Washington Nationals
Get ready for the last season of Bryce Harper, it’s probably the last look you get to have him in a Washington Nationals uniform (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Can the Washington Nationals just win a first-round playoff series already? That question has seemed to plague the franchise since they moved to the nation’s capital in 2005. This is an important season for the Nats for one reason, Bryce Harper. With Harper scheduled to hit free agency following the 2018 season, the pressure to win is on in Washington.

1981. Sorry, that was the answer to my question. This franchise hasn’t won a playoff series since 1981. Oh yeah, maybe it doesn’t count considering they were still the Expos at that point. There’s no question that if the Nats are going to change their recent misfortune in October, this is there best chance to do so in recent memory. What can we expect from the Washington Nationals in 2018?

Catchers

Matt Wieters and Miguel Montero will make up the catching duo for the Nationals. Wieters is mainly an offensive threat and ranks as one of the worst pitch framers in the game. Montero is way past his prime and made the team as a minor league invite. Based on name recognition you would think the Nats are fine when it comes to the catcher spot. The fact of the matter is the Nats are in rough shape here. Wieters hit just .225 to go with an ugly slugging percentage of .344. If there’s anything that keeps the Nats from winning, it’s this group that stinks on the offensive and defensive side of things.

Infielders

The left side of the infield for the Nationals is young and continuing to improve. The right side has big-time power but age is a concern. Will Ryan Zimmerman produce like he did in 2017 or 2016? Zimmerman smashed a batting line of .303/.358/.573 in 2017 with 36 jacks. 2016 produced a line of .218/.272/.370. Now that he’s heading into his age 34 season, counting on another season like he had a year ago feels like a stretch. That same kind of regression has to worry Nats fans when discussing Daniel Murphy. The former Met hasn’t stopped crushing baseballs since he arrived in D.C. after his unbelievable World Series run with New York. However, Murphy’s numbers dipped in 2017 after his first year in D.C. Can we expect Murphy to hit over .322 for the third straight season heading into his age 33 campaign? Murphy will miss the start of the season due to a knee issue which already raises red flags. Howie Kendrick will likely start the year as the guy.

Shortstop Trea Turner is one of the most exciting players in all of baseball. His pure speed is a game changer even if he struggles with the bat. That obviously doesn’t happen too often with a career .304 batting average. Turner has swiped 81 bags in just 198 games played. It’s not out of the question that Turner can steal 60 in a season. There might not be a faster player in baseball. That presence obviously helps his teammates on the base paths where guys like Anthony Rendon can benefit. Rendon should have won the NL MVP in 2017 when he notched an OBP of .403 for a first-place team. Apparently, the voters liked Giancarlo Stanton’s season where his team stunk. Rendon notched 25 homers and 100 RBI’s and is now heading into his prime years. If Harper leaves, Rendon could be the next face of the franchise in Washington.

Washington Nationals
The Washington Nationals have a loaded roster but will it matter come October? (MLB)

Outfield

Bryce Harper over in right field is going to produce in a contract year. We all know this! I’m expecting to see the 2015 Harper when he hit .330 with an OBP of .460. That’s absurd. A 42 home run season wouldn’t be too bad either. Can we expect that with Harper hitting age 25 and struggle with injury last year? You can make the argument that Scott Boras will get him paid regardless but I tend to think another big year is ahead. Adam Eaton returns to slide over in left field. Eaton grades out as a poor fielder with a below average fielding arm. The Nats need him to produce after shipping out three top pitching prospects to acquire him. Eaton has hit just fine this spring which leads you to believe the guy who hits near .300 with next to no power will return. Eaton will likely steal less than 18 bases from his 2016 season after the knee injury. The centerfield job is a real x-factor. Michael A. Taylor has shown signs of life hitting .271 last year. Washington also has two outfield prospects to keep an eye on, Juan Soto and Victor Robles. It will be interesting to see what the Nats do considering they likely don’t want to keep those guys in the minors too long if they are in the heat of a pennant race.

Starting Rotation

A starting five of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, and A.J. Cole make it unfathomable to image the Nationals not winning a postseason series. Yet, it hasn’t happened yet. It’s impossible not to think that Scherzer is so good because he has two different colored eyes. Scherzer has thrown over 200 innings every year since 2013. He’s also recorded at least 231 strikeouts every year since 2012. It’s hard not to say that this guy is the best pitcher in the sport. Strasburg is also damn good himself. The problem is he isn’t nearly as durable with only one season of 200 innings pitched. Still to strikeout 204 batters in 175 innings is unreal. As long as Strasburg can hit triple-digits on a consistent basis, he will be a dominating starter.

Gio Gonzalez is one of the best 3rd starters in the league. Gonzalez is the wildcard in this staff. He had an unexpected breakout season with a 2.96 ERA that came out of nowhere. Now Gonzalez is in a contract year, the Nats are hoping for a similar type of season of over 200 innings again. Roark and Cole are solid 4th and 5th starters that should give the Nats quality innings.

Bullpen

The Nationals bullpen is much improved from their 2017 unit. Sean Doolittle is a quality closer and setup man Ryan Madsen is also lights out. Ryan Kinzler also comes back as a former closer of the Twins. That gives the Nats three quality options to close out games. That should really help the Nats close out the NL East in 2018.