Kirby Puckett

Kirby Puckett

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Breaking Down the Nationals

    The Nationals have had a weird last ten years or so. Since moving to Washington in 2005, they were generally terrible until 2011. After that, we were told that Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasberg were supposed to turn them into contenders. Now they've become contenders, but not with great seasons from either of them.
     After a dominant start to his career in 2010, Strasberg's been solid but not at the elite level expected of him, posting a career ERA of 3.17. Harper's been a bit different. After a couple of decent years, he exploded in 2015, hitting .330/.460/.649 and winning MVP. Despite that transcendent season, the rest of the Nats' roster couldn't produce and they went 83-79, missing the playoffs. Things got weirder in 2016, when the Nationals won the division with a much smaller contribution from Harper, who was worse in just about every statistical category. In fairness, that doesn't mean he was awful; he still hit 24 homers and posted an on base percentage of .373, he just didn't match the expectations after a tremendous 2015 campaign.
     I think Harper's 2017 season will be more like 2015 than 2016 for a few reasons: 1) His underlying numbers were stable between the two years; pitchers weren't throwing to him any differently, he had roughly the same line drive percentage, etc. If those had drastically changed that would be a reason for concern. The other reason: He's still only 24 years old. In 2015 he was 22. We'll see better from him.
     With Harper's relatively disappointing season, and few key players managed to pick up the slack, none of whom were bigger than Daniel Murphy. Fresh off of an unprecedented power binge for the Mets in the playoffs, the second baseman hit .347 with 25 homers. That breakout is largely credited to Murphy changing his stance, bending his knees more to generate more power. As for his chances of recreating that season in 2017, they're not as bad as you might think for a 31-year-old who has never shown that power before. As previously mentioned, his improvement is more linked to changing his stance, rather than luck. His .348 batting average on balls in play is high, but not completely out of line with his career .319 mark. Also, his numbers were pretty consistent throughout all of last year, without one particular half standing out, so it wasn't just a hot streak.
     Washington will have Trea Turner for a full year this season. The speedy shortstop hit .342 with 33 stolen bases in just 73 games last year. Having him for a full year will be advantageous just because it allows the Nationals to not have to rely on Danny Espinosa, who hit .209 last season.
     The biggest question mark is at first base. Ryan Zimmerman struggled last season, hitting .218/.272/.370 in 467 plate appearances. With no one else currently at camp to potentially take over that job, either he'll have to step up or the Nationals will want to look for a deal at the deadline for someone like Logan Morrison.
     And finally, if we're going to talk about the Nationals, we have to bring up the trade they made in in December, sending Lucas Giolito, among others to Chicago for Adam Eaton. Eaton's a good player, especially in today's analytical world. In 2016 he hit .284/.362/.428 and was a terrific fielder, saving 20 runs with his glove in right field. On the other side of the deal, Giolito is one of the top pitching prospects in the league, a 22-year-old with a fastball that can hit 99 and a hard, tight curveball. With that said, the Nationals are clearly trying to win now, and their staff is already anchored by reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer. More importantly, Giolito is only 22 and struggled in his very brief debut last year. The Nats had a hole in their outfield and chose to address that rather than wait for Giolito to get good. So, while it looks like they overpaid for Eaton we can't jump to conclusions here because of their circumstances. If they ultimately win a World Series, it will have all been worth it.

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