2018 Record: 82-80
Second place, NL East
Team ERA: 4.04 (15th in MLB)
Team OPS: .753 (8th in MLB)
What Went Right
While Max Scherzer likely isn’t going to win the National League Cy Young Award for the third straight season, he turned in yet another brilliant year, reaching 300 strikeouts for the first time while posting a 2.53 ERA over 33 starts. Anthony Rendon was one of the best all-around players in the game, batting .308/.374/.535 with 24 homers and 92 RBI over 136 games while playing excellent defense at third base. Bryce Harper had a disappointing first half in his walk year, but he turned things around after the All-Star break en route to reaching 100 RBI for the first time in his career. A surprise call-up after multiple injuries in the Nationals’ outfield, Juan Soto batted .292/.406/.517 with 22 homers over 116 games in a historic showing for the 19-year-old. Sean Doolittle was great when healthy, posting a 1.60 ERA and 0.60 WHIP in 43 appearances while notching 25 saves. The same goes for Adam Eaton, who hit .301/.394/.411 in 95 games.
What Went Wrong
The Nationals were projected by most to run away with the National League East in Dave Martinez’s first year at the helm, so calling them a disappointment would be a massive understatement. Their 82-80 record was their worst since 2011. At this point, it's definitely worth wondering whether they squandered their window to win. Their offense this season was actually fine in comparison to the rest of the National League, but the rotation underwhelmed outside of Max Scherzer, with injuries and underperformance playing a part. Most notably, Stephen Strasburg missed time with neck and shoulder issues while Gio Gonzalez disappointed with a 4.57 ERA over 27 starts before being traded to the Brewers. As stated above, Doolittle was excellent when healthy, but the bullpen was shaky as a unit overall. The lack of depth was exposed when Doolittle and Kelvin Herrera missed most of the second half and Shawn Kelley and Brandon Kintzler were exiled around the trade deadline. This coincided with some drama involving general manager Mike Rizzo and accusations of leaking of disparaging information from the clubhouse. Daniel Murphy didn't make his season debut until June 12 following microfracture knee surgery. Ryan Zimmerman failed to maintain his lofty 2017 production and Wilmer Difo did very little with an extended opportunity at second base.
**Max Scherzer just keeps on keeping on. One could argue that this was his best season to date, at least from a fantasy perspective. As noted above, Scherzer became the second pitcher since 2002 to reach 300 strikeouts in a season while also posting a 2.53 ERA and 18 wins. He’s going to be 35 next July and has a ton of milage on his arm, so you can’t help but wonder how long he can keep this up, but he’s not showing any signs of slowing down. With Clayton Kershaw’s continued back issues and Chris Sale’s second half shoulder troubles, Scherzer is the undisputed king as the top overall starting pitcher in fantasy leagues.
**With a potential record-breaking contract awaiting him in free agency, Bryce Harper turned in what can probably be best summarized as an uneven season. It’s not like his first half was bad, but it certainly wasn’t up to par with expectations commensurate of his draft position. He went into the All-Star break with a .214/.365/.468 batting line. However, he surged to the finish with a .300/.434/.538 batting line after the break. He slugged 34 homers in a career-high 159 games overall while reaching 100 RBI for the first time. He also stole 13 bases, nine more than his 2017 total. Harper has now alternated between good and great years, which will surely make him a polarizing option in the early part of drafts next year. The biggest unknown is where Harper might play and for how much. A return to the Nationals is in play, but many have speculated on the Cubs and Dodgers as potential landing spots. The Yankees can’t be ruled out and the Phillies have plenty of cash to spend. It should be a fascinating situation to follow.
**Trea Turner might not have justified his early first-round price tag this season, but he still came very close. In addition to leading the National League with 43 steals, he batted .271/.344/.416 with 19 homers, 73 RBI, and 103 runs over 162 games. It looked like his stock would take a hit when he began the year down in the order, but that arrangement didn’t last long. Turner ended up spending the majority of the season hitting either first or second. Look for that to continue in 2019, which can only help from a counting stat perspective. Turner owns an OPS+ of 100 over the past two seasons, so he hasn’t been able to duplicate the ridiculous production from his rookie season, but his elite speed provides a very safe floor. He’s likely to be selected in the late first-round or early second-round in most mixed leagues in 2018.
**Surprise! Juan Soto was ranked as the No. 56 prospect in the game by Baseball America last winter and began this year with Class A Hagerstown, but here it is in late-October and he’s right there with the Braves’ Ronald Acuna for National League Rookie of the Year honors. It has been an incredible ride for the 19-year-old, who showed an advanced approach at the plate during his rookie season while batting .292/.406/.517 with 22 homers and 70 RBI over 116 games. He surpassed Mel Ott with 79 walks, giving him the most by a teenager since 1900. Only Tony Conigliaro (24) hit more home runs as a teenager. Soto hit more balls on the ground than you’d like to see, but his average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives was right there among the best in the game. He already has a contact rate well above the league average and he doesn’t chase pitches outside the strike zone. It’s very possible he could get even better with more experience, which is a scary thing to contemplate for major league hurlers. Even without much in the speed department, Soto will be a top-20 outfielder in drafts next spring.
**In a way, it makes sense that it has taken this long to mention Anthony Rendon, as he continues to go overlooked as one of the best all-around players in the game. Rendon missed some time with injury this year, but he still tallied 24 homers and 92 RBI over 136 games and a .308/.374/.535 batting line. He’s now reached at least 20 homers, 83 RBI, and 88 runs scored in four out of the last five seasons. With his elite contact rate, he’s become a bankable play for a strong batting average. Rendon can’t be counted on for double-digit steals anymore and he might not have the elite fantasy upside of names like Nolan Arenado or Alex Bregman, but he’s one of the safest options at third base anyway.
**Highly-touted outfield prospect Victor Robles likely would have made a larger contribution with the Nationals this season if he didn’t suffer a hyperextended elbow in April. The other way to look at that is that his injury opened the door for Juan Soto to make an impact. Still, Robles showed some intriguing tools down the stretch and he could play a major role in 2019 depending on how things shake out with Bryce Harper this offseason. He’s still just as exciting as he was just one year ago.
**Injuries again prevented Stephen Strasburg from making it through a full season. This time, he dealt with neck and shoulder issues while posting a career-worst 3.74 ERA over 22 starts. He now hasn’t topped 175 1/3 innings since 2014, which is still the lone season he reached 200 innings in his career. On the bright side, he finished the year strong with a 2.66 ERA over his final seven starts, albeit with diminished velocity. Strasburg still missed plenty of bats on the whole and displayed good control, but he was more homer-prone that we’re used to seeing. It’s still easy to see the potential for excellence here, but it’s increasingly difficult to justify the price tag involved.
Team Needs: Most of the focus will understandably be on the Bryce Harper free agent drama, but the Nationals would still have a pretty solid outfield in place if he departs. Putting Harper aside, the team has holes to fill behind the plate (perhaps rekindling talks for the Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto?) and at second base. There’s a need for at least one established starting pitcher alongside Scherzer, Strasburg, and Tanner Roark. Exercising Doolittle’s option is a formality, but retooling the bullpen should also be part of the plan. We’ve already seen the first step there with the recent acquisition of Kyle Barraclough from the Marlins. There’s still a talented core here, but this roster could look very different in 2019.