The Washington Nationals’ recent history has been plagued by postseason failure and heavy expectations.
Starting with their first division title in DC in 2012, the Nats have made the postseason 4 of 7 seasons, but each time failed to win a series, despite taking 3 of those series to 5 games (the exception came in 2014 against the eventual World Series Champion Giants, which featured the now-infamous decision by manager Matt Williams to pull Game 2 starter Jordan Zimmermann after 8.2 scoreless innings in favor of Drew Storen, who gave up the tying run in the top of the 9th; the Nats went on to lose in 18 innings).
Interspersed within these postseason appearances were three years of unexpected mediocrity, considering the heavy expectations placed upon them by fans and media, including 2018.
The 2018 Nationals season was a disappointment in many ways. For a team with World Series aspirations before the season started, the Nationals finished a measly 82-80, good for second place in a division where only two teams finished above .500, but less than impressive for a team with as much talent as they had. However, the 2018 season did have a silver lining for the Nats – the emergence of rookie phenom Juan Soto.
In his first year in the bigs, Soto, only 19 years old for the duration of the season, hit .292/.406/.517 with 22 HR and 70 RBI in 116 games after making his debut in late May. This is great news for a Nationals team that may be losing a certain former MVP to free agency this offseason.
For GM Mike Rizzo, Soto’s big rookie year, combined with Adam Eaton’s productive, yet injury-stricken campaign (.301/.394/.411, 9 SB in 95 games) and the presumed presence of top prospect Victor Robles (.288/.348/.525, 3 SB in 59 MLB at-bats) on the Opening Day roster makes for a very promising young outfield, even without its superstar anchor of years past. Despite their apparent continued interest in retaining Bryce Harper, he shouldn’t be seen as vital to their future plans, especially considering how expensive he’s likely to be.
On paper, the 2019 Nationals look to have improved on nearly every positional need they exhibited in 2018, especially behind the plate. Washington’s two primary catchers in 2018 were dreadful offensively. Matt Wieters (.238/.330/.374, .9 fWAR in 76 games) was lost to free agency and Pedro Severino (.168/.254/.247, -.8 fWAR in 70 games) will presumably spend much of 2019 in the minor leagues, barring injuries to newcomers Yan Gomes (2018 AL All-Star, acquired via trade w/ Cleveland), and Kurt Suzuki (signed as free agent), who will begin his second stint in DC. In addition, Matt Adams (.510 SLG, 18 HR and 48 RBI in 94 games with Washington in 2018) will return in 2019 after a waiver trade sent him to the Cardinals last August, bringing back more help for aging first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who, like Eaton, played under 100 games due to injury. If third baseman Anthony Rendon (.308/.374/.535, 24 HR, 92 RBI, 6.3 fWAR) and shortstop Trea Turner (.271/.344/.416, 43 SB, 4.8 fWAR) can produce anywhere near their 2018 numbers, Washington looks to have one of the most dangerous offensive infields in their division.
For the past several seasons, the Nationals pitching staff has sometimes been placed among the best in the league by national media outlets. This looks to be true again going into 2019. Ace Max Scherzer looks to capture his third Cy Young award in four years after finishing 2nd in 2018 following another impressive season (18-7, 2.53 ERA, 300 K, 7.2 fWAR in 220.2 IP). Stephen Strasburg, who battled injuries in 2018 but still managed to go 10-7 with 156 K in a reduced 130 IP will battle free agent signee Patrick Corbin (11-7, 3.15 ERA, 246 K, 6.3 fWAR in 200 IP with Arizona) for the number two spot behind Scherzer. Another newcomer, former Tiger and Brave Anibal Sanchez (7-6, 2.38 ERA, 135 K, 136.2 IP in 24 GS with Atlanta in 2018) will look to build on last year’s resurgence, presumably in the number four spot in the rotation, and Joe Ross, who pitched in only three games in 2018 due to Tommy John rehab, will likely bring up the back end of the rotation.
Washington’s bullpen has seen improvements as well. Former Cardinal Trevor Rosenthal, coming back from Tommy John as well, and Kyle Barraclough, acquired via trade with Miami, were brought in to help support All-Star closer Sean Doolittle. Sprinkle in relievers Matt Grace (2.87 ERA, 48 K in 59.2 IP) and Justin Miller (7-1, 3.6 ERA, 60 K in 52.1 IP), both coming off strong seasons, and the Nationals’ bullpen might actually be something to be reckoned with.
Overall, the Nationals have improved on many of their weaknesses from the past few years. One could reasonably expect them to eclipse 90 wins and make the playoffs again in 2019, and I would not be surprised to see them make a deep postseason run, especially with all of the veteran talent they have added to their already fairly experienced roster. If the Washington Nationals can finally play to their potential in October, no team will want to play them.
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