It has been a disappointing run for the Washington Nationals the past few seasons with early playoff exits. That hasn't stopped them from being favored in the MLB odds to win the NL East again in 2017. Should they be?
Three division titles and a couple of second-place finishes the past five years would usually rank as a huge success for most teams. But for the Washington Nationals, the accomplishment has only been a source of frustration after being pushed out of the playoffs in the LDS rounds all three postseason appearances.
Dusty Baker's bunch is once again favored to play into October, with the Nats listed around -150 favorites to win the NL East for a fourth time in six seasons and +400 on MLB futures odds to earn their first Senior Circuit pennant. It wasn't a busy offseason for GM Mike Rizzo with only one major addition to go with several key subtractions, and failing to at least advance to the NLCS will put both him and Baker on the hot seat.
Where Will Eaton Hit In Order?
Let's start with the biggest question mark of the NL East favorites: the bullpen. It's not necessarily a weakness, but the lack of a big-name closer is the issue after Washington cut ties lost midseason acquisition Mark Melancon to free agency. Hard-throwing Shawn Kelley should take the reins after solid showings setting up the past couple of seasons, and he has a solid pair in front of him in Blake Treinen and Sammy Solis. The Nats could still trade for a closer like the White Sox's David Robertson.
That current trio should get late-inning opportunities to hold a lead with the rotation in front of them ... assuming the starters stay healthy. Max Scherzer (may miss opener with finger injury) and Stephen Strasburg lead a quintet that should include Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross, that latter trio shining in Spring Training action.
Rizzo acquired outfielder Adam Eaton in a trade with the White Sox off a fine campaign, but the question is where will Baker plug his left-handed bat into the mix with Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy, whom we expect will hit 3-4 in some combination. As nice an addition as Eaton is, getting a full season out of Trea Turner might be the real key for this batting order. He figures to take over at leadoff and shortstop, his natural position, and wasn't fazed by MLB pitching last year slapping 13 HRs, stealing 33 bases and hitting .342 in 73 games as a rookie.
Change Behind The Plate Almost Goes Unnoticed
One change Washington made that hasn't received much attention took place behind the plate. The loss of Wilson Ramos late last September to a major injury really hurt the Nats in the playoffs. Not only was Ramos having a fine season at the plate, he had taken charge of this pitching staff as well. Ramos went south to Tampa as a free agent, with Washington bringing in Matt Wieters on a late deal and Derek Norris earlier this past winter.
The signing of Wieters made Norris expendable, and he was recently released. Wieters must relax this talented pitching staff as that will largely determine if this team goes 'over or 'under' its win total at SBR's top sportsbooks.
The consensus is 91.5 wins, offshore and in Las Vegas, the low side often juiced a little more. Hate to say it, but I see the New York Mets as being a fly in the ointment and will make my free baseball pick on the Nationals falling short of the win total.