After winning two straight NL East division titles in 2016 and 2017, the Washington Nationals bottomed out in 2018.
A combination of injuries and a weak pitching staff saw the Nats finish with an 82-80 record, a 15-win decrease from the year before. By season’s end, Daniel Murphy and franchise mainstay Gio Gonzalez were both gone from the team.
And of course, Bryce Harper’s seven-year partnership with Washington likely ended as well.
All of these factors may have seemed to indicate that the franchise was falling off a metaphorical cliff.
On the contrary, they are in as good–if not better–shape to reestablish dominance in the NL East and make a run in October.
Here are five reasons that the Nats are legitimate contenders in the National League:
1. Brilliant offseason additions
The Nationals had one of the best offseasons of any organization in baseball.
The list of additions includes starting left-hander Patrick Corbin, reliever Trevor Rosenthal, catchers Yan Gomes (via trade with the Cleveland Indians) and Kurt Suzuki, and second baseman Brian Dozier.
Washington was worst in the league in terms of positional WAR at second base last season, while ranking 27th at catcher according to Baseball-Reference.
Now, they have a former All-Star at second base that is still capable of being a 20-20 threat in Dozier. Meanwhile, Gomes and Suzuki might be the best one-two punch in the league.
Those are two giant leaps forward at serious positions of need.
And with Corbin in the fold, Washington possesses the most fearsome top three starters in any rotation.
Which leads to…
2. Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin, oh my!
The Nationals were seventh in positional WAR among starting rotations last year, but that is mostly because Max Scherzer was so dominant.
In fact, Scherzer posted a 9.5 bWAR, which means the other starters combined for a -0.4 bWAR, according to Baseball-Reference. Yikes.
Stephen Strasburg had a decent season, but nothing close to his 2017 when he went 15-4 with a 2.52 ERA. He also made six fewer starts.
But make no mistake, Strasburg is one of the best in the game when healthy. His fastball still touches the upper 90s, and with a dynamic changeup and plus slider, his stuff is right up there with the best of them. Plus, he is just now entering his age-30 season.
And Corbin? His six-year, $140 million deal is the richest for all starting pitchers this offseason.
The lefty had the best year of his career last season, posting a 3.15 ERA and upping his K/9 from 8.4 in 2017 to a whopping 11.1 in 2019.
When you have three legitimate strikeout pitchers and potential Cy Young candidates all at the top of the rotation, you have a fantastic chance of winning two out of three in any given series.
3. They can still rake
Even without Harper, the Nationals are loaded with offensive talent.
The Nats scored the fourth-most runs in the National League last season (771) thanks in part to National League Rookie of the Year runner-up Juan Soto, who already looks like one of the best players in the league at just 20 years old.
Shortstop Trea Turner has 20-homer pop and could steal 50 bases this year in what might be his first All-Star season.
Anthony Rendon is perhaps the most underrated player in all of baseball. Did you know that Rendon’s 13.0 fWAR in the last two seasons is second-best in all of baseball, just behind Jose Ramirez? That values Rendon higher than 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant, Rockies superstar Nolan Arenado, and Alex Bregman of the Houston Astros, to name a few.
With Rendon in a contract year, he could be even better this season.
Dozier can hit for power up the middle and steal some bases, and Matt Adams can platoon with Nats legend Ryan Zimmerman at first.
Then you throw in the likes of a healthy Adam Eaton and Victor Robles–the no. 4 prospect in the MLB.com top 100–and the Nats have an absurd blend of speed and power.
The ability to hurt you with slugging and on the bases is a luxury that cannot be taken lightly, and it is one of the reasons Washington remains so dangerous.
4. Once a weakness, now a strength
For years, the bullpen unit was the scapegoat of almost every Nationals team in contention. Lest we forget the epic Game 5 collapse against the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2012 NLDS.
But this year, the bullpen looks steady.
Sean Doolittle is one of the best closers in the league. Kyle Barraclough had a tough 2018, but he has an excellent track record and could be galvanized by pitching for a contender.
Rosenthal–a former flamethrower for the Cardinals–had not pitched since 2017 and seemed to be out of the league. But the velocity appears to have returned to his arsenal, and he could be a weapon at the back end.
The Nats traded Shawn Kelley last season as part of their roster overhaul, but lefty Matt Grace can lock down the middle innings, and if Koda Glover adapts to a higher usage rate this could be a strong group.
5. A wiser Davey Martinez
The apparent “success” of first-year managers like Alex Cora and Aaron Boone is rather deceiving, because they took over teams with excellent young talent that had already established themselves as perennial World Series contenders.
Martinez, on the other hand, took over an aging roster with a lot of expiring contracts and a history of NLDS flame outs. Not overly inspiring.
The Nats burst back into contention last season after a slow start when they went 20-7 in May, but a 9-16 month of June all but ended the playoff chase.
Martinez was an integral part of the Chicago Cubs organization for years, serving as the bench coach for the 2016 World Series champs.
Some wondered whether he was clashing with Bryce Harper in Washington, but Harper dispelled those those fears. And that seems rather inconsequential now.
It would hardly be a surprise for the club to benefit simply from having undergone that first year with Martinez after Dusty Baker was the skipper in 2016 and 2017.
As one of the most well-balanced teams in the National League, the Nats could thrive in Martinez’s second year at the helm.