The Washington Nationals have a quality bullpen, but the offense will have to produce while bullpen roles are sorted out.
For a team whose relievers ranked second in ERA last year, the Washington Nationals bullpen sure has been talked about a great deal this winter.
Sure they lost midseason acquisition Mark Melancon to the Giants this offseason, but they still have all other key members of the bullpen. Shawn Kelley and Blake Treinen will look to continue their success in late inning roles, and Koda Glover should also be given a late inning role as he builds on his great 2016 season, in which he rose from high-A ball all the way to the major leagues.
Another pitcher who figures to play a key role in the back end of the bullpen is newly acquired Joe Blanton. Blanton had a phenomenal season last year as a setup man for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Nats fans may remember him from his days as a struggling starter for the division rival, Philadelphia Phillies, but his career has taken a turn for the better since his move to the bullpen.
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The Washington Nationals have some great arms in their bullpen, but all roles are still up in the air. With no proven closer on the roster, the job will likely go to Kelley, Treinen, or Glover. The Nats have an old school manager in Dusty Baker and he has said that he likes to have a definitive seventh, eighth, and ninth inning pitcher. Since these roles have not yet been filled, there could be a little experimenting during the season, which could lead to some shaky innings.
With that being said, the offense must score a lot of runs in order to put as little pressure on the bullpen as possible. This lineup is one of the most potent lineups in Nationals history and should be able to handle this task.
The Nats have two great table setters in Adam Eaton and Trea Turner, who should be able to get on and cause havoc on the base paths. It is not yet known who will hit leadoff for the Nats, but both are more than capable and should complement each other nicely.
Following Eaton and Turner will be two of the most feared hitters in all of baseball, Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy. Harper had a phenomenal season in 2015, unanimously winning the National League MVP award at just 22 years old.
In 2016, Harper did not live up to his standards, but still had a solid season, hitting .243 with 24 home runs. While he hasn’t come out and said that he was injured, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci has reported several times that Harper was playing through various injuries.
Murphy, on the other hand, had one of the best seasons Nats fans have ever seen. Murphy led the Nats with a .347 batting average, 25 home runs, and a .390 on base percentage, finishing second in National League MVP voting to Kris Bryant. I expect Murphy to regress some this year. But, even if his batting average drops 40 points, he’ll still be a .300 hitter and should easily be an All-star.
Third baseman Anthony Rendon should hit after Harper and Murphy. In my opinion, Rendon is one of the most underrated players in the league. In 2015, Rendon battled injuries and struggled, but in 2016, he played in 156 games and was one of the best third basemen in the league.
This led to him winning the comeback player of the year. If it wasn’t for Nolan Arenado, Rendon would probably be a perennial gold glove award winner, but Arenado is arguably the best defensive player at any position.
In all likelihood, Jayson Werth will follow Rendon and hit in the six hole. While Werth is no longer the great player that signed with the Nats six years ago, he is still capable of putting up great at bats. In 2016, Werth led the major leagues with 4.6 pitches per plate appearance.
This is the last year on Werth’s seven year contract. I expect him to hit for a decent average and make the plays he’s supposed to make in left field, but he will make his biggest impact as a veteran presence and clubhouse leader.
Former face of the franchise, Ryan Zimmerman will most likely follow Werth and begin the bottom third of the lineup. Zimmerman has been extremely injury prone over his career, and this has always hurt him offensively. Last season, Zimmerman never really settled in at the plate and struggled for most of the year.
There is reason to believe Zimmerman will bounce back this season though. According to Baseball Savant, Zimmerman’s average exit velocity was 93.7 mph, even higher than Murphy’s 91.3 mph. However, Zimmerman’s launch angle was only 9.6 degrees, significantly lower than Murphy’s 16.6 degrees. This says that Zimmerman is making solid contact, he’s just not getting under the ball enough to get good results, and is hitting hard ground balls. If he can correct this, look for him to have a big year in 2017.
Finally, newly acquired catcher, Matt Wieters, will round out the position players in the lineup. When Wieters played across the Beltway in Baltimore, he typically hit in the heart of the Orioles lineup.
It’s not a knock on Wieters to bat him eighth; the rest of the Nats lineup is just so potent that there’s nowhere else to really put him. If he can hit like he’s capable of hitting, he will be one of the best number eight hitters in the league. I’m very excited to see what Wieters can do both at the plate and behind it.
Last season, the Nats had one of the best benches in the league, led by Stephen Drew, Chris Heisey, and Jose Lobaton. All three of these guys will be returning to the Nats bench this season, and they will be joined by righty killer, Adam Lind. The Nats should once again have an excellent bench that ranks among the best in baseball.
The Washington Nationals don’t have a proven closer at the moment, but that is no reason to panic. They still have some great arms in the bullpen and their outstanding offense should be able to score enough that it won’t matter. The Nats should truly be a force to be reckoned with again in 2017.