Washington Nationals Preseason Q&A

Last week, I spoke with the St. Louis Cardinals blog, Cardinals Conclave, to preview the 2018 Washington Nationals.  I am reposting the questions and answers below.  Cardinals Conclave spoke with a number of Nationals blogger-types, so if you’d like to see all the responses, go to their website.  They also have previews for all 30 MLB teams.

What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

The Nationals only made one significant change: dumping Dusty Baker and replacing him at manager with Davey Martinez, Joe Maddon‘s longtime bench coach. Martinez may or may not be an upgrade–won’t know until they start playing real baseball.

The roster is largely unchanged. Jayson Werth’s contract finally expired, but he’ll be replaced by a healthy Adam Eaton, who missed most of 2017 with an injury. There’s an outside chance GM Mike Rizzo will jump into the static free agent market to get another starter or the Miami fire sale to get catcher JT Realmuto. But right now, the 2018 Nats will look a lot like the 2017 version and that’s not a bad thing.

Is there a position up for grabs and, if so, who is in the mix for it?

Two of the three starting jobs are filled by Bryce Harper and Eaton. The third spot will likely go to NLDS hero Michael A. Taylor, but top prospect Victor Robles may be too good to keep on the sidelines. If Taylor returns to his old habit of not making contact and/or Robles has a huge spring, the battle for that 3rd outfield spot may get interesting. Either way, don’t be surprised if Robles is being talked about as the breakout star of the season by the All-Star break. He’s that good.

What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Bryce Harper will be a free agent after the season (more on that below), but people may overlook that GM Mike Rizzo is also in the last year of his contract. MLB GM free agency is rarely a big topic of offseason conversation, but this situation may be the exception. Earlier this winter, Rizzo publicly stated he wants to be paid as one of the top GMs in baseball, which is a signal his renegotiation with ownership on a new contract is either non-existent or not going well. It’s possible the Nats want to see a playoff series win before they pay Rizzo the money he wants. It’s also possible they’ve already decided to replace him with a GM who won’t command as much money. Either way, Rizzo has a lot riding on the 2018 season. If this team gets over the hump and wins the World Series, there could be a major bidding war for his services. If the Nats make another early playoff exit–or miss them altogether–the Nats owners might put their baseball operations under new management for the first time in a decade. This is the most important subplot on the 2018 Nationals.

Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Nationals to do well?

Some of the most notable players on the 2017 Nats missed time due to injury last season and they still won the division by 20 games, so I can’t really answer this question. The most important player, though, is Max Scherzer. Scherzer, who won the 2017 NL Cy Young, got hurt on the last weekend of the season, preventing him from making 2 starts in the NLDS. Then he melted down in Game 5, giving up 4 runs and getting the loss in a relief appearance. We’ll never know if the injury played a role in that, but a completely healthy Scherzer probably gets the 2017 Nats into the NL Championship Series. The Nats need Scherzer more than any other player on the roster.

What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

The Nationals will win the NL East again absent a complete collapse from them or a miracle season from one of the other division rivals. But we’re at the point where a division title no longer means very much to this fanbase after 4 NLDS losses in 6 years, including three Game 5 losses at home where the Nats had the lead in the 5th inning or later. So while I think the Nats will win the division again–the intra-division competition is dubious at best–I can’t make a playoff prediction. Postseason results are just too dependent on matchups, injuries, or just plain luck. But while the MLB playoffs are indeed a crapshoot, this team has also earned its share of bad fortune, with Game 5 meltdowns (Drew Storen in ’12, the bullpen in ’16, Scherzer in ’17) and questionable managing (all 4 NLDS losses). Until it actually happens, I cannot predict this team go any further than the NLDS.

What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

I am surprised you did not ask about Bryce Harper. His free agency will be one of the bigger storylines next offseason, and most reasonable Nats fans have accepted that he’s probably going somewhere else. So what do I think about Bryce Harper’s free agency? First, Harper may not be worth the money it will take to sign him. He is one of the youngest players to ever hit the market, and he’s doing it with at least one MVP award under his belt. But aside from his unanimous MVP 2015 season, he hasn’t put together another healthy, complete season. He had a knee injury in 2013, a thumb injury in 2014, a mystery injury believed–but not confirmed–to be a shoulder injury in 2016, and another knee injury in 2017. While we don’t have evidence that any of these (mostly) on-field injuries are chronic, there are enough concerns about his durability to question the wisdom of giving him $400 million. Good luck to whoever does that.

Second, as long as he doesn’t go to a division rival like Philadelphia (they have the money and rebuilding timeline to sign him) or New York (the world is a sadder and lonelier place when the Yankees are winning), Nats fans will wish him well. He was a huge part of this franchise’s rise to prominence, and Nats fans consistently defended his antics when the rest of the baseball world called him arrogant and immature. It’s been really fun watching him grow up and develop, but all things come to an end. If he goes to a place closer to home like Los Angeles for the biggest contract ever, nobody will blame him and no one is booing him on his return to D.C. Finally, the team will be fine without him. There’s a reason the aforementioned Robles was untouchable in trade talks. It’s hard to replace a bat like Harper’s, but this franchise has been developing young talent well, and they’ll have plenty of payroll flexibility to remain competitive. Life will go on.