Washington Nationals 2017 Season Preview

Last year, the Washington Nationals had their World Series aspirations come up short yet again. Despite winning the NL East and finishing the year with 95 wins, they failed to overcome the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS. As a result of their disappointing postseason, the Nationals went into the off-season with a win-now mentality; however, they swung and missed on most of their targets. Those targets included closers Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Mark Melancon, and also White Sox southpaw Chris Sale. After missing on their top targets, they then traded for White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton. Eaton though came at a hefty cost.

In the deal the Nationals swung for Eaton, they surrendered top pitching prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, as well as former first round pick Dane Dunning. It was a conversional deal for the Nationals given the high price they paid, but Eaton helps add depth and a veteran presence in the order. In addition to Eaton, the Nationals also acquired catcher Derek Norris and made two utility signings. They resigned infielder Stephen Drew on a one-year deal (who was a pleasant surprise for them hitting .266 off the bench), and they also brought in Mariners first baseman Adam Lind on a one year deal. It was a very interesting off-season for the Nationals, but the team is still looking up for the 2017 season. Here is the Washington Nationals 2017 season preview.

How Will The Bullpen Fare Without Mark Melancon?

In 2016, the Nationals bullpen was an asset for them, as opposed to recent years of it being a liability. That was thanks to a productive duo in the backend of their bullpen which consisted of righties Shawn Kelley and Blake Treinen.

Kelley recorded a 2.64 ERA to along with 80 strikeouts in 58 innings pitched in 2016. On the other hand, Trienen recorded a 2.28 ERA to go along with 63 strikeouts in 67 innings pitched.. Both righties were an asset for the Nationals ion 2016, as well as lefty Sammy Solis.

Solis was another asset for the Nationals in 2016. Serving as their best lefty out of the pen, Solis recorded a 2.41 ERA to go along with 47 strikeouts in 41 innings pitched. It was a productive year for Solis; however, despite his contributions, as well as Kelley’s and Trienen’s, the Nationals are faced with a dilemma in the closer spot.

Last year, the Nationals acquired All-Star closer Melancon from the Pittsburgh Pirates at the MLB trading deadline. From the moment Melancon arrived he was spectacular. He recorded 17 out of 18 save opportunities with the Nationals, and also pitched four and one third innings scoreless in the postseason. The Nationals though, let Melancon walk to the San Francisco in free agency. That left a huge hole in the closer spot, and now they’re going into spring training with the role up for grabs.

When it comes to Melancon’s potential replacement in the bullpen, Kelley and Trienen are the likely candidates, but neither have a great track record in the spot. Kelley has blown 12 out of 23 save opportunities over the course of his career, and Trienen has blown 5 out of 6 save opportunities. If given the spot permanently though, it’s reasonable to think that they could settle into the role, but it’s unclear to what extent.

Will The Rotation Remain Healthy?

Last year, the Nationals rotation was among the best in all of baseball. Led by ace Max Scherzer, (who went on to win the 2016 NL CY Young), righty Stephen Strasburg, and the crafty Tanner Roark, the Nationals rotation was a big reason for their regular season success; however, it was also a big reason for their postseason failures.

For starters, Strasburg began to come into his own in 2016 as one of the game’s best pitchers. His stuff was lethal, as he was striking batters out left and right, and also won his first 13 decisions; however, injuries yet again plagued Strasburg’s season. As the dog days of summer came to a close, Strasburg’s elbow woes came back to haunt him. It resulted in him missing the remainder of the year. His season ending blow was a big deflater for the Nationals, who were beginning to look like a legit World Series threat. Strasburg though wasn’t the only pitcher on the staff who was hit with injuries.

Righty Joe Ross was another pitcher who dealt with injuries as the year progressed. Before injuries hit, Ross was beginning to become one of the best young arms in baseball. He was pitching deep into games, and was keeping his ERA near three. Then, in early July, Ross began to deal with right shoulder soreness, and it resulted in him watching his team from the dugout for the next two and a half months. Then, when he returned from injury, Ross was never able to pitch more than four innings, and he came up short in the postseason, as he couldn’t get the Nationals out of the third inning in game four of the NLDS.

If the Nationals want to have a successful 2017 season and compete for the World Series, they’ll need their rotation to stay healthy. If it doesn’t remain healthy, then they could be looking at another disappointing end to their season whether it’s in the postseason or even the regular season.

Will Derek Norris And Adam Eaton Be Key Contributors In 2017?

Towards the end of the regular season, Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos tore his ACL, and ended up missing the remainder of the year. It was the ultimate blow for the Nationals, given that Ramos was having a career year. Hitting .307, with 22 home home runs to go along with 80 RBI, Ramos was a big bat in the Nationals order and an irreplaceable piece. As a result of his injury, Ramos will miss a big chunk of the 2017 season, so the Nationals had to go out and find a replacement for him.

Just a few days before the Winter Meetings, the Nationals traded for Padres catcher Derek Norris to help fill the void left by Ramos behind the plate. Norris is a two way catcher. He’s a very good defensive backstop. He can frame the ball well, is good with young arms, and given the Nationals mix of youth and veteran arms, Norris should fit in well. The issue though is that Norris struggled at the plate in 2016.

In year’s past, Norris had been a reliable force at the plate. In 2014, he hit .270 with 10 home runs to along with 55 runs batted in. In 2015, he hit .250, with 14 home runs, to go along both 62 runs batted in, and was also an All-Star. 2016 was a different story for Norris though. He hit just .186, and drove in just 42 runs. It was a rough year for Norris at the plate, and he’ll have to bounce back in 2017 if the Nationals want to have a lethal order. The Nationals will also need outfielder Adam Eaton to produce.

At the Winter Meetings, the Nationals acquired White Sox right fielder Adam Eaton, albeit the hefty price of pitching prospects Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning. With the hefty price they paid aside though, Eaton is a good player.

He can get on base, and is a consistent presence at the plate. Eaton has hit over .283 at the plate the past three years. He’s also been under the radar for a good chunk of his career, and is also under on a very team friendly contract. While the yearly salary increases over the course of the deal, Eaton is under contract for under 11 million a year the next five years; however, it’s not all butterflies and smiles with his game. While Eaton does present a bevy of positives for Washington, there’s the question of whether he can play center field?

With Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth manning their corner outfield positions, the Nationals will be playing Eaton in center field. The issue though is that Eaton is at this stage of his career, a right fielder, and while he has a good arm, it’s been questioned whether he can play a full season in center field. If he can and also be a consistent threat in the order, then he may be worth the high price the Nationals gave up for him. If he’s not though, general manager Mike Rizzo’s job could be in jeopardy.

Knowing who will man the ninth inning and knowing whether the rotation will remain healthy is key to the Nationals 2017 success; however, knowing whether Derek Norris and Adam Eaton will be key contributors to the Nationals both in the order and on the field is just as crucial.

Main Photo