2017 Record: 97-65
First Place, NL East
Team ERA: 3.88 (6th)
Team OPS: .782 (4th)
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What Went Right
Anthony Rendon emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate by posting career-highs in batting average (.301), on-base percentage (.403), slugging percentage (.533), home runs (25), and RBI (100). This includes a three-homer, 10-RBI game on April 30 against the Mets which jumpstarted his season. Max Scherzer was again one of the game’s best starters, finishing second in the NL with a 2.51 ERA while leading the league with 268 strikeouts in 200 2/3 innings. Stephen Strasburg turned in the best season of his career, posting a 2.52 ERA and 204/47 K/BB ratio over 175 1/3 innings. Bryce Harper was excellent when healthy, rebounding from a disappointing 2016 by batting .319/.413/.595 with 29 homers over 111 games. Gio Gonzalez bounced back with a 2.96 ERA over 32 starts. Ryan Zimmerman was rejuvenated, hitting a career-high 36 homers while putting up a .303/.358/.573 batting line. Daniel Murphy turned in yet another strong season, batting .322/.384/.543 with 23 homers and 93 RBI in 144 games. While Michael Taylor wasn’t originally expected to be a regular, he chipped in with 19 homers and 17 steals while playing great defense in center field. Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, and Brandon Kintzler helped stabilize the bullpen down the stretch while Matt Albers was a surprisingly effective contributor all year. Adam Lind and Howie Kendrick were valuable part-timers.
What Went Wrong
The Nationals won their second straight NL East title, but they once again failed to make it out of the NLDS. The club cut ties with manager Dusty Baker after the season. Adam Eaton was expected to be a major contributor after being acquired in a blockbuster offseason trade with the White Sox, but he missed the entire season with ACL and meniscus tears in his left knee. Matt Wieters struggled miserably in his first season with the Nationals, putting up a career-low .632 OPS (63 OPS+) with 10 homers in 465 plate appearances. Joe Ross posted a disappointing 5.10 ERA in 13 starts before undergoing Tommy John surgery in July. He’s likely to miss all of 2018. Tanner Roark regressed with a 4.67 ERA over 30 starts and two relief appearances. Trea Turner missed two months with a fractured right wrist. Jayson Werth appeared in just 70 games in what was likely his final season of his seven-year, $126 million contract. The early-season options in the back-end of the bullpen (Blake Treinen, Koda Glover, Sean Kelley) didn't pan out.
**We’ll start with Bryce Harper, who was a bit of a polarizing pick in fantasy drafts this year after he disappointed by hitting .243/.373/.441 with 24 homers over 147 games in 2016. Well, he quickly silenced his doubters by hitting .391 with nine homers, 26 RBI, and a 1.281 OPS in April. Harper appeared well on his way to career-highs in homers and RBI prior to suffering a significant bone bruise in his left knee after slipping on the first base bag in mid-August. It was a lengthy absence, but he made it back just in time for the playoffs. While Harper’s injury history can’t be ignored, it’s safe to say that he has reestablished himself among the top fantasy options not named Mike Trout. The drop in speed figures to put him behind the likes of Trout, Paul Goldschmidt, and Jose Altuve in 2018 drafts.
**Harper understandably receives most of the attention among the Nationals’ position players, but Anthony Rendon was their MVP this year. Yes, the added power was nice to see — and with his continued rise in fly ball rate, it’s no fluke — but Rendon also significantly cut down on his strikeouts. In fact, his strikeout percentage dropped from 18.1 percent to 13.6 percent. He was one of five qualified hitters (Joey Votto, Justin Turner, Mike Trout, and Anthony Rizzo being the others) to have more walks than strikeouts. The improved approach bodes well for his chances of maintaining a high batting average moving forward. If you don’t end up with one of the elite options at third base like Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, or even Jose Ramirez, you will still be in good shape.
**After winning his second career Cy Young Award last season, Max Scherzer was actually better this year. He established new career-bests in both ERA+ (177) and strikeout percentage (34.4 percent). He was also slightly less homer-prone than he’s been in recent seasons. The only negative was that he missed a couple of weeks with neck inflammation in August. Scherzer ended up with his lowest workload since 2012 as a result, but he still amassed 29 more strikeouts than any other pitcher in the National League. Scherzer deserves to be the favorite for the NL Cy Young Award and will undoubtedly be one of the first pitchers off the board in fantasy drafts next spring. Clayton Kershaw will be first, but there’s some debate about the order between Scherzer, Chris Sale, and Corey Kluber.
**Gio Gonzalez was late-round flier material in most mixed leagues after posting a 4.57 ERA in 2016, but he turned things around in a big way this season with a 2.96 ERA and 15 wins. He’ll surely receive some down-ballot Cy Young Award votes as a result, but be careful about paying for a repeat in 2018. It’s true that Gonzalez is a slightly different pitcher now. With less giddy-up on his fastball, the veteran southpaw has begun to rely more on his secondary pitches. It worked for him in 2017, as he was right there among the league-leaders in inducing soft contact, but does that fully explain a .258 BABIP or an 81.6 strand rate? He also had the third-highest walk percentage among qualified starters. It’s a shaky profile.
**Coming off a ridiculous half season as a rookie last year, Trea Turner was all the rage going into drafts this spring. He found himself being selected in the first or second round in most mixed leagues. It was an aggressive spot given the small (albeit amazing) sample size. While Turner failed to maintain the lofty batting average from 2016, he still showed a good amount of pop and most importantly, he was on pace for 80-plus steals prior to injuring his hamstring on June 29. For context, no player has reached 80 steals in a season since Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman in 1988. Only two players have reached 70 steals since 2004. Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton remain serious speed threats, but Turner obviously offers more across-the-board ability than either of them. Like it or not, fantasy owners will have to be aggressive to land Turner in drafts next spring. We’re probably talking about first or second round once again.
**An injury to Brian Goodwin opened the door for top prospect outfielder Victor Robles to get his first call-up in September. The 20-year-old batted .300/.382/.493 with 10 homers and 27 steals over 114 games this season between High-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg. He has all the makings of a future five-category stud, but his role for 2018 is unclear. While Jayson Werth is due to hit free agency, the Nationals still have Harper, Adam Eaton, Michael Taylor, and Goodwin among their internal options for the outfield. Perhaps a trade changes things here, but Robles appears likely to open 2018 in the minors as of now. He’s obviously someone to watch, though.
Team Needs: The Nationals hired Dave Martinez as their new manager and most of the key pieces on this team are set to return, so nothing major. Sean Doolittle will return as the club’s closer, but they could add another late-inning arm. With Joe Ross out for the year and Erick Fedde lacking in experience, it would also make sense to pursue another starter. Look for the club to add multiple bench pieces.