Washington Nationals: Speed should kill in 2018

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The Washington Nationals have been an elite running team since 2016, but an improvement in 2018 could push the offense to new heights.

The 2017 Washington Nationals finished fifth in baseball in stolen bases. A number that is even more remarkable considering the extensive injuries to the team’s top base runners.

With healthy versions of Trea Turner, Michael Taylor, and Adam Eaton available in 2018, along with the capable Wilmer Difo and Brian Goodwin leading the bench brigade, the Nationals should pace the major leagues in steals and diversify an already talented offense.

Last season, the Los Angeles Angels led baseball with 136 stolen bases, 28 ahead of Washington.

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But, even before adding any free agents, the Nationals are already acquiring plenty of stolen base potential. Turner has swiped 79 bags in just 171 games over the last two seasons. That is a 75-steal pace over a full campaign.

Steamer projects him for 43 steals in 2018, but that seems exceedingly low if he can stay healthy. Pencil Turner in for at least 60 bags next year, especially if he can recapture his offensive groove from his rookie season.

Taylor and Eaton are also 20-base threats over a full season. Taylor has been on a 23-steal pace since 2015 in less-than-full-time duty. Eaton may be less aggressive on the bases as he returns from his nasty leg injury, but he was always good for at least 15 steals per year in Chicago. Expect similar numbers from the outfielder in his age-29 season.

With those three guys alone, the Nationals should be adding close to 30 additional steals to their 2017 total. And, even if any of those three get injured, the replacements figure to be competent. Difo and Goodwin are both double-digit steal guys, even more so if Difo fills in for Daniel Murphy at second base to start the season. Toss in Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon, who both take the occasional base, as well as the blistering Victor Robles, and the Nationals should push for 150 steals as a unit.

While team speed dictates an organization’s running philosophy, the ideology of the GM and manager also play a big role.

Washington has become more of a running team over the past two seasons, finishing in the top-six in steals both years. Whether that was a mandate from Dusty Baker or Mike Rizzo, or just a result of promoting Turner, it is clear it has started to become part of the offense.

It is hard to know how the newly-hired Dave Martinez will approach the base paths. But, based on his playing and coaching career, it seems safe to assume he at least won’t be against running.

Martinez was a solid base-stealer during his playing days, swiping over 20 bases twice in his career.

As a coach, Martinez was a Joe Maddon disciple for 10 years, spending time with both the Tampa Bays Rays and Chicago Cubs. Maddon and Martinez’s teams finished in the bottom third of the majors in steals in four of their last five seasons together.

Before that, their teams were elite base stealers.

They finished in the top five in steals every year from 2008-12, including three first-place marks during Tampa’s glory days. Personnel may have driven the shift, or Maddon may have moved to a different emphasis. Either way, Martinez has been a part of a running culture before, and likely won’t overtly limit stolen base attempts for the Nationals.

The best part about the 2017 Nationals was not just their stolen base number, but also their efficiency. Washington was caught stealing less than 22 percent of the time, the top mark among teams with over 100 total steals. Even if the team’s efficiency slips slightly in 2018, putting more runners in scoring position is sure to pay off for this high-octane offense.

Mixing speed and power provides a team with multiple avenues to victory, particularly in the postseason.

Next: Nats/Rays trade partners?

Only three teams finished in the top eight in steals and OPS in 2017: the Washington Nationals, the Houston Astros, and the Arizona Diamondbacks. The D-Backs’ lineup may take a step back if J.D. Martinez leaves in free agency, but Houston and Washington return all of its key pieces. The Astros already won their ring; the Nationals could be next with this strong offensive formula.

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