of an ill fit, but it’s really the best option the team has defensively. If Eaton gets some time In the lead off spot he will be very valuable but in the 6th spot his speed and on base ability will be a bit wasted and his counting stats will decline from last year’s 91 runs.

Old man Jason Werth will be in his last season of a huge contract. He will be 38 years old during the season and this may be his last as a big leaguer. Werth is still a useful player but not a 21 million dollar a year player. It was only 2014 when he posted a WAR of 5.0 and in 2013 a WAR of 4.7. His defense is no longer a thing as he has very limited range in left field but he can still hit as he popped 21 baseballs over the fence last year. I would guess that his playing time could diminish this year as fourth outfielder, soft hitting Michael Turner may get more playing time to enhance the team’s defense. Maybe Werth has a bit of pop left in the old bat. It’d be fitting if he could help the Nationals through the post season and hit a home run like in the movie The Natural and call it a day. One can only romanticize.

At catcher the Nationals now have three major league catchers fighting for two roster spots. Recently, former Oriole, Matt Wieters was signed to a two year contract. Wieters has battled some serious health issues over the past few seasons and it’s unlikely he will be an every day catcher, especially with backup Derek Norris in the fold. Wieters has some decent power for a catcher, but that power has regressed since his pre-injury days. I’m not sure if it will ever fully return either. Given how loaded the Nationals lineup is I would guess Wieters hits in the 7th or 8th spot so his RBI and run opportunities will be limited. He will be most valuable to the Nationals for his defense as he still calls a good game behind the plate and provides slightly above average defense.

If Wieters is to get hurt again Norris is a more than capable catcher as he had been a starting catcher for a few years. Norris had a really bad year hitting wise in San Diego where he was one of the worst victims of unlucky BABIP. His average fell all the way to .186 but he’s had a career average in the .250 to .270 range the three years prior. I would expect a rebound back to the .250 level out of Norris but it will likely be in limited playing time.

Starting Pitching

Max Scherzer is a stud. The man just strikes out the world for a living. The former Cy Young winner struggled out of the gate for a handful of games in 2016 but after that initial blip he was lights out on his way to a career high 284 strike outs. In the last 12 seasons only Clayton Kershaw has thrown more strike outs in a given season so Scherzer is in some high company. Scherzer will be 33 years old at the end of the season and there’s some concern about an injury that he sustained this off season to one his pitching fingers. Feel is so important for pitchers so this situation is worth monitoring, but Scherzer has been a rare work horse in modern 21st century baseball. He was pitched in 30 or more starts since 2009 so injury issues have never been an issue to date.

He’s a perennial Cy Young candidate but I’d have to think at some point he will begin to diminish just a little bit right? I think 2017 is a year where the injury and heavy workload over the past 8 years starts to play a role. Last season he had the highest strand rate of his career at 81%, but when you can strike out over 11 batters per game a high strand rate is fair. I have to think he will get burned a couple of times this year though as his home run rate also rose to slightly above league average this year. Nonetheless Scherzer should safely be one of the top 5 starting pitchers in the National League if he remains healthy and the finger issue subsides. I just don’t think though that 2017 will be his best season and his ERA will likely be in the 3.2 range which is still extremely good. He won’t win the Cy Young but could the strike out workhorse he is once again.

The oft injured Stephen Strasburg is the Nationals number two ace. The once phenomenal Strasburg has lost a lot of his shine as injuries have a way of following Strasburg around every year. He will be 29 at the end of the season and to reiterate once again, always seems to be hurt. In 2016 his walk rate regressed back to the walk rate he had back in 2013-14. He still punches batters out at an almost 1 in 3 clip which like Scherzer is outstanding and he suppresses home runs better than league average. So far in spring training he has been pitching exclusively out of the stretch and according to Strasberg this is to improve his command and to bring those walks down. If he is to remain healthy for an entire season Strasberg could be in the Cy Young conversation. At age 29 and with a Tommy John surgery already done he’s a risky bet. I always feel that he’s going to break out and put up a career year and this could be the year, but I don’t want to risk it myself in fantasy baseball.

After the aces, next in line for the Nats is Tanner Roark who had a great year after a disappointing 2015. Roark was awesome in 2014, crummy in 2015 and pretty much the same in 2016 as his 2014 season. When Roark is on he induces ground balls and a lot of soft contact. He doesn’t have top end strike out material so he has to be on his game or else he’s pretty ordinary. Roark outperformed his FIPx last year by well over 1.2 runs per 9 innings. If his career high strike out regresses even the slightest then Roark will likely fall to an ERA of 4.0 The other concern is that he holds a high strand rate which to be fair he has consistently had. In 2014 and 2016 he was stranding just shy of 80% of runners but in 2015 when he had a poor season this number dipped to 75.3%. This may not seem like much, but that extra 4.5% of runners scoring equates to that extra 1 run per 9 innings allowed. I would expect regression from Roark as we have now seen his ceiling. To be fair though he has a very good defense playing behind him which will help but it can’t stop the floor from falling out if the K rate slips even a bit.

Gio Gonzalez will either slot in as the number four or five starter this season. He’s only 31 and seems to have been around forever. Although his 2016 season wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t what we are used to seeing from Gio. He gave up a lot of home runs last year. 12.5% of all flyballs allowed left the park and this was due to allowing a career high 32.7% hard contact from opposing batters. Like many other pitchers who see this kind of problem it was likely due to his fastball dropping 1.2 Mph. That slight drop was clearly enough to allow batters to square up on the ball. Gio has been a pretty resilient pitcher for the past decade, but the drop in velocity is concerning and I feel this could be the beginning of the downside of his career. While he still strikes out a lot of batters, losing that velocity is going to hurt and I expect his K’s to drop as well. The one thing Gio did better last year was finally bring his walk rate down to a more reasonable level. Although he has always had some command issues this is a good sign and maybe he’s learning to pitch a bit better. Nonetheless I expect Gio to decline even further this year and his ERA will once again by worse than 4 and the WHIP will be above 1.35. The drop in fastball velocity makes him a candidate for injury as well.

Lastly, young Joe Ross (Tyson Ross’ brother) hopes to return and make an impact for the Nats as he missed a couple of months with a shoulder injury last year. Ross jumped out to a hot start in April before hitting the DL but was effective after his return down the stretch. He has the opportunity if healthy to be a top 30 pitcher in the league which is frightening since the Nationals have so much talent on their staff. Ross is not an elite strike out guy but he does punch out almost 8 batters per 9. He has consistently shown that he can limit home runs through his minor league and brief major league career and this has been due to his great sinking fastball. I don’t expect a big jump in performance from Ross in 2017 as his hard hit and fly ball rates are already on the cusp of being risky, but if he can stay healthy and to continue limiting home runs, a return to his 2016 production is possible.

The Bullpen

The Nationals current closer is Shawn Kelley. Nobody believes this is going to be the situation for long as he has been a set up man most his career and only a closer when injury hit. David Robertson has long been rumoured as a potential trade target but this hasn’t materialized yet. It’s possible a deal gets made before the season begins or perhaps the Nats want to see if Kelley can hold it down rather then paying the White Sox’ asking price. Nonetheless, Kelley is almost 33 years old and over the years has consistently struck out batters using his slider (46% usage rate). He won’t blow the ball by batters like most closers tend to do, so he needs his slider to be on point to be effective. Walk prevention was Kelley’s saving grace last year as he had a career best 1.7 BB/9 rate but I would expect this to regress back to his career norm at 2.84 BB/9. He really is better suited as a setup man but we will see how the season goes.

Blake Treinen is in the mix for the closing job in the Nats pen as well. He has command issues to the tune of 4.21 BB/9 innings the past two years but throws close to 96 Mph. Even with his high heater he has yet to strike out batters at a 9 K/9 inning rate yet and hovers in the 8.5 K/9 range. If Treinen is named the Nats starter out of camp then things are really going to be interesting. I don’t believe he will get that gig one bit.

Sammy Solis is the primary Loogie out of the pen. In his 62 innings of major league action he’s been reliable when it comes to getting strike outs but he has had a below average walk rate in 2016 of 4.61 BB/9. He will be a nice weapon with his knuckle curve when the Nats face the Mets who have a lineup full of slugging lefties. This is a legit weapon that could be the difference maker in a couple of key games in the divisional race.

Lastly to note, The Nationals have a collection of failed starters in Vance Worley and recently signed Joe Blanton who are now pen mates. Both pitchers have acclimated themselves well to the pen. Blanton likely has the most upside out of the two but will likely be a 7th or 8th inning guy whereas Worley does not have the swing and miss stuff plus command issues still.

Outlook

Outside of the closer and first base situation the Nationals are loaded at every other position. I fully expect that the Nationals will either trade for Robertson or once again look to make a deal for a closer near the trade deadline. Outside of any major injuries to anyone other then Strasberg (expect it but I hope he is healthy) the Nationals should once again win their division and will contend for the NL pennant. I expect the Nationals to win 92 games and Bryce Harper will be in the MVP mix.

Fantasy Studs

Bryce Harper – Whose going to rebound and be an MVP candidate this year? Clown question bro, it’s Bryce Harper. The gum loving slugger is going to hit 35 home runs, 15 steals, 100 RBI’s and runs, .290 average and a .421 OBP. I expect him to be healthy too… MARK IT.

Fantasy Dud

Stephen Strasberg – I really want him to bust out and be the beast we know he can be! A shit leopard can’t change it’s spots and until Strasberg proves he isn’t an oft injured shit leopard then he will remain a shit leopard. Nonetheless, he’s still a leopard and is a graceful, powerful and deadly predator on the mound. I just would not feel comfortable with Strasberg being my top pitcher on my squad or even my number two. When he plays you’ll love him and he will rack up 11 K/9 inning, have a sub 3.00 ERA win 67% percent of his starts but expect him to miss 8 to 10 starts. Let someone else take the risk instead.

Sleeper

Matt Wieters – The Nationals don’t really have any breakout candidates since they are such a deep well rounded team. With the catching position so thin this year it’s probably worth a gamble on Wieters given that he is going around number 10-12th catcher off the board. As I mentioned earlier he isn’t likely to hit much higher than 7th in the order but I could see him being the primary pinch hitter on his days off and he will get a handful of high leverage RBI opportunities that way. He has the potential to be the 7th or 8th best catcher in fantasy this year but is going at a slight discount in drafts. Expect a floor of 15 home runs, 52 RBI’s and 40 runs with a .254 batting average and .307 OBP. The potential for an increase in those home run and RBI total’s is there if he can move up to number 6 in the order somehow.