November 20, 2017

Nationals second half preview: The road to the postseason, what to expect and more

With tough stretches approaching, the trade deadline near, newfound 'pen help and a mild case of the injury bug, can this Nats team build enough momentum to make a World Series push?

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 13: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals looks on prior to game five of the National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Nationals Park on October 13, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

After beating the Reds in two straight games, the second half is officially underway for the Nationals. The team went into the All-Star break with a 52-36 record and a commanding lead in the NL East: A nine-and-a-half game advantage over the second-place Braves. Like last year, the Nationals are in the driver’s seat to win the division — a feat the franchise hasn’t accomplished since relocating to D.C. in 2005. Here’s what you can expect for the second half of the 2017 season:

The Schedule

After the three-game series with the Reds concludes Sunday, the team will head further west for a two-game series at the Angels. After that, they’ll travel to Arizona for a three-game set against the Diamondbacks — a team currently positioned to host the NL wild card game. Following a day off on the 24th, the Nats will come home for a six-game home stand, as the NL Central-leading Brewers and likely playoff-bound Rockies come to town.

August starts with a series against the Marlins, followed by a three-game series against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Soon after awaits a three-game series at the Astros, who own the best record in the American League, serving as the toughest series in August.

September begins with a four-game series in Milwaukee against the Brewers, before divisional games for the rest of the month. With the exception of the Brewers series and a three-game series against the league-leading Dodgers in Washington, the Nationals will not face a team over .500 (as of July 16). September will give the Nationals a chance to position themselves for playoff seeding with its easy schedule. While the team may be unlikely to catch the Dodgers for the top seed in the National League, September will be crucial to make sure the Nationals maintain home field advantage in the NLDS.

The Trade Deadline

The 2017 MLB trade deadline is at 4:00 pm ET on July 31, and the Nationals are already one of the most active teams on the trade market.

On July 16, the Nationals acquired Sean Doolittle (3-2, 3.38 ERA, three saves in 23 games) and Ryan Madson (2-4, 2.06 ERA, one save in 40 games) from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for Blake Treinen and prospects Sheldon Neuse and Jesus Luzardo. The deal bolstered the Nationals porous bullpen, which owns the worst ERA in the MLB at 5.34, providing both a reliable setup man and closer. However, the Nationals are not done yet in terms of making deals, according to Chelsea Janes of The Washington Post.

The number of games the bullpen has costed the team are too high to keep track of, in addition to the games where a commanding Nationals lead suddenly becomes a nerve-racking contest upon the bullpen’s entry to the game. Manager Dusty Baker is put in a difficult position where he can’t overwork his starting pitchers, but he also runs the risk of wasting the excellent performances put forth by the starting pitcher by going to the bullpen.

Other names who the Nationals could pursue are David Robertson of the White Sox, Kelvin Herrera of the Royals and Zach Britton of the Orioles.

The biggest obstacle the Nationals face in making another trade is protecting their top prospects. The Nationals recently gave up big name prospects in Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, as well as 2016 first round pick Dane Dunning, to trade for Adam Eaton. In the trade with the Athletics, the Nationals were able to keep its top two prospects, Victor Robles and Erick Fedde. In making a trade for another bullpen arm, the Nationals will work to keep the top talent remaining in its depleted farm system

Health

Making sure key players stay healthy will be key in the second half. Trea Turner, Jayson Werth, Adam Eaton, Koda Glover, Joe Ross, Michael A. Taylor and Shawn Kelley are among the big names on the team who find themselves on the disabled list. Two of those players, Eaton and Ross, are unlikely to return at all in 2017.

The Nationals do not have to rush any of these players back for the regular season, as the team has not seen a large drop-off in performance without some of its starters. However, getting these players to 100% health will be integral for a postseason run.

While it may be frustrating in the present to see the slew of injuries, the playoffs are the main focus of this team. Making sure the entire roster is at full strength for the playoffs is more important than being at full strength in the regular season when the team has a nearly 10 game lead in the division.

What the Nationals want to avoid, however, is more injuries than they already have. The later in the season an injury occurs, the less likely it is that the player will be able to return for the playoffs. The Nationals still have much of its core healthy (knock on wood) and need that to remain the case. Losing a player like Bryce Harper or Max Scherzer is one of the last things the Nationals can afford to have happen with the current injury status of the team.

Awards Watch

The Nationals have contenders for virtually every major award. Max Scherzer is the front runner for the National League Cy Young. Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy both are in the conversation for National League MVP. Ryan Zimmerman is running away with National League Comeback Player of the Year. A multitude of players on the Nationals’ NL-leading offense are contenders for Silver Sluggers, and Anthony Rendon, as well as Bryce Harper, could win Gold Gloves.

While the Nationals may be able to cruise to a NL East title, if all goes as plan, watching the individual performances of the players on this talented roster will be must-see TV every night.

All in all, the Nationals will use the second half as a chance to work out any kinks, and gear up for the playoffs. The Nationals have made the playoffs three times in the last five seasons: 2012, 2014 and 2016. However, they have never made it past the first round.

This year, the National League’s best offense, as well as its best pitcher, will look to take this Washington Nationals team further than it has ever gone before.

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