Overview (Present Rank: 14th | Future Rank: 13th)
The Washington Nationals were cruising to a second consecutive division title in 2015 before the events of July 31st unfolded. One day before last year's trade deadline, the New York Mets’ SS Wilmer Flores was in tears after hearing he was just traded to Milwaukee, only for the deal to never go through. The next day during that infamous July 31st game, Flores hit a walk-off home run for New York against the Nats. This would mark a turning point in both the Mets and Nationals’ seasons. The Nats continued to lose the next two games at Citi Field, and were swept by the eventual NL East champions. Washington was three games up in the division entering that night, but after a terrible two-month stretch, the team finished seven games back of the Mets and were forced to watch the playoffs from their homes.
After holding manager Matt Williams responsible for the team’s collapse, the Nationals hired Dusty Baker to fill in as the new skipper. The team is hoping Baker can help them achieve their first playoff series victory since moving to D.C. and possibly punch a ticket to the first World Series in franchise history. With Bryce Harper leading the way, the team finally has the roster capable of making noise in October. If they can add give Harper some protection in the lineup, the Nationals could go from World Series contenders to World Series favorites.
*Detailed analysis conducted April 3, 2016; rankings and charts updated throughout the season.
With the potential to become a top-5 catcher at anytime, Wilson Ramos has continuously disappointed. Since being a three-time top-100 prospect and placing fourth in Rookie of the Year voting in 2011, it’s been all downhill for the Venezuelan product. Ramos has yet to match the .779 OPS he posted in his rookie season. Still, the numbers he posted in 2015 was a culmination of a lot of bad luck, and Ramos should rebound in 2016. In a contract year at 28 years old, Ramos could put together his best offensive campaign yet while remaining one of the best on the defensive side of the ball.
If Ramos signs elsewhere in free agency, the Nats will have a hard time replacing him from within. They have multiple backup-caliber backstops in the form of Jose Lobaton, Pedro Severino, Spencer Kieboom, and Jakson Reetz, but none of those players figure to compete for a starting role in their careers.
Future Outlook: If Ramos leaves, Washington must acquire a replacement
The catching free agent market is shaping up to have a few quality starters out there. In addition to Ramos, Matt Wieters and Nick Hundley will be eligible for free agency as starting-caliber backstops. If the Nats can’t find a way to bring back Ramos, expect them to go after Wieters or Hundley. If that doesn’t work out, the team could always try the trade market with Jonathan Lucroy being the best available bat out there.
It’s clear the team can’t replace Ramos internally, so going outside the organization will be the team’s only choice if Ramos signs elsewhere after the 2016 season. Prioritizing a catcher for the future through the draft or amateur market wouldn’t be a bad idea in the meantime. With back-to-back picks late in the first round, taking a catcher in one of those spots would be ideal. (EDIT: With Ramos enjoying a breakout season in 2016, the Nationals didn’t address the catcher position in the draft until the sixth round when the team selected Tres Barrera out of the University of Texas [6/4/16]).
It seems like Ryan Zimmerman’s playing days are numbered, but the franchise icon is only 31 years old. The long-time third baseman won a Gold Glove at the hot corner, but is now restricted to first base. While Zimmerman’s impact is felt outside the lines (merchandise sales), between the lines he’s struggling to keep up. Injuries have unquestionably derailed his career, and that $100MM extension looks like a bigger mistake by the day. The Nats have no choice but to pay him the remaining $62MM on his contract over the next four years before they can think about a replacement.
If Zimmerman does suffer injuries again in 2016, the Nats now have a reliable backup in Clint Robinson. Due to Zimmerman and Jayson Werth both missing a significant amount of time in 2015, Robinson was able to notch 352 plate appearances playing both first base and the outfield. The 31 year-old has decimated Triple-A pitching, but his inability to produce against major league righties had executives evaluating Robinson as just another 4-A guy: a player who is good enough to succeed in Triple-A, but not good enough for the majors. Unless he slumps heavily in 2016, he should keep his spot on Washington’s bench due to the pop in his bat and defensive versatility.
Future Outlook: Franchise icon Ryan Zimmerman still has four years left
Ryan Zimmerman will be the Washington Nationals’ first baseman for at least the next four years. It isn’t because he produces at a high level like Bryce Harper or because he’s gifted on the defensive end like Danny Espinosa, it isn’t even because he is a solid all-around player like Anthony Rendon. It is strictly because of the name on the back of his jersey. Sure, Ryan Zimmerman used to be one of the best players in the league. However, 420239 injuries later (possible exaggeration), the 31 year-old is just a shell of himself at this stage in his career. As long as the back of his jersey continues to sell tickets, he’ll keep his spot on the roster because and at the end of the day, making money is what owners care about most.
After a down year by the 30 year-old Ian Desmond, the Nats decided to replace Desmond’s declining production with second baseman Daniel Murphy. Sliding Espinosa over to shortstop (until Trea Turner’s arrival) now opens up a spot for the postseason legend Murphy. Murphy broke a postseason record by homering in six straight games for the New York Mets. His historic tear culminated in a ridiculous 1.026 SLUG% before disappearing in the World Series. His strong playoff run along with consistent above-average production over the past five years earned him a 3yr/$37.5MM deal from New York’s division rival in the nation’s capital. Now that he’s in D.C., he’ll look to continue his postseason success this year when Washington tries to make a run of their own in the playoffs.
Signing Murphy was necessary as the team has no in-house replacements to speak of. Wilmer Difo and Chris Bostick could develop into utility roles with second base being their primary season, but pegging them as future starters would be a stretch. Stephen Drew was brought in to fill that exact role in 2016.
Future Outlook: Murphy can save the nation’s capital
If Washington was forced to witness their division rival succeed in the postseason, why not take the player that helped them get so far. That’s exactly what the Nationals did when they signed Daniel Murphy to a 3yr/$37.5MM deal in the offseason. With no viable replacements, signing Murphy makes perfect sense. It gives Washington more time to try to develop a better long-term answer at the position while getting solid production at the major league level. If the Nationals don’t prioritize a second baseman in the draft, they could follow the same approach once Murphy re-enters the market in three years.
After primarily playing second base for six years, Danny Espinosa will make shortstop his full-time home after the team named Daniel Murphy their starting second baseman. The 29 year-old Espinosa has seen his offensive production fluctuate since his rookie season. The 20-20 potential seems to have vanished, but Espinosa can still fill in as a serviceable hitter with a plus glove. He could potentially hit 20 homers given a full season’s worth of playing time, but the Nationals are banking on someone else taking over the role midseason.
That certain someone is a top-10 prospect in the game (according to Baseball America). Trea Turner was introduced to Washington’s organization after coming over in the three-way trade also involving the Padres and Rays. Gaining the services of Joe Ross and Trea Turner for Steven Souza and Travis Ott makes Washington appear like the early winners in the deal. Turner could become a top-10 shortstop in the league while Joe Ross is already making an impact in the majors. Turner has a sweet stroke, great speed, and a strong enough arm to stay at shortstop. If he continues to mash Triple-A pitchers, Turner could get his opportunity with the parent club before the All-Star break this year.
Future Outlook: Turner’s arriving in Summer ‘16
Danny Espinosa will be the team’s Opening Day starter and he’ll have a couple of months of the position all to himself. Make no mistake about it though, Trea Turner is coming, and shortstop will be all his once he arrives at some point during the summer of 2016. Without any other notable shortstop prospects in D.C. or any controllable, young righties to speak of, trading an expendable outfielder in Steven Souza and a lackluster pitching prospect in Travis Ott for strictly Joe Ross could end up looking like another brilliant move during Rizzo's tenure as GM. Anything Turner provides will be icing on the cake. As the No. 9 prospect in the game, if Turner produces like he’s capable of, he’d be the icing, the crust, and the entire cake too.
After an outstanding 2014 season, it appeared Anthony Rendon was on his way to becoming a prototypical top draft pick turned top prospect turned top major leaguer. However, five years of injuries seem to be catching up with the 26 year-old. Rendon went from posting an .824 OPS over 153 games in 2014 to owning a paltry .707 OPS in 80 games during 2015. If he can finally put those injury problems in the past, he could develop into the top-5 third baseman the Nationals envisioned when they selected him sixth overall in the 2011 MLB Draft.
After Rendon, the Nationals have a bunch of plausible options for the future in the lower levels of their minor league system. Drew Ward, Kelvin Gutierrez, and Anderson Franco have separated themselves as potential major league starters. Ward seemed over matched by the top young arms in the league during his stint in the Arizona Fall League, but he has the tools to possibly be more than the average bench player.
Gutierrez and Franco were both signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2013, and have ceilings that could make them starting third baseman one day. Both players need to make serious adjustments to their swing to make that happen. Fortunately for them, time is on their side as they are 18 and 21 years old respectively. Franco in particular has a swing that could make a big impact some day. He won’t be major league ready until at least 2020 while Gutierrez could get a taste of big league action by 2019.
Future Outlook: Can Rendon stay off the shelf
The future of this position is very clear if Anthony Rendon can stay healthy. He’ll remain at the position until he’s eligible for free agency in 2020 where the team will have to decide whether to extend their former sixth overall pick or turn to someone else. By then, they’ll have multiple options including Drew Ward, Kelvin Gutierrez, and Anderson Franco.
If he can’t stay healthy, the Nationals will have go outside the organization to find a valuable backup for when/if Rendon gets re-injured. Another interesting scenario that could develop is manager Dusty Baker moves Rendon back to second base (where he’s played 169 MLB games) to make room for one of Ward, Gutierrez, or Franco. This might be the team’s Plan A right now considering the glaring hole at second base once Murphy’s contract expires after the 2018 season.
The Washington Nationals have a top-5 outfield in the majors right now and it’s mostly because of one man, Bryce Harper. He’s not just any man though, he’s the 2015 National League MVP. Before he was even drafted first overall in 2010, Bryce Harper was being pegged as the “Chosen One” on a Sports Illustrated cover at 16 years old.
After winning the Most Valuable Player award last year despite Washington missing the playoffs, it’s safe to say Harper has lived up to the hype. Now the 23 year-old is the most feared hitter in baseball looking to add more MVP’s to his collection. Leading the National League in HR, R, OBP, SLUG, and OPS has people wondering what he can possibly do for an encore. Super-agent Scott Boras is counting down the days until Harper reaches free agency after the 2018 season when he’ll likely break the record for the biggest player contract in sports history.
The 7yr/$126MM contract Jayson Werth signed six years ago is considered large in baseball circles, but that would be nothing compared to the $400MM Harper could get on the market. Werth hasn’t been worth the hefty price tag thus far (no pun intended). In his five years as a National, Werth has only hit 16 homers and 59 RBI’s per year. His .801 OPS in Washington indicates he’s productive when he’s healthy, but that number dropped to .686 last year in another injury-riddled campaign. With only two years left on his contract, Werth will look to rebuild his value before hitting the market again.
Besides first base and left field (where the team has it’s two highest-paid players), there aren’t too many holes on Washington’s roster. With a championship-caliber team already in place, GM Mike Rizzo made a luxury addition in the form of Ben Revere. Despite Michael Taylor’s presence, Revere will instantly come in as the starter after posting an excellent .306/.342/.377 slash line last season for the Phillies/Blue Jays. Entering his age-28 season, Revere is just two years away from hitting the market for the first time in his career.
Revere’s addition will significantly affect the amount of at-bats Michael Taylor receives this year. However, Revere’s .638 OPS against southpaws last year could give Taylor an opportunity whenever lefties take the hill. The 25 year-old Taylor wasn’t great in his rookie season, but he hit lefties at a better clip than Revere (.667 OPS). The No. 32 prospect in the game pre-2015 (according to Baseball America) never cracked the top-20 because of his poor plate discipline. That continued in the majors as he striked out an alarming 31% of the time. Striking out in almost ⅓ of his plate appearances won’t help him showcase the raw power he has. Still, he was one of 16 players to total at least 14 HR’s and 16 SB’s highlighting his 20-20 potential. He’ll be under team control through the 2020 season.
None of the current starters are under team control after 2018. By then, the Nationals are hoping they can turn to a few promising players in their farm system. Victor Robles jumps off the page as the position player with the most potential. Besides Bryce Harper, Robles could be the biggest overall threat on the team once he reaches his prime. Player comparisons are not usually provided on MLBoutlook, but Robles’ stance, swing, and tools are extremely similar to those of Andrew McCutchen. If he had the raw power of McCutchen to stroke 30+ HR’s a year, he would be a five-tool player. The Nationals are fine with him “only” having the other four.
The other two prospects Washington is hoping they can turn to are Telmito Agustin and Andrew Stevenson. Both prospects fall in the 50 FV range meaning they’re likely to cement their role as below-average starting outfielders. Agustin has the prettier swing, but Stevenson is faster and a better fielder. They could each develop into average starters if they max out their potential.
Matt den Dekker will join Michael Taylor in being an option off the bench, but doesn’t have nearly the potential of Taylor down the line. While Taylor could blossom into a regular outfielder, den Dekker will be regularly sitting the bench. Chris Heisey could join them among the list of 2016 backups. Brian Goodwin, Rafael Bautista, Blake Perkins, and Rhett Wiseman are vying for one of those exclusive starting roles, but their skill set prohibits them from being much more than benchwarmers.
Future Outlook: Will he stay or will he go
When your team has the best hitter on the planet, it’s important to know when that player is able to join any team of his choosing. The 2010 first overall pick will be eligible for free agency after the 2018 season. With reports of Harper searching for over $400MM on the market, the Washington Nationals might be forced to watch the best player in franchise history walk just like they did in 2004 when Vladimir Guerrero signed with the Los Angeles Angels. Guerrero went on to win the MVP award his first year after leaving Montreal.
Now that the team’s headquarters is in D.C., they’ll hope the outcome is different this time around. With or without Harper, the team has Victor Robles coming up through the ranks. He’ll never be as good as the most feared hitter in baseball (nobody will), but he has tools that reflect a great player in his own right, Andrew McCutchen.
The Nationals currently feature a righty-heavy rotation. With a limited amount of left-handed starting pitching prospects in the farm system, it’s likely to stay that way for a while. Fortunately for Washington, they have one of the best lefties in the game leading the way, Gio Gonzalez. The two-time All-Star might not have another 21-8, 2.89 ERA, 207 K season like he did in 2012, but he’s still good for a mid-3.00 ERA and 160+ SO’s. Gonzalez is only on the hook for $12MM this season, and the team is almost guaranteed to pick up his 2017 option for the same price unless he suffers a serious injury. The $12MM vesting option in 2018 becomes guaranteed if Gonzalez notches 180 IP in 2017.
The Nationals have another high upside southpaw in their system, but he’s much further from making an impact on the game than Gonzalez has already demonstrated. Besides lacking an extreme turnaround on his deliver, Taylor Hearn has a fastball, slider, and release point that is reminiscent of Dontrelle Willis. Once upon a time, Willis was a runner-up for the NL Cy Young award because he possessed a third plus pitch: a changeup. If Hearn can develop a changeup of his own, he could solidify himself as an intimidating presence in the rotation. If his changeup fails to materialize, his excellent fastball/slider combination should be good enough to make him a lethal weapon in the bullpen. His changeup will be the difference in Hearn’s road to the show.
(EDIT: The Nationals traded Taylor Hearn along with Felipe Rivero to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Mark Melancon. Click here to see how Hearn will fit into Pittsburgh's pitching staff going forward [7/30/16]).
Future Outlook: There are no lefties left once Gonzalez departs
Gio Gonzalez is arguably a top-10 southpaw in the game today. His six years of consistency aren’t replicated often and Gio is still just 30 years old. If he can stay healthy and pitch 170 innings in 2017, he’ll stay around for 2018 too at a reasonable $12MM. Regardless of if he leaves in 2017 or 2018, Washington doesn’t have any other viable replacements. GM Mike Rizzo must work on getting another impact lefty into the rotation to balance things out.
The ace of the Nationals is up for debate at this point. Max Scherzer is being paid like an ace (off the free agent market), but Stephen Strasburg can perform like the better pitcher on any given night. The Nationals have two of the best pitchers in the game, and while Max Scherzer will be handed the ball on Opening Day (that’s what $210MM pitchers do), Strasburg might have the better 2016 season.
Scherzer’s financial future is secure after signing a monster seven-year deal, while Strasburg’s 2016 will be the biggest year in determining his financial future. Strasburg has been one of the game’s elite pitchers since his debut in 2010, but a list of injuries including Tommy John surgery in 2010 could severely affect his market value. Since being the first overall pick out of San Diego State University in 2009, Strasburg was destined to take the league by storm and be a dominating force in the league. While he already has an All-Star selection and even a Silver Slugger on his resume, these next few years in Strasburg’s prime will go down as the defining moments of his legacy. The only question is whether those years will be in the nation’s capital or the highest bidder this offseason (EDIT: Nationals keep Strasburg in WAS with 7yr/$175MM extension [5/10/16]).
Behind the most dominant duo in the game will be Tanner Roark and Joe Ross. Both pitchers were acquired in Mike Rizzo-orchestrated trades that look like big wins for the Nationals. A 32 year-old Christian Guzman, who only played in 15 games after the trade, was the only thing Rizzo had to give up to acquire Roark’s services. After a couple of average seasons in the minors as an older prospect, Roark surprised many by pitching sensational (15-10 record with a 2.85 ERA and 1.092 WHIP) in his full-season debut. The 29 year-old was cut from the rotation after struggling last year, but was solid as a reliever. Given another chance in the rotation, it remains to be seen if Roark will be closer to the 2014 or 2015 version of himself.
Just by acquiring a future top-10 shortstop in Trea Turner for Steven Souza the Nationals deserve an ‘A’ for their part of the three-way trade a year ago, but adding Joe Ross into the mix instantly makes the trade an ‘A+’ for Rizzo and his staff. Ross can be a quality mid-rotation starter once he hits his ceiling, and he flashed some of that last year in his impressive debut. Now that he’ll be given a full-time starting role, it’ll be interesting to see what he does with it.
A.J. Cole and Austin Voth could join them at some point during the 2016 season. Both righties are continuing their path to being a backend big league starter. Cole was drafted by Washington, traded to Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez trade, then reacquired by the Nationals in a three-team trade involving Mike Morse. Neither Cole nor Voth has the stuff that blows batters away, but they keep it in the strike zone enough that D.C. officials have confidence they can continue to get the job done against more rigorous competition.
The pitcher in Washington’s farm system who is likely to make the biggest impact for the Nationals is MLB.com's No. 3 prospect Lucas Giolito. A Tommy John surgery caused Giolito to fall from first overall pick to 16th where Washington knew they got the steal of the draft. Counting Anthony Rendon who was viewed as a potential No. 1 pick himself, the Nationals got the most talented player in four drafts in a row (Strasburg, ‘09; Harper, ‘10; Rendon, ‘11, Giolito, ‘12). While Giolito’s health is still a question mark, his repertoire isn’t. He hits mid-90’s with his fastball and pairs a lethal curveball with an improving changeup. Once Giolito hits his prime, he could be one of the best pitchers in the game... If he can stay off the shelf.
Reynaldo Lopez and Erick Fedde are two other intriguing options that could call Washington their home. Both pitchers have heavy arm action in their deliveries, but Fedde commands his pitches well enough that scouts believe his future will be as a mid-rotation starter. The jury is still out on Lopez sticking in the rotation or moving to the bullpen long-term. Lopez hits high-90’s with his fastball while his curveball and changeup have both flashed above-average. His inability to locate his pitches is what’s holding him back. If he can ever consistently throw strikes, he could be a great No. 2 or No. 3 option in the rotation. Even without harnessing his command, he still has a solid floor as an intimidating pitcher out of the bullpen.
Future Outlook: Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven
While the Nationals don’t have much to be excited about concerning left-handed pitchers, the opposite could be said about the righties in their system. Scherzer and Strasburg represent the best 1-2 punch in baseball, Joe Ross and Tanner Roark will hold their own in the rotation, and electric arms like Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Erick Fedde aren’t too far from making their presence known at the big league level as well. Throw in A.J. Cole and Austin Voth, Washington could have EIGHT righties deserving of the ball in their hand every fifth day. With so much right-handed pitching in the organization, it’s likely GM Mike Rizzo trades a few of them to improve other positions of need (Bullpen, Catcher, Left Field, Left-Handed Starting Pitchers).
Despite the late-season altercation with teammate Bryce Harper, Jonathan Papelbon is still the team’s closer. Other than K-Rod, Papelbon is the only pitcher that has recorded over 300 saves in the past 10 years, but K-Rod is still 22 saves away from Papelbon’s inconceivable 349. Papelbon started showing signs of slowing down last year in his age-34 season including a career-low 8.0 K/9. It would surprise most if he’s still in Washington after his altercation with Bryce Harper last season. Having an experienced closer appears to be important to the Nationals’ front office.
Shawn Kelley and Blake Treinen will be responsible for setup man duties. Kelley finally posted an ERA that matched his strong peripherals in 2015. The 32 year-old was rewarded with a 3yr/$15MM contract to join Washington’s relief corps. Treinen has much less experience than Kelley, but he’s been effective in his two years against major league hitters.
With a need for lefties, GM Mike Rizzo brought in former star pitcher Oliver Perez to shut things down against same-handed batters. Perez’ career collapsed after he was named an All-Star starter as a 23 years old. He has recently rebounded as a quality reliever. Sammy Solis and Felipe Rivero will join him from the left side as less effective arms.
Yusmeiro Petit and Matt Belisle bring some much needed experience to this relief corps while Trevor Gott and Erik Davis are only on the team for depth purposes. Aaron Barrett would fit a middle relief role, but he’s still recovering from Tommy John surgery. The 28 year-old Barrett will have four more years to prove his worth once he returns in 2017.
Other than Reynaldo Lopez and Taylor Hearn, whom the team will first test out as starters, there isn’t much upside in the bullpen. Koda Glover is one name to keep an eye out for as the 23 year-old continues to progress in the minors. He combines his upper-90’s heater with a low-90’s slider that batters have a hard time catching up to. He could make an impact for the parent club at some point in 2017.
(EDIT: With a need for a closer, the Nats acquired one of the best high-leverage relievers in the game by trading Taylor Hearn and Felipe Rivero to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Mark Melancon. Click here to read more about what Melancon will bring to the Nationals [7/30/16]).
Future Outlook: It's not how you start, it's how you finish
Washington has an excess amount of potential starters in their minor league system. Along with the possibility of adding more relievers through free agency or trades, the Nats should seriously consider converting Reynaldo Lopez and Taylor Hearn to the bullpen. Both have significant upside in the rotation, but their fastballs would immediately do damage in a major league bullpen. Lacking potential impact relievers in their farm system could force the Nats to insert Lopez and Hearn at the back-end of their bullpen instead of letting them develop as starters. Lopez and Hearn would form a dominant duo if their talents were used in high-leverage situations for future contending Nationals teams.
OVERALL OUTLOOK: D.C. Rising
The Washington Nationals have the best hitter on the planet in Bryce Harper. With a record-breaking contract looming after 2018, the Nationals only have three more years with the 2010 No. 1 overall pick under team control. As the Nats proved in the second half of last season, they need more than Bryce Harper to win games. They already have a great trio solidified atop the rotation with more help on the way. Joe Ross, Tanner Roark, and the promising Lucas Giolito add to an overwhelming amount of starting pitching talent. While the rotation is the last thing the Nationals have to worry about, improving the bullpen should be a cause of concern long-term if Reynaldo Lopez isn’t shutting things down back there.
Regardless, Bryce Harper needs some protection in the lineup so he doesn't start getting the Barry Bonds treatment. GM Mike Rizzo has never shied away from making a splash, and don’t be surprised if he acquires a big bat to insert behind Harper in the lineup. After missing out on Yoenis Cespedes over the offseason, look for Rizzo to go all-in on an elite hitter like Ryan Braun, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, or even Cespedes himself if he opts out after the season. Once the Nationals have another power hitter in place, Washington could finally get over the hump and accomplish their ultimate goal of winning the first World Series in franchise history.
(EDIT: The breakouts of Wilson Ramos and Daniel Murphy in 2016 have suppressed the need for another impact hitter in the lineup as long as they keep up the elite offensive production. However, if Ramos departs in free agency, the need for another top-tier hitter will re-emerge [7/12/16]).