Previewing the Washington Nationals and the NL East for 2017
Let’s start from the premise that the Washington Nationals can win 92 games and win the National League East. Hardly and groundbreaking look into the future, nor is the idea that they won’t beat the New York Mets by 8 games again this season. The Mets and their very fine pitching staff will prove more formidable competition this year, but injuries will continue to plague them and limit the effectiveness of too many of their starters to overtake Washington in 2017.
Washington managed to win 12 of their 19 head-to-head games with the Mets in 2016 and that spelled the difference as the Nationals edged New York by eight games for the division title. Not much has changed. Noah Syndergaard and Max Scherzer will again be the best pitchers in the National League along with Clayton Kershaw. Jacob deGrom and Stephen Strasburg will be a step behind, but there is little advantage to either team at the top of the rotation. Injury poses more of a risk for the Mets given the recent uncertainties around Steven Matz and there are few indications that Matt Harvey is on the verge of regaining top form.
Because of these uncertainties the Nationals deserve a slight nod on the starting rotation on the basis of their 3-4-5 pitchers. Tanner Roark should be the best number three based on his success in 2014 and 2016. But no one really takes him seriously and everyone loves the Mets young pitchers, so many would consider the issue of starting rotation a wash.
Neither bullpen is overwhelming. Jeurys Familia just was given a 15-game suspension that will be forgotten my the middle of May. The Nationals may have more depth but they have more questions as well, so the difference is going to have to come somewhere else and it will.
The Nationals will send a considerably more robust offensive crew into battle in 2017 than the Mets. This spring has been a good one for Bryce Harper and that bodes well for the season. But it is the addition of Adam Eaton that does the most to spell the difference. Eaton replaces Ben Revere as the Opening Day center fielder in the Washington lineup, which allowed the team to part company with Danny Espinosa as Tre Turnerb ecomes the everyday shortstop. Turner and Eaton are a huge upgrade over Revere and Espinosa.
Yoenis Cepedes is the core of the Mets lineup and Neil Walker, Curtis Granderson, and Jay Bruce give him reasonable cover, but it is not the same as the thump the Nationals can put on the field day in and day out. Turner, Eaton, Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon all project at 3+ WAR for the season and give a huge advantage to Washington when it comes to scoring runs. Even so, it is doubtful that the Nationals will manage to win 12 games against the Mets again this season as they did in the head-to-head meetings in 2016. But those tot-to-toe contests will determine who finishes atop the NL East and will have substantial bearing on who is the NL Wild Card team.
Philadelphia will be a better team than it was in 2016, but not by a great deal. Vince Velasquez and Aaron Nola will be the key as they continue to mature. The Phillies will improve as much as they do. The rest of the division will not fare well against the top two teams and it is possible that the NL East has the weakest competition overall after New York and Washington. That may allow both the Mets and the Nationals to pad their leads over teams in the NL Central and NL West where competition will be more balanced. The Cardinals will give the Cubs plenty to think about and the Pirates remain a strong third place team. The Dodgers and Giants will slug it out, but both the Rockies and Diamondbacks have a shot at real competition, which could mean that the West has only one team in the playoffs at the end of September.
The playoffs in 2017 should feature the San Francisco Giants and the Chicago Cubs as the winners of their respective divisions. The Cardinals and Dodgers would seem the most likely teams to play for the final slot, but the Dodgers pitching is suspect after Kershaw and they may get beaten too often by Colorado and Arizona to make the cut, which would open the door for the Mets or Nationals as one of the Wild Card teams.
The Nationals may have another surprise up their sleeve, which could give them an added advantage. Ryan Zimmerman cannot be as bad as he has been for the last few seasons and I predict a modest bounce back year for him. The downside risk is Koda Glover and Blake Treinin, neither of whom is a proven closer. But I believe one or the other will step into the role and acquit himself well enough to rank in the top half of NL closers. Along with Shawn Kelley and Joe Blanton there is enough depth to overcome the Mets. I predict the Mets will win 90 games and finish much closer in 2017 and will win the Wild Card slot only to lose in the first round after using Thor to beat the Cardinals for the final spot.
The betting favorites are the Cubs to win it all and I am not going to swim upstream against that. But the Chicago pitching is not that strong and they can be had in a short series. Start your engines, it is going to be a long hot summer and youth will be served in the end.