The Washington Nationals have the talent to contend for the National League Pennant this season, and their underwhelming 1-2 start doesn’t change that. At the same time, if they’re going to do as such, they will need bounce-back seasons from right-hander Stephen Strasburg and shortstop Trea Turner.
The featured aspect of the 2019 Nationals is their starting rotation. With the free-agent signings of 2018 All-Star left-hander Patrick Corbin (six-year, $140 million deal) and veteran right-hander Anibal Sanchez (two-year, $19 million deal), their starting rotation, which already included Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and Jeremy Hellickson, is arguably the most potent staff in the NL.
Corbin is coming off the best season of his career where he recorded a 3.15 ERA and 1.05 WHIP while totaling an impressive 246 strikeouts with the Arizona Diamondbacks; Sanchez was a steady force in the Atlanta Braves starting rotation last season, recording a 2.83 ERA in 25 appearances, 24 of which were starts; Scherzer is a three-time Cy Young Award recipient, and according to us here at Baseball Essential, the best starting pitcher in the sport; Hellickson was a reliable five-to-six inning starter for manager Dave Martinez in 2018.
Sure, all four of them could have disappointing seasons, and Corbin has a lot to prove after signing his monster contract. But, at the end of the day, Strasburg is the key to the Nationals rotation collectively performing up to expectations.The @Nationals have the talent to contend for the NL pennant, but they will need bounce back seasons from Stephen Strasburg and Trea Turner to have a shot, according to @RPStratakos.Click To Tweet
One year ago Strasburg was arguably a top-five pitcher. He was fresh off the best season of his career that saw him record a career-best 2.52 ERA, total 204 strikeouts — in just 28 starts — and, for the first time in his career, finish as an NL Cy Young Award finalist. The Nationals’ NLDS matchup with the Chicago Cubs, however, is the most memorable part of the right-hander’s 2017 campaign. In a combined 14 innings, he surrendered zero earned runs while totaling 22 strikeouts in the two starts he made. His curveball was virtually unhittable, and he was blowing his fastball past hitters. It looked like Strasburg was finally coming into his own as the ace the Nationals and the baseball world thought he would become when he was drafted with the number one overall pick in the 2009 MLB Draft.
Then the injury bug hit the right-hander once more. Being limited to 22 starts due to a shoulder injury, Strasburg endured one of the most discouraging seasons of his career. He recorded a career-worst 3.74 ERA and 1.20 WHIP, labored through at-bats, struggled to work out of trouble, and when he returned from injury in late-August, exceeded six innings of work just once.
The Nationals pay Strasburg, on average, $25 million a season for a reason: He has the repertoire to be an ace. But his reign of dominance comes and goes. His velocity is lower than it was in years past, and he looked like the 2018 Strasburg in his first outing of 2019. Surrendering four runs, seven hits, and two walks in six innings against the New York Mets on Saturday afternoon, he didn’t perform like the top-of-the-rotation force the Nationals need him to be.
Scherzer has been a model of consistent dominance over the last six seasons; Corbin has one of the best sliders in the game; Sanchez is a reliable veteran; Strasburg is the wild card.
While their rotation steals the spotlight, and rightfully so, the Nationals have a lineup that should be one of the more productive units in MLB this season. Anthony Rendon has hit above .300 in each of the last two seasons and totaled 49 home runs and 192 RBIs in that time span; the now 20-year-old Juan Soto took the league by storm last season hitting .292 while totaling 22 home runs and 70 RBIs in just 116 games; when healthy, Ryan Zimmerman serves as a vital source of power; Adam Eaton is a reliable contact hitter; Brian Dozier is one of the best second basemen in the sport and a power hitter; Victor Robles has shown the ability to be a steady hitter; Yan Gomes is one of the best hitting catchers in the sport and was an All-Star in 2018.
Then there’s Turner who, like Strasburg, is an enigma. Two years ago the shortstop was fresh off a captivating rookie season where he hit .342 and stole 33 bases in just 73 games. Since his rookie season Turner’s batting average has declined in back-to-back seasons; he hit .284 in 2017 and an underwhelming .271 in 2018. In a season that saw several proven commodities take a step back, in terms of production, Turner’s inconsistency at the plate was one of the many factors that hampered the Nationals in 2018.
Turner is one of the most talented shortstops in Major League Baseball. He’s one of the fastest players the sport has ever seen, can wreak havoc on the basepaths, hits for contact — although his ability to hit for power is underrated — and fields his position well. Heck, he hit two home runs in the Nationals’ Sunday afternoon matchup with the Mets, including a walk-off solo home run in the ninth inning. But Turner has never put his All-Star skill set together for such a season.
Bryce Harper is gone, and while Soto and Robles fill the void his departure creates in the outfield, the Nationals need others to have big seasons at the plate and Turner more so than anyone else. Martinez has Turner hitting behind Eaton in the two-hole with the idea of having, in essence, two leadoff hitters, as well as Robles in the nine-hole. Turner has to get on base to set the table for Rendon and Soto, and, in some cases, extend innings by taking the Nationals out of potential double-plays by stealing second and/or third base. Every run the Nationals push across the plate this season counts when taking into account how stiff the competition in the NL East is.
The Mets took two out of three games in the nation’s capital this past weekend, have a potent starting rotation, a bullpen of veteran relievers, and a much-improved offense; the Philadelphia Phillies swept the Braves over the weekend, have a starting rotation with upside, and could have an elite offense this season; while their 1-3 start is far from ideal and their starting rotation is banged up, the Braves are the defending NL East champions and a surefire playoff threat.
The Nationals have no margin for error. If they get the same production from individuals that were present last season in 2019, they won’t make the playoffs. They’re arguably the most talented team in the NL East, but have fielded talented ballclubs in the past and disappointed.
For their rotation to live up to the hype, Strasburg has to pitch like the ace the Nationals have seen in the past; for their lineup to be an electric bunch that can provide their pitching staff with run support, Turner has to put together an All-Star season.