The Nationals should have some positive regression in 2019.
Not a whole lot went right for the Nationals in 2018. Despite being the clear preseason favorite to win the NL East, Washington was unable to defend its divisional crown for the third consecutive year. They finished 82-80 and in second place, eight games behind the surprise of the year, the Atlanta Braves.
These poor results can be attributed at least partly to bad luck. The Nationals’ +89 run differential and 90-72 pythagorean record suggest that they were indeed still among the best teams in the National League, at least talent-wise. And, while their roster does indeed look different than it did at the end of the 2018 season, Washington should be right back in the mix again in 2019. In fact, FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projection system has the Nationals going 90-72 and winning the division by four games. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system has the Nationals at 89-73 and in a virtual tie for first.
As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, this does not mean that the Nationals’ roster looks exactly as it does last season. Here are some of the Nationals’ notable offseason additions:
- First baseman/outfielder Matt Adams
- Right-handed reliever Kyle Barraclough
- Left-handed starter Patrick Corbin
- Second baseman Brian Dozier
- Catcher Yan Gomes
- Right-handed reliever Trevor Rosenthal
- Right-handed starter Anibal Sanchez
- Catcher Kurt Suzuki
That is a lot of new faces, to say the least.
Corbin, obviously, is the biggest addition here. The best starting pitcher on the market, he agreed to a six-year, $140 million deal with the Nationals in December. The Nationals’ top three starters of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Corbin should be an unwelcome sight for National League batters. In fact, the Nationals’ rotation as a whole is projected to be worth 16.1 fWAR this season, ranking fifth in baseball and first in the NL. The rotation is clearly where the Nationals should reign supreme.
The bullpen, on the other hand, still remains as a huge question mark outside of Sean Doolittle. Rosenthal could be a great bounce-back candidate; he was worth 1.6 fWAR with the Cardinals in 2017, but he has not pitched since as he’s recovered from Tommy John surgery. He did hit 100 mph on the radar gun in his first appearance in Spring Training, certainly a welcome sight.
Barraclough, too, should be an interesting add to this roster. He had a tough year last year (-0.6 fWAR), but once upon a time (2016), he struck out nearly 37 percent of the batters that he faced. Perhaps a move from Miami to Washington could help him recapture some of that dominance; he is still just 28 years old. The Nationals will be counting on him to be a third reliable arm out of the ‘pen.
Pitching evaluated, I think it’s finally time that I address the elephant in the room: Bryce Harper. Now that Harper has signed in Philadelphia, the Nationals will be entering their first season in eight years without the virtual face of their franchise. But, as Bob Ellis wrote just a couple of days ago, they should be just fine without him:
What does all this mean for Washington’s Harper-less outfield? With Soto, Robles and Adam Eaton the starters, and Michael Taylor a capable fourth outfielder, the Nats should be in good shape. Last year, The combo of Harper, Soto, Eaton and Taylor combined for a total fWAR of 10.
Using Steamer to predict Soto (the safest projection of the bunch) we expect he will produce to the tune of a 4.2 fWAR in 2019. Staying with Steamer for Eaton, Taylor and Robles—we get projected fWAR’s of 2.2, 0.5 and 2.1, respectively. Based on these predictions, the foursome should combine for a 9 fWAR this year. That’s just one behind the aforementioned 10 fWAR from 2018.
Of course, a lot of this depends on the performance of Victor Robles, who projects to start the season as their primary center fielder. Just 21, Robles both hit well and played solid defense in his 66-plate appearance cup of coffee last season. Most projection systems have him between 2.0 and 2.5 fWAR in 2019, but his ceiling could be much, much higher. I agree with Ellis’ conclusion — an outfield of Adam Eaton, wunderkind Juan Soto and Robles might not miss Harper all that much, if at all.
Lastly, in the infield, much looks the same in D.C. Anthony Rendon will probably be a boss again, Ryan Zimmerman will probably still hit, Trea Turner will probably still be an all-around treat. Dozier is the new addition here, coming off an awful season split between the Twins and Dodgers. Like with Rosenthal, he is probably a great bounce-back candidate; the power and plate discipline was still there, but a career-low .240 BABIP hurt his overall numbers. Any reversal of his luck and the Nationals will have found themselves a real steal here.
Catching for the Nationals in 2019 will be a platoon of Gomes and Suzuki, both new additions to the team. They should be a huge upgrade over Matt Wieters, though, who struggled to stay on the field and to produce when he was healthy. Gomes and Suzuki should complement each other nicely; Gomes is better defensively, while Suzuki is better offensively. Together, they are projected to produce 2.5 fWAR, which would be a two-win bump from the Nationals’ 0.5 fWAR from catchers in 2018. That’s big.
To wrap this up, we can distill the Nationals’ 2019 season into one main theme: value plays. Outside of Corbin, the Nationals made a lot of small tinkers to their 25-man roster that could end up producing a lot of positive value. Of course, the main storyline around Washington will be whether they can handle the loss of Harper (to a division rival, no less), but on paper, this team looks just as ready to compete for the divisional crown as they would in any other year.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.