A curse, bad luck, just “not their year,” whatever adage you subscribe to, the Washington Nationals seem to land in the same position year after year. They’re red hot in the regular season and ice-cold in the playoffs, and they lost a heartbreaking Game 5 to the Chicago Cubs just last night. There’s no doubt that the team’s window is closing with Bryce Harper’s free agency looming, and this loss will sting well into next season.
That said, here are five things the team must do in 2018 if they want to make it out of the first round of the playoffs and avoid another early exit.
Hopefully, some or all of these approaches work.
1 Better Starting Pitching
In 2017, the Nationals had two Cy Young-caliber pitchers, one good starting pitcher, and three bad starting pitchers. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg had phenomenal seasons, posting 2.51 and 2.52 ERAs respectively. Gio Gonzalez had another solid season, posting a 2.96 ERA. Tanner Roark, Edwin Jackson, and Joe Ross, however, posted respective ERAs of 4.67, 5.07. If you're going to make it through a five-game series, much less a seven-game one, you need more than three reliable starting pitchers.
Perhaps the Nationals should look to their farm system where bright prospect Erick Fedde is waiting for a shot. The Nationals could also look to the free agent market where names like Yu Darvish, Lance Lynn, and Andrew Cashner could all be options for 2018.
2 A working offense
I don't know if it's something in the water, if it's nerves, or if it's just plain bad luck, but the Nationals' bats are almost solely to blame for their struggle against the Cubs. In the regular season, the Nationals ranked third in the NL with a team batting average of .266. In the NLDS, Washington hit just .186. What happened to the Nats' bats you might ask? I don't know, but it's clear that sometime between game 162 and Game 1 of the postseason, the Nationals went ice cold. If Washington hopes to make it to the NLCS in 2018, they'll need a far more productive offense.
3 A healthy roster
To say the Nationals have had their fair share of injuries in 2017 is an understatement. So far this year, the Nationals have seen these players on the DL for at least a week: Stephen Drew, Howie Kendrick, Adam Eaton, Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, Michael A. Taylor, Joe Ross, Sammy Solis, Jayson Werth, Ryan Madson, Jayson Werth, and Ryan Zimmerman, and that's just the players that start or are consistent backups.
Though injuries in the regular season do not equate to poor postseason performance per se, the Nationals will need to have a healthy, somewhat consistent group together in 2018 if they want to make it further than the NLDS.
4 A better catcher
Remember earlier when I said the Nationals were batting .266 as a team? It was true, but it could have and probably should have been even better. At the catcher position in 2017, Washington hit just .206, by far the worst for a defensive position on the team. The next lowest for the Nationals were the left-fielders, who hit .267 as a group.
Though the Nationals catchers are good defensively, it doesn't make up for the fact that they cannot hit. In the NLDS, the catcher position got two hits. Though the Nationals do not have a solid prospect that could remedy this problem, they have a fantastic free agent market coming up. With people like Alex Avila, Chris Iannetta, and Jonathan Lucroy all headed to free agency this offseason, the Nationals can pick up a catcher that is comparable defensively to their current options and is a much better hitter.
5 A winning mentality
It's true that the Nationals have struggled in the postseason for their entire existence. In fact, they have the longest active World Series drought in the entire league.
But there comes a time where the will to win and the belief in the team must come before any of the statistics I have previously mentioned. It seems, at least in 2017, that the Nationals really didn't believe in their chances. They took easy strike threes, didn't run out fly balls, and they looked lazy on defense. The team must shake this idea of a postseason curse and show the league that Washington wants to win a World Series.
Whether this comes in the form of a new manager, or someone like Bryce Harper or Max Scherzer taking control in the clubhouse, it looks like it may be time for a mentality shift in Washington if the Nationals want to make it out of the first round in 2018.
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