The second half of the 2018 MLB season gets underway tonight, and the Nats find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoff picture right now
In order for them to get past the Braves, Phillies, Diamondbacks, Brewers, etc., a number of things will have to go right in D.C. over the next 65-ish games.
A few questions will be hanging over the franchise these next few months, so to help break down what to look for during the Nats’ second half, I enlisted some fellow NBC Sports Washington writers to help me out, roundtable-style.
Without further ado, here are some second-half predictions.
Ryan Wormeli - @RyanWarmly
Cam Ellis - @KingsleyEllis
Michaela Johnson - @mjohnson262
Tyler Byrum - @theTylerByrum
Most important player in the second half:
Ryan Wormeli: Stephen Strasburg.
Everyone knows Max Scherzer is going to dominate as the Nats’ ace, and everyone knows Bryce Harper will hit home runs. In fact, assuming health, everyone knows the team will be pretty good at most spots. Strasburg, however, is the one that can take the Nats, to quote former Maryland coach Randy Edsall, from “good to great.” If he’s elite as their number two starter, this team is making the playoffs. Book it.
Cam Ellis: Bryce Harper.
Michaela Johnson: Bryce Harper, in the sense that it’s critical he gets hot again. Hopefully, his Home Run Derby win sparks something.
Tyler Byrum: Gio Gonzalez.
There are a couple of ways to look at this. Of course, Bryce Harper needs to be better and Stephen Strasburg has to come back fully healthy from the disabled list for them to even have a chance. Even if those two do that though, it probably will not be enough to make a climb in the division.
Last year Gonzalez had easily the second-best season of his career. With a 15-9 record and a 2.96 ERA in 2017, Gonzalez could easily be a No. 2 pitcher on half of the teams in the major. This season his ERA is sitting at 3.72 and has only won six of the 19 games he started. More than just looking at his stats, his outings are short too, making it to the seventh inning only three times this year. Additionally, the two-time All-Star is on pace to strike out the fewest batters this season than in the past decade.
Max Scherzer will get the Nationals a win once a week, hopefully Strasburg will get it done too, but Gonzalez is the Wild Card.
Ryan: An X-factor is someone whose play can dramatically impact the team’s success. If they’re successful, the team wins. If they play poorly, the team suffers.
This can apply to a number of players on the Nats, but I’m going to go with Juan Soto. He’s already exceeded expectations all season long, and helped keep the team afloat. They probably wouldn’t be within shouting distance of the postseason without the young phenom.
If Soto maintains his abnormally strong play while the rest of the team gets it going, the ceiling on this team is higher than any in the National League besides maybe the Dodgers and Cubs. If not, then they can still be okay, but probably not good enough.
Cam: Stephen Strasburg.
Michaela: Daniel Murphy. Since returning from injury he’s been solid, batting .324 in July. Davey Martinez has good discretion when it comes to resting vs. playing guys coming off injury, and I foresee a strong comeback for Murphy.
Tyler: Bryce Harper.
This is Harper’s team and it always will be with him on the roster. Yes, that .214 batting average is not going to win him a pennant, but Harper is so much more to this team. The 2018 Home Run Derby champion has to bring the fire to the Nationals night-in and night-out, whether or not he is able to get hits on the board.
Some people want to question his leadership ability (we’re not going to touch that topic), but he needs to inspire his guys in the clubhouse.
Show us the Harper that we saw at the derby, even with a poor batting average, and we’ll see a different team out on the field in the second half.
Will the Nationals make the playoffs?
Ryan: I’m actually very on the fence about this question. I’m going to say yes, but it’s like 51-49. I just am too impressed with the Braves and Phillies, and the latter especially seems keen on making an aggressive move at the trade deadline.
Cam: Yes, BUT it'll be the wild card game at Nats Park and extremely stressful.
Michaela: If I was making a call based on what we’ve seen in the first half, obviously not. But I have high expectations for the second half based on a Harper resurgence and Murph recovery, so I’m going to say yes.
Tyler: Yes. There is too much talent on this roster for them not to. With Strasburg coming back it will be more than just Scherzer dealing out there. The Philadelphia Phillies should cool down at some point too and it will be a two-headed race between the Nats and the Atlanta Braves for the division.
More likely scenario: Bryce Harper is traded at the deadline OR he signs a long term extension in D.C.
Ryan: I figure everyone will say he signs a long term extension, and I’m not going to swim against the current here. It’s highly, highly unlikely that he’s traded at the deadline, but given the national conversation surrounding his future in the nation’s capital, I thought it was at least worth asking.
Cam: Signs an extension this offseason.
Michaela: He signs an extension, based solely on this quote.
Tyler: Signs extension. There is no way the Nationals will trade the leader of the team and the guy that just won the Home Run Derby on his own field. Sure it is fun to debate but that is the last thing that this clubhouse needs at this moment.
On Monday night he showed his power and just why he is worth the lucrative extension.
However, trading Harper would be a typical case of #DCSports.
Who leads the Nats in batting average in the second half?
Ryan: Daniel Murphy. If he was never hurt entering the season, he could very well have been the betting favorite to lead the team in average all season long. He’s far enough removed from the Disabled List at this point to feel comfortable taking a shot on his pure hitting talent.
Cam: Anthony Rendon
Michaela: Juan Soto
Tyler: Trea Turner. He is due for a turnaround and none of the pressure is on him. There might also be some extra juice after his All-Star team snubbing.
Biggest/most important trade deadline acquisition
Ryan: Going to go out on a limb here and say the Nats in a bit of a panic move but one that’s completely defensible, do what it takes to pry JT Realmuto away from the woeful Marlins.
Cam: Another starting pitcher. It's Matt Harvey Time!
Michaela: *fingers crossed* Starting pitching.
Tyler: Manny Machado, Dodgers. This is a no-brainer. Once written off a decimated by injury, the Los Angeles Dodgers are back to being a World Series contender once again. Sitting at the top of the division, with no one in the National League pulling away, Machado will put the Dodgers back as the team to chance.