With preparations for the 2016 MLB season well underway for the league’s 30 clubs, a familiar squad can be found near the top of the favorites list to win the World Series in October. No, it’s not the defending champion Kansas City Royals with the best odds of repeating as champions. Instead, the teams with the best odds includes the Houston Astros and the Chicago Cubs — two playoff clubs from last season that are on the rise.
Another interesting club with high expectations once again is the Washington Nationals, a team that failed to make the postseason in two of the past three seasons. Now, it’s not as if the Nationals’ high expectations are new for the club. Just last season, they were among the favorites to capture a championship, only to crumble under the weight of those expectations. In fact, ever since the undoubtedly terrific Bryce Harper arrived in the nation’s capital in 2012, it’s been World Series or bust for the Nats.
Unfortunately, by those standards, each of those four seasons with Harper on hand have been very much a “bust,” as the team failed to advance out of the NLDS in either of their two playoff appearances in that time frame. So, seeing how high expectations are in Washington D.C., will 2016 be the year that the Nationals finally play up to their potential and push for a World Series berth? Let’s take a look at their roster and competition this season to assess their chances.
Pitching is — or at least should be — the strength of the Washington Nationals. In terms of team ERA in 2015, they ranked seventh in the majors. That’s because at every level of their staff the Nationals have pieces in play to help them succeed on the mound. The bullpen will miss Drew Storen, who saved 29 games a season ago, but they still have the hotheaded Jonathan Papelbon to close games. Then, of course, the team has a rotation with three borderline No. 1 starters in Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez, and Stephen Strasburg.
Of course, the key to Washington’s staff is Strasburg and his fragile body. The six-year pro has struggled with numerous injuries over his career, which have forced him to miss significant amounts of time. When he’s healthy, Strasburg has the stuff to be a potential Cy Young candidate, so it’s vital for the Nats’ success that he stays healthy this season. If that happens and the other pieces of their staff play up to their potential, there’s no reason why this team can’t have a dominant pitching staff that more than complements their talented offense.
When talking about Washington’s lineup, there’s no place to start other than with Harper. The reigning NL MVP was nothing short of spectacular in 2015, as he hit 42 home runs, produced 99 RBI, compiled a .330 average, and led the Nationals in every significant offensive category. The 23-year should only be better in 2016, but his teammates must step up their play if this offense wants to consistently produce runs. Despite Harper’s brilliance a season ago, Washington only managed the 16th-best batting average in baseball – due to the fact that there was a sharp decline in production behind Harper.
It’s not as if the talent isn’t there. Jayson Werth struggled last season, but he’s proven capable of putting up big numbers before. Same with other veterans like Ryan Zimmerman. A player who really needs to step up is young third baseman, Anthony Rendon, who struggled with injuries last season after having a solid campaign in 2014. Also, to help boost production, Washington went out and snagged Daniel Murphy (who had a big postseason for the rival New York Mets just a few months ago). Time will tell if this lineup fully gels this season.
A big reason to dislike the Nats’ chances in 2016 is their stiff competition in the National League. Even inside their own division in the NL East, they have to deal with the defending league champion New York Mets and their lights-out pitching staff. Of course, then you have the NL Central and their trio of playoff teams in the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, and World Series favorite Chicago Cubs. Even the NL West has at least a couple of dangerous teams in the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.
If the Nats played in the American League, their path to the World Series would be a bit easier, but even with tough opponents to deal with in the NL, there is truly no reason that Washington can’t and shouldn’t complete a trip to the World Series this season. They have enough pitching talent to shut down even the best lineups in the league on most nights and with potentially the best player in the game, Harper, swinging the stick, their offense should produce enough runs to support their pitching.
As with any other team, everything has to come together for Washington to be successful, but with a new manager in Dusty Baker at the helm and a sense of urgency (Harper could leave town as soon as next season), the time is now for the Washington Nationals to live up to the hype. It’d be a surprise not to see them in the postseason at the very least.