2016 Record - 95-67
First place, NL East
Team ERA: 3.51 (2nd)
Team OPS: .751 (8th)
What Went Right
After a disappointing 2015, the Nationals bounced back in a big way this year under new manager Dusty Baker to reclaim the NL East crown. A fallback option after efforts to land Ben Zobrist or Brandon Phillips didn’t work out, Daniel Murphy was locked in at the plate from day one and emerged as a finalist for the National League MVP Award. Max Scherzer was one of the best pitchers in the game once again, posting a 2.96 ERA over 34 starts while leading the majors with 284 strikeouts. He matched the major league record for a nine-inning outing with 20 strikeouts against the Tigers in May. Anthony Rendon managed to stay healthy while batting .270/.348/.450 with 20 homers, 85 RBI, and 12 steals. Tanner Roark returned to the rotation with a vengeance, finishing sixth in the NL with a 2.83 ERA. Trea Turner didn’t get his first extended opportunity in the majors until just after the All-Star break, but the wait was worth it and then some. The 23-year-old put up a 3.5 bWAR in just 73 games while learning center field on the fly. Mark Melancon was awesome in the closer role after coming over from the Pirates at the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline, posting a 1.82 ERA and 0.81 WHIP over 30 appearance while going 17-for-18 in save chances.
What Went Wrong
The Nationals made it back to the playoffs, but they suffered another first-round exit. Perhaps they would have fared better if they were at full strength? Wilson Ramos finally had his long-awaited breakout (.307/.354/.496 with 22 homers and 80 RBI over 131 games) in his walk year before suffering ACL and meniscus tears in his right knee in late September. Stephen Strasburg faded down the stretch before going down in early September with a partial tear of the pronator tendon in his right elbow. After winning the NL MVP Award in 2015, Bryce Harper went through some vexing struggles this season while seeing his OPS drop from 1.109 to .814. Gio Gonzalez struggled with inconsistency while posting a 4.57 ERA over 32 starts. Joe Ross missed most of the second half with a shoulder injury. Ryan Zimmermann put up a career-low .642 OPS (69 OPS+) over 115 games. Jonathan Papelbon posted a 4.37 ERA and 1.46 WHIP over 37 appearances and was released shortly after the Mark Melancon trade.
**Okay, so Bryce Harper…what the heck happened here? We were talking about him as a potential No. 1 overall pick this time last year and for good reason. In his age-22 season, he led the NL in home runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS. While he stole only six bases, there was reason for optimism after Davey Lopes was brought in at first base coach. Harper managed to steal 21 bases this year, but otherwise he failed to meet the extremely lofty expectations. We know he dealt with a neck injury, but there were also reports of a lingering shoulder injury. The decrease in hard-hit rate stands out to me, as well as the move away from pulling the ball. The Nationals shot down reports over the shoulder at every turn, but Harper wasn’t nearly as forceful about it. One would have to think that it was a factor in his performance. He’s going to be the most polarizing player in fantasy drafts this spring, but I just can’t see him falling out of the first round. The upside is just too high if he’s back to full health.
**Home runs are still an issue for Max Scherzer and perhaps the workload will catch up to him at some point, but I feel confident ranking him as the No. 2 overall fantasy starter behind Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw going into 2017. He struck out opposing batters at a career-best clip of 31.5 percent this past season. Only the late Jose Fernandez had a higher strikeout percentage among qualified starters.
**Best backup plan ever? The Nationals have a pretty good case with Daniel Murphy, who built off his strong finish and historic postseason from 2015 by batting .347/.390/.595 with 25 homers and 104 RBI over 142 games this season. He tied with Cincinnati’s Joey Votto for the NL lead with a .985 OPS (keep in mind that he was at .770 in 2015) and finished second in batting average behind Colorado’s DJ LeMahieu. Murphy sacrificed a little bit of contact along the way, but he was still elite in that area and he didn’t chase more pitches out of the zone than he normally would. He also continued to pull the ball (a trend we first saw in 2015) and lofted more balls in the air than ever before. Make no mistake about it: Murphy is a different hitter than he has been in the past. The problem is that he has set the bar incredibly high for himself and it would be completely unfair to expect a repeat performance across the board. He also doesn’t run much anymore, so he doesn’t have that category to fall back on. There’s no choice but to include him among the top-50 overall players going into 2017, but it would probably be best to keep expectations in check.
**Most fantasy owners were keeping an eye on Trea Turner for his speed, but he was a five-category monster and season savior after finally getting his chance around midseason. Yes, the speed was as advertised. He went 33-for-39 in stolen base attempts, but he also hit .342/.370/.567 with 13 homers, 40 RBI, and 53 runs scored in just 73 games. The power was the real surprise. Turner had 14 home runs in 871 plate appearances in the minors between 2015-2016. He doesn’t hit a ton of fly balls and his exit velocity doesn’t exactly stand out, so don’t go marking him down as a lock for 20-plus homers over a full season just yet, but there’s obviously plenty of across-the-board appeal here as the Nationals’ leadoff man. It’s even fair to expect him to draw more walks in the future. Where he’ll play in 2017 is up in the air at the moment (he could end up at shortstop if they add an outfielder this winter), but he’ll likely be off the board by the end of the third round in most mixed league drafts next spring.
**Stephen Strasburg would have been the no doubt No. 1 starting pitcher in free agency this winter, but he surprised many around the game by signing a seven-year, $175 million extension back in May. It’s probably a good thing he did. Strasburg was rolling through early August with a 15-1 record to go along with a 2.63 ERA through his first 20 starts, but he was rocked for 19 runs over his next three starts before going down with what was termed as right elbow soreness. He returned two weeks later, but he didn’t make it out of the third inning before feeling another pinch in his elbow. It turns out that he suffered a partial tear of the pronator tendon, which is connected to the flexor mass. The injury was treated with a platelet-rich plasma injection rather than surgery, but he wasn’t able to make it back for the postseason. The expectation is that he’s going to be fine for the start of spring training, but this is one of those situations where fantasy owners will just have to closely monitor things. He’ll probably be drafted on the fringe of the top-12 starting pitchers if the reports are good.
**Welcome back, Anthony Rendon. After a breakout 2014, Rendon was limited to 80 games last year due to injury and dropped off the table with an underwhelming .264/.344/.363 batting line. It looked like we were in line for something similar this year when he batted just .242/.310/.286 with one (one!) RBI for all of April, but he turned things around from there and finished with a .270/.348/.450 batting line to go along with 20 homers, 85 RBI, 12 steals, and 91 runs scored. He also played in a career-high 156 games, answering some concerns (at least temporarily) about his durability. Rendon is strictly a third baseman at this point and might not have the power upside among some of the other names at the position, but his five-category production allows him to hang with the pack.
**Barring a change of plans, the Nationals are projected to bring back the same rotation they had last year with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez, and Joe Ross. We’re still a long way from Opening Day, though. Gonzalez could be a trade candidate and there are lingering health questions about Strasburg and Ross. That’s why it’s worth keeping an eye on Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez in fantasy leagues. Giolito disappointed in a small sample during his first stint in the majors this year, but he remains one of the game’s top pitching prospects. Maybe some more seasoning in the minors wouldn’t be the worst thing for him. Lopez doesn’t get as much attention as Giolito, but he’s promising in his own right. The 22-year-old (he turns 23 in January) showed some intriguing flashes as a rookie this year while posting a 4.91 ERA and 42/22 K/BB ratio over 44 innings.
**Mark Melancon was great in the closer role down the stretch and the Nationals will almost certainly make a strong effort to bring him back. It’s worth noting that he wasn’t eligible to receive a qualifying offer since he was acquired midseason, so this only increases his appeal on the open market. He probably won’t be as expensive as Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen despite posting a 1.80 ERA (212 ERA+) over the last four seasons. If the Nationals are unable to land a big name free agent closer, they could take their chances on someone like Greg Holland or maybe even turn to the trade market. Shawn Kelley (2.64 ERA and 80/11 K/BB ratio over 58 innings in 2016) is the top in-house alternative, but he has an injury history.
Team Needs: Their biggest priorities include addressing the closer role and their catcher situation. They could also address their outfield, which would open the door for Turner to move to his natural position at shortstop.