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Washington Nationals 2017 NLDS Roundtable: Nats Postseason Preview

The FBB staff got together to share our thoughts on what lies ahead for the Nationals in the NLDS.

MLB: NLDS-Los Angeles Dodgers at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

With the Postseason fast approaching, there are some big questions on everybody’s mind when it comes to the Washington Nationals. There are the more procedural questions — such as the question of who will be on the roster, who will start Game 1 — and then the bigger, more important questions — like if this is finally the year the Nats get out of the NLDS.

With some of those questions (and a few others) in mind, the writers of Federal Baseball sat down (virtually, on Slack, #virtualworkplace, #SBNationNation) and thought long and hard about what could come this October.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present: The Federal Baseball Writer’s Roundtable, Postseason Edition.

The participants:

  • Patrick Reddington, Fearless Leader, Editor-in-Chief, Proust fanatic
  • Will Kubzansky, The One Writing This Article
  • Audrey Stark, Midseason Trade Addition Of The Year
  • Matt Weyrich, Who Does About Fifty Other Things
  • Ryan McFadden, Who I Couldn’t Think Of Another Name For

Question 1: What Nationals storyline are you most excited to see this October?

PR: Simple. Getting past the NLDS. I personally put a lot more weight on the regular season results, but coming out of a weak division this season, all the talk about four NL East titles in six seasons and the success they’ve had over that stretch will be ignored by the baseball world if they check out in the Division Series again. Fair or not, it’s how things end up being judged.

WK: For me, Stephen Strasburg is the big story this month. We’ve only seen him in one playoff game — Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS — where he put up an uninspiring performance. But Strasburg wasn’t the dominant Strasburg we’ve grown to know and love this year, especially the one we saw down the stretch this season; that version of Strasburg looked essentially untouchable (actually, he was for a while there).

If Strasburg can lead the Nats out of the NLDS — and if they make it out, I think it’ll definitely be a charge he leads — then I’m really excited to see what he could do over multiple playoff starts.

AS: First, Jayson Werth having a postseason resurgence. I agree with Dusty Baker that some guys find another level in October and Jayson Werth is one of those players. Especially if he is not with the club next year, there is no better way to send him off than a nice World Series parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.

I also want to see Ryan Zimmerman win a World Series with the Nats. When I first came to DC, “Nationals” and “Ryan Zimmerman” meant the same thing. He has been the face of the franchise literally since its inception and I want this team to win it all. Both these men are staring down their best chance at getting a(nother) World Series ring and they deserve to do it as Nats.

MW: I can’t wait to see Stephen Strasburg pitch in the postseason again. It was understandable to be skeptical when the Nats signed him to his seven-year, $175 million extension in the middle of last season.

Yet if they hadn’t, the team would be in a pretty sticky situation trying to round out its rotation for the the playoffs. Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez form as dominant a trio of starters as the Nats have ever had, and nothing bodes better for October than good starting pitching.

RM: I’m always excited when there is postseason baseball in D.C. Even though the games tend to be nerve racking and raise people’s blood pressure, it’s fun to watch the Nationals be one of five teams in the National League competing for an opportunity to play in the World Series.

The storyline I’m excited for the most is whether or not the Nationals will end the D.C.’s 19-year conference championship drought. D.C. sports fans have seen plenty of heartbreaking moments from the Wizards, Nationals, Redskins and Capitals. I think the Nationals making it to the NLCS or even the World Series will bring hope to a sports town that’s seen years of sorrow.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

What scares you most about the Cubs? Excites you most about playing them?

PR: Their experience scares me. There’s nothing quite like grinding through the second season. They were able to get over the early season malaise this summer after winning it all in 2016, and they’ve really picked it up down the stretch, going 15-3 in their last 18 and 23-9 in their last 32 games. What excites me is the possibility of knocking off the defending champs.

WK: To me, it’s not just one thing as much as that they’re hot, and the Nationals aren’t — in the last ten games of the season, the Cubs went 7-3, and the Nats went a paltry 5-5 against the Mets, Braves, and Pirates. They know how to win, and I think they’ll be able to turn on the switch that the Nats have struggled to flip in the past.

What excites me most is how weak their starting pitching is — both Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester have looked extremely vulnerable in September, and I think the Nats could have their best shot at getting wins against those two.

AS: As a Cardinals fan the Cubs just crushed my hopes and dreams, so I am excited to watch the Nationals beat them but also got a firsthand look at how much momentum the Cubs have heading into the postseason. Also, Javi Baez is Very Good™.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

MW: Their momentum. Since the All-Star Break, the only team in the National League with more wins than the Nats are the Chicago Cubs. Joe Maddon is one of the best managers in the game and the team’s first half struggles are clearly behind it.

It would be fitting, however, for the Nats’ first playoff series victory to come at the expense of the defending World Series champions. After all the media attention Chicago got throughout the season last year, I’d love to see the Nats put an end to their hopes for a repeat.

RM: I think the Cubs ending the season with good momentum and their experience worries me the most. I know they took a step back from last year’s team, who ended a 108-year championship drought. But they still have the pieces to make a strong run in the playoffs. Not to mention the Cubs have Joe Maddon leading the charge.

A Nationals-Cubs matchup was something I really wanted to see last year, but Clayton Kershaw ruined any chance of that. Both teams have something to prove going into the playoffs. The Cubs want to show that they still got it, while the Nationals want to prove the baseball world that they are capable of advancing past the NLDS. In addition to that, it would be amazing to see the Nationals beat the defending champions in their first NLDS series win.

What concerns you most about the Nats?

PR: The starters. Max Scherzer’s hamstring. Stephen Strasburg’s cramps. Gio Gonzalez’s last few outings. It all starts with pitching and as good as they’ve been all season, they have to keep it going in October. The Nats have the arms, they appear to be (mostly) healthy, and if their starters can shut other teams down, you don’t have to worry as much about the offense or bullpen (which is totally fixed now).

WK: Left field. Jayson Werth picked it up a little against the Pirates, but only hit .132 in the month of September. There’s no way the Nats sit him, but for everyone’s sake, I can only hope they bat him down in the lineup and get him in fewer key situations. Also, Harper, despite him also picking it up a bit, concerns me. I just don’t know how much we can trust those two, who still look a bit lost, in big situations. I hope to be proven wrong.

AS: I mentioned the Cubs’ momentum above, and the Nationals clinched so long ago they seem to be coasting along. I am concerned about that four-day gap between the end of the season and the NLDS.

I also have some skepticism about the starters limiting the amount of runs the Cubs put up on the board and their ability to go six full innings. Scherzer gives up a lot of homers. Which Gio will show up? How good will Strasburg be? Especially considering those four days without play, the starting pitching is my primary concern.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Washington Nationals Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

MW: Dusty Baker’s decision making hasn’t always aligned with mine. He stuck with Danny Espinosa at shortstop all last year and into the playoffs despite his strikeout issues and I’m afraid that he’s going to do the same with Jayson Werth. Werth is hitting .150 since coming off the disabled list Aug. 28, while presumed backup outfielder Howie Kendrick has hit .290 with 16 extra-base hits since being traded to D.C. Kendrick makes the lineup even deeper than it already is, while slotting Werth anywhere near the top of the order will be a massive liability.

RM: There are a few things that concern me about the Nationals heading into the postseason. But it’s like that every time a D.C. sports team makes it to the playoffs. Probably the biggest thing is Harper’s health. It’s good to see Harper back on the field after missing 41 games due to a bone bruise (and calf strain). However, what Harper will we see in the postseason. Will it be the MVP candidate Harper we saw for the most part of the season or a player that’s still trying to get back in the swing of things.

What do you think the Nationals’ strongest aspect will be?

PR: I’m going to go out on a limb (sort of) and say that Bryce Harper is going to catch fire after working his way all the way back... that is if the Cubs don’t just avoid him. Hopefully his slow start since coming back will convince Joe Maddon to pitch to Harper and he’ll make them pay.

WK: I think Anthony Rendon will (inadvertently, of course, because he hates attention) have his coming out party to the world/get his revenge for inevitably not being considered for NL MVP and catch on fire in the NLDS like he did three years ago.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

AS: Their biggest strengths are experience and hunger. The Nationals went out and got a few more players who have performed on the biggest stages baseball has to offer. In addition to Werth and Scherzer, the Nats have Madson, Edwin Jackson, and Howie Kendrick. But there is also a need for more that we can see in Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth and the whole team top-to-bottom. They are as tired of bowing out in the NLDS as we are of watching them do it. We all know it’s time.

MW: If Dusty does this right, Trea Turner, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman will all be hitting in a row to start the NLDS. Washington is the only team in baseball that has more than two players with at least 400 plate appearances and an OPS of .925 or higher — and the Nats have four of them. Slot in Turner’s 45 stolen bases in front of them all and you have a recipe for the most dangerous lineup in the Senior Circuit.

RM: The Nationals best spot heading into the postseason will most likely be second baseman Daniel Murphy just because of his consistency at the plate. I can say the same thing for Anthony Rendon because of the impact he has made to the Nationals offensively and defensively.

Jose Lobaton, Pedro Severino, or Raudy Read as the bench catcher?

PR: My personal preference, especially with Matt Wieters a switch hitter (so you don’t need a left-handed hitting backup) would be for Dusty Baker to put Pedro Severino on the roster. Jose Lobaton just has not hit, and as much as pitchers might like working with him, and though I think Baker will go with the veteran in the postseason, I’d like to see Severino (if he’s still the catcher of the future) get more reps in a playoff atmosphere for the sake of his development, and because I think he has more to offer offensively. That being said, I expect it will be Lobaton.

WK: I’ll echo what Matt’s about to say here: If Raudy Read or Pedro Severino had broken out, hit somewhere around .250 over semi-consistent plate appearances, showed the raw power we’ve heard a lot about (at least in Read’s case), or something like that, this would be a different story. But Lobaton is a clubhouse leader, and there’s really no reason not to go with him — Severino and Read wouldn’t really be any better, and Lobaton knows the pitching staff better anyways.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

AS: I think the pitching staff has an added degree of comfort with José Lobatón. He has the most major league plate appearances, even if he has been dismal this season. I am a big believer in team chemistry and taking Lobi off the roster severs a significant presence in the Nationals dugout. A player in his fourth year as a Nat … I just can’t justify taking him off the roster even if he has a 35 wRC+. He’s got a comparable caught stealing rate to Matt Wieters, so defensively I believe he is solid enough to warrant a spot.

MW: As bad as Jose Lobaton has been this season, I can’t see any reason as to why the Nats should go with Pedro Severino or Raudy Read. Severino struggled all year at AAA-Syracuse, taking a step back in several offensive categories. Read is only 23 years old and has just 11 plate appearances at the major-league level. With Lobaton hitting free agency after this year, the team could have a competition in Spring Training for the backup catcher job next season.

As for the upcoming playoffs, Lobaton has much more experience working with the pitching staff and is considered a great clubhouse presence. It’d only mess with the clubhouse culture to keep him off the playoff roster.

RM: I would go with Jose Lobaton as the Nationals’ bench catcher. I know he only has a .167 batting average, but he has more experience in the postseason and he is more familiar with the Nationals pitching staff compared to the other catchers on the list.

Should the Nats have an extra bench player or an extra reliever?

PR: I’d prefer they bring an extra left-hander in the bullpen and make the tough cut among the position players. Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler, Matt Albers, and Oliver Perez are locks, right? Sammy Solis can get left and right-handers out, then I assume they keep Joe Blanton (who’s been better lately, has experience, etc.) and then I’d keep Enny Romero for the last spot. Now that I list them all, eight seems like a lot of relievers, can I change my answer?

WK: Last year, what kept the Nats from advancing wasn’t their offense (though it did struggle). Instead, it was their starting pitching being essentially unable to go longer than four or five innings, and when it finally did in Game 5, the bullpen was so taxed that it imploded and allowed the winning run(s) to score. So, with that in mind: As many arms as possible. Ultimately, the playoffs are a game of who blinks first, and fresh eyes never hurt.

AS: Bench player. The relievers are equally unreliable outside the 7/8/9 monster the Nats have assembled. If the Nationals need additional relievers it means something has gone sideways with a starter. Chances are Tanner Roark (or Edwin Jackson! *dodges popcorn buckets being hurled at my head*) will then pitch until we get to the 7th when Kintzler/Madson/Doolittle will enter the fray. A bench comprised of Adam Lind, Wilmer Difo, Howie Kendrick/Jayson Werth, etc. is formidable. Use the additional spot to add Victor Robles or Alejandro De Aza.

MW: This is contingent on a few things. I’m a firm believer in never going into the postseason without a long reliever as a contingency plan in case a starter struggles early. Edwin Jackson has faded down the stretch while A.J. Cole might finally be figuring things out, posting a 3.44 ERA over his last 18.1 innings.

With Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler and Matt Albers having spots locked up, that leaves Cole, Enny Romero, Oliver Perez, Sammy Solis and Joe Blanton vying for the final four spots. Cole has been used as a long reliever more than any of his fellow contenders for a spot, and could play a big role if a starter needs to be pulled earlier than expected.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

RM: I don’t think you can go wrong by adding an extra reliever. I like the way the Nationals’ lineup and bench players have been performing at the plate this season, so that’s why I would add another arm in the bullpen.

The additions of Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler, and Sean Doolittle really improved a Nationals’ bullpen that was one of the worst in the league during the first half of the season. However outside of those three pitchers, I don’t think the Nationals have a reliable arm. That’s why adding another pitcher wouldn’t be a bad move.

The big one: Is this the year the Nationals finally escape the NLDS?

PR: Yes. Seriously, who’s going to dare to say no to this question. Keep your keeping it real. Nationals advance.

WK: Hi, I’m going to say no to this question. I think the Nats have backed themselves into a self-fulfilling prophecy of thinking they’ll never make the NLCS, and won’t do it. What’s more, I just think the starting pitching — at least Roark and Gonzalez — has a decent chance of breaking down, and the Nats don’t win Game 5s. They just don’t.

AS: I hope the Nationals crush the Cubs’ postseason chances into pieces so small they can’t be put back together for another 108 years.

MW: This team boasts some incredible star power. Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy each finished at least second in the NL MVP once over the past two years. Max Scherzer is the reigning NL Cy Young who’s well on his way to winning another while Stephen Strasburg is living up to the hype that surrounded him when he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2009. I could go on and on about players like Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Sean Doolittle and Gio Gonzalez. These Nats are the best group this organization has put together. They’ll finally achieve some postseason success and get into the second round.

RM: Out of all the questions asked, this is probably the hardest one to answer. Every time the Nationals made it to the playoffs, they were normally favorites to make it to the NLCS or the World Series. That’s no surprise since the Nationals have one of the best starting rotations in the game and they a starting lineup that can compete against any team in the majors. However, they failed to meet expectations in each of their three appearances in the postseason.

Going into the NLDS matchup against the Cubs, I like their chances the same way I did when they played the Cardinals, Giants and Dodgers. I think they are a better team than the Cubs and a healthy Harper definitely gives them an extra boost.