National League East champs bolstered by seven free agents
By Mike Rosenbaum
MLBPipeline.com is breaking down how each of the postseason teams was built, looking at the composition of their projected Division Series rosters.
The Washington Nationals are back in the postseason after winning their second straight National League East title, as well as their sixth in the past seven years. But after losing back-to-back games against the Dodgers in last year's NLDS and failing to advance beyond the NLCS in four straight postseason appearances, the Nationals have much to prove in 2017.
That the Nationals finished the regular season with a 97-65 overall record and 20games ahead of the second-place Marlins in the East was particularly impressive, considering that the team was once again decimated by injuries to its key players, both hitters and pitchers.
All three of Washington's projected outfielders spent significant time on the disabled list this season. A torn ACL suffered while running through first base in late April cost Adam Eaton, acquired from the White Sox in an offseason blockbuster, his first Nats campaign, and Jayson Werth spent more than three months on the shelf with a broken foot. Bryce Harper also suffered a gruesome-looking knee injury in August while running through first base, though Washington's sizeable lead in the division allowed the club to fully rest its All-Star right fielder to ensure his return ahead of the postseason.
The injuries didn't end there for Nationals hitters, as shortstop Trea Turner was kept out of action for two months during the heart of the season with a broken wrist after he was hit by a pitch late in June. On the mound, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg both made a trip to the DL for minor injuries, with Strasburg's absence for nearly a month marking the longer of the two. Joe Ross is unlikely to take the mound until late next season after he underwent Tommy John surgery in July, and Opening Day closer Koda Glover saw his season end prematurely in July due to lower back stiffness.
Yet even with a seemingly season-long rash of injuries, the Nationals' offense was arguably the best in franchise history in 2017, scoring a franchise-record 811 runs to blow well past the club's 2016 total of 763. The Nats also established a new franchise best with 213 home runs, a product of four hitters producing at least 20 homers and a total of 10 finishing with double-digit homers. All-Stars Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman were the main cogs in Washington's offense and proved vital in helping the team compensate for a steady stream of injuries. Murphy turned in another MVP-caliber performance in his second year with the organization, while Zimmerman, at age 33, set a career-high with36 home runs while driving in 108 and playing in over 140 games for the first time since 2013.
The cumulative struggles of Nationals relievers during the first half prompted general manager Mike Rizzo to bolster his bullpen at the non-waiver Trade Deadline through deals for veteran relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson (from Oakland) as well as Brandon Kintzler (from the Twins). The pair of trades provided the club with much needed consistency in the late innings, instantly transforming an inconsistent and inexperienced bullpen into one capable of neutralizing a postseason offense.
Player, how acquired, year, 2017 Baseball-Reference WAR (24.3): Wilmer Difo, Int'l sign, 2010, 1.9
Bryce Harper, Draft, 2010 (1st round), 4.7 Anthony Rendon, Draft, 2011 (1st), 5.9 Brian Goodwin, Draft, 2011 (1st), 0.3 Victor Robles, Int'l sign, 2013, 0.0 Sammy Solis, Draft, 2010 (2nd), -0.2
Stephen Strasburg, Draft, 2009 (1st), 6.4 Michael A. Taylor, Draft, 2009 (6th), 2.6
Ryan Zimmerman, Draft, 2005 (1st), 2.7
The Nationals projected roster features nine homegrown players, roughly the average for this year's eight postseason teams. The group includes four former first-round Draft picks in Zimmerman (2005), Strasburg (2009), Harper (2010) and Rendon (2011). The Nationals selections of Strasburg and Harper with the No. 1 overall pick in back-to-back years sparked the franchise's turnaround, while the addition of Rendon with the No. 6 pick the following year gave the organization another franchise cornerstone.
Zimmerman's career-best season helped make the losses of Eaton, Turner and Harper manageable for the Nationals, and the same can be said for Rendon's steady contributions. Together the duo combined to swat 61 home runs with 208 RBIs in 2017, with Harper adding another 29 homers.
While the aforementioned injuries were undeniably costly, they did open the door for players such as Difo and Taylor to showcase their abilities as everyday players. Taylor, a 2009 sixth-rounder, made the most of his opportunity by hitting .271 with 19 homers and 17 steals in the wake of Harper's injury. Difo, meanwhile, proved to be a valuable utility player, seeing time at both middle-infield positions along with some work in center field.
The Nats' depleted outfield also created an opportunity for top prospect Victor Robles, who, at age 20, became the youngest player to appear in a Major League game this season when he debuted on Sept. 7. Though his playing time was limited down the stretch, Robles, with his loud tools and ability to impact games on both sides of the ball, forced his way onto Washington's playoff roster.
Despite missing a portion of the season due to injury, Turner still managed to build on his impressive 2016 debut with the Nationals. The 24-year-old shortstop stole 46 bases in just 98 games to set a new franchise record, and did so while hitting .284 with 41 extra-base hits including 11 home runs.
Gonzalez and Roark were both healthy and consistent in 2017 as they combined to log 381 1/3 innings while making 62 starts. The former had an especially strong campaign, finishing with a 2.96 ERA in his first 195-inning-plus season since 2013.
A year after making a non-waiver Trade Deadline deal for closer Mark Melancon from Pittsburgh, Rizzo once again used the month of July to bolster his team's bullpen -- one that ranked dead last among all 30 teams during the first half with a 5.20 ERA.
The additions of Doolittle, Madson and Kintzler changed that, as the trio combined to record 71 strikeouts and 16 walks in 75 2/3 innings after joining the Nationals via trades. Madson (1.37 ERA, .186 BAA) and Kintzler (3.46 ERA) have been invaluable as setup men for Doolittle, who went 21 for 22 in save opportunities with a 2.40 ERA.
Kendrick, meanwhile, did nothing but rake following his acquisition from Philly, posting a .293 average with seven homers in 51 games.
The Nationals are set to open the Division Series with seven free agents on their projected roster, second most among all playoff teams. Murphy, in the second year of a three-year, $37.5 million deal, enjoyed another monster season, as the 32-year-old second baseman connected on23 homers and 43 doubles while hitting .318 with a .919 OPS.
Scherzer, of course, turned in another Cy Young-worthy performance in 2017, reaffirming his status as one of baseball's premier starting pitchers. In the third year of a seven-year, $210 million contract, the right-hander finished first among National League hurlers with 268 strikeouts and WHIP (0.90), with a 2.51 ERA that ranked second in the circuit.
Shawn Kelley, the recipient of a three-year, $15 million deal prior to the 2016 season, struggled to hold down the closer role early in the season, which enabled Albers to record his first career save early in May at age 34. Albers would go on to post a 1.62 ERA with a .166 batting average against while appearing in a team-high 63 games -- tremendous value for the Nats after they inked him to a one-year, $1.15 million deal during the offseason.
Wieters was one of the few notable remaining free agents still on the market before he and the Nats agreed on a two-year contract with a player opt-out after one year in February. Signed as a replacement for departed free agent Wilson Ramos, the 31-year-old veteran backstop and former first-round Draft pick filled in admirably by hitting 10 homers and driving in 52 runs, all while handling one of the best rotation's in baseball.
Lind, 34, also proved a valuable piece for the Nationals, hitting .303 with an .875 OPS and 14 home runs in 116 games after inking a one-year, $1 million deal in February.
Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.