Midweek Musings: The Nats' Offense
Here is an interesting fact that I bet most Nationals fans wouldn’t know. The Washington Nationals have been one of the top six best offensive teams in the NL since 2012. For a team that is widely regarded as pitching first they’ve slugged with the best in the league, and in 2017 they could put on the field the best offense we’ve seen since they moved here in 2005. I have several reasons for believing this but my main one is Trea Turner.
I believe in Trea Turner. I believe in him so much I’ll tell anyone that will listen why I think he is going to be the NL MVP this season. His skill set of both power and speed is rare, and his speed skill isn’t just good it is off the charts. It would be a surprise if Trea Turner doesn’t bat .300. Any ball hit deep into the shortstop hole is a hit and once Turner is on first he might as well be on second. In the 73 games Turner played last season he stole 33 bases in 39 tries. Expecting him to steal around 60 bags in a full season might be underestimating his prolific base stealing ability add that to his sneaky pop and we could be looking at a 25 homer 60 steal season with a .300 batting average, and all of this coming from an up the middle defensive position.
A lead-off hitter that is all but guaranteed to score a run when they reach base is going to help an offense go alone way, and it’s going to help more when that player is replacing Danny Espinosa in the line-up. As big of a hole as shortstop was for the Nationals offense in 2016 centerfield was a bigger one. Trea Turner himself finished out the season playing that position and providing a late season spark to the Nationals offense. The one big move that Nationals made this off-season was to acquire a centerfielder that is a positive on offense. Adam Eaton .284/.357/.414 hitter and has put up number almost on point with those over the past three seasons. That is a big step up from what Michael Taylor provided last season.
The improvements at shortstop and centerfield aren’t the only offensive improvements the Nationals should see nor are they the most important. Expect Bryce Harper to get closer to his MVP numbers of 2015 than his possibly maybe injured numbers of 2016. I know right now you’re thinking how do we know that the 2016 Bryce Harper isn’t the real Bryce Harper and 2015 was the illusion, and I’ll point to his early season success last season and in 2013 both times before injuries. The key for Bryce Harper is to not get injured and I am optimistic that he can pull that feat off.
There are two more players in the Nationals line-up that should be offensive pluses and they are Daniel Murphy and Anthony Rendon. Murphy wasn’t supposed to be able to repeat what he did in the 2015 playoffs and then he had an entire season repeating the 2015 playoffs. At this point I wouldn’t doubt the man and would simply nod my head and enjoy each and every at bat. Murphy has always been an excellent pure hitter with the ability to track the ball into the plate and meet it with the barrel but in the 2015 playoffs he added power to his game and kept it going in 2016. It would not be a surprise to see that continue in 2017.
As far as Rendon is concerned I’m not sure we’ve seen the full potential of Anthony Rendon yet. He has good career numbers and his 2014 and 2016 seasons were very good, but when I watched him hit in the minors I saw a player that understood the strike zone as well as anyone and his bat to ball skills were off the charts. I can’t help but think that this is a player who is going to win a batting title one day and the best offensive season of his career is yet to come. Rendon can get better and I expect him to do just that in 2017 and round out what could be a deep and deadly top five in the batting order.
Jayson Werth, Matt Wieters, and Ryan Zimmerman will fill out the bottom of the Nats order and when those are your three worst hitters something is going right. Jayson Werth has always been good at getting on base and it is doubtful that that skill will go away. At worse Wieters will be an above average hitter for a catcher. And for Ryan Zimmerman I’ve always felt he has one last good offensive season in him and it may as well be this season an if he doesn’t the Nats signed Adam Lind to be a left handed hitter off the bench and he could platoon with Zimmerman at first if not take over outright if Zimmerman struggles enough.
Oh yeah, the Nationals bench is really good also. The aforementioned Lind should add some left handed pop, Chris Heisey and Stephen Drew are capable pinch hitters that can play multiple positions, Jose Lobaton is a back-up catcher, and as long and winding a road as it has been for Brian Goodwin to reach the majors I do not believe his success in September last season was a mirage. This is a five tool player that just took a long time to get all the gears to line-up but when they do watch out. The Nats are going to have a formidable bench to go along with what should be the best line-up they’ve ever assembled, and I am looking forward to seeing how it all plays out.
I tend to be a bit of a skeptic when I see a perfect-on-paper offense, especially when it belongs to the Washington Nationals. But, it’s particularly difficult this year to make a case that the Nats’ bats will simply succumb to poor luck or injury (again), since – at long last! – the team appears to have roster depth.
In recent years, the Nats have been classified as either a “pitching” team or a “hitting” team, even when they’ve boasted big names on both fronts. Typically, as offense performed closer to its potential, pitching dropped off, and vice-versa. Sure, some of the setbacks were attributed to injury, but for a too-large portion of last season, for instance, the Nats relied almost exclusively on the bats of Daniel Murphy and Wilson Ramos to stay afloat. For that reason alone, it’s impossible not to get excited by the fact that other guys – Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, Matt Wieters, and hopefully the return of 2015 Bryce Harper – are likely to be the difference-makers.
Unlike Dave, I personally wonder if we’ll see a Trea Turner cool-down as pitchers grow more accustomed to facing him. Nevertheless, while I don’t think a sub-.342 batting average would be the worst thing in the world, the Nats could really rack in the runs if Turner can learn how to draw walks. Turner scored 53 runs in 324 plate appearances while drawing just 14 total walks last year – equating to a .370 on base percentage. The Nats could be an unstoppable force out of the gate if Turner could drive the OBP a few points higher and pester opposing batteries with his speed on the base paths.
I don’t want to say that this is a make-or-break kind of year for Bryce Harper, because there’s no doubting his capability. But, I do agree that this year brings with it a sense that Harper needs to prove himself… again. That may not be a cause for worry, though – instead, it could be exciting to see Harper respond well to new pressure. He has the benefit of a few years under his belt and a clean bill of health – plus, he’s already weathered slumps and knows now, firsthand, that they do in fact come to an end.
What I’m most excited for – because I’m a nerd, of course – is that this year is going to showcase the beauty of strategy in baseball. And, while I can’t pretend I was all-in on Dusty Baker, it’s going to be interesting to see how the 21-year veteran manager mix-and-matches a batting order that features three lefties who fit best together (Eaton, Harper, and Murphy). Add to that, the Nats bench no longer looks like a roster of guaranteed outs. If Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth can also see even a mild resurgence, the Nats could be sitting pretty – even if Ryan Zimmerman remains a big question mark.
My hope is this: if Turner has an explosive season – and there is every reason to think he might – he could lift some of the weight that once fell squarely on the shoulders of Bryce Harper, with Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon, and Jayson Werth to follow. To have that kind of player in the lead-off spot also shapes how every subsequent batter approaches the plate. If the Nats find their stride – and then their confidence (in that order) – they could be a thrill to watch this season.