On Wednesday night, the Washington Nationals won the first playoff series in the history of the franchise, dating back to 1969, when they were the Montreal Expos. Tonight, they will begin their quest for their second series win, this time against the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Nationals just upended a 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers team that most people (myself included) picked to win the National League, and while almost by definition this classifies as an upset, the Nationals aren’t exactly a scrappy 13-seed beating a perennial power thanks to a hot three-point shooting streak. They are a legitimately dangerous threat to the Cardinals’ bid to win the 2019 World Series.
Behind the plate, the team’s starting catcher this postseason has mostly been Kurt Suzuki, a solid hitting but somewhat lackluster defensive backstop. But a freak wrist/head injury has seen Suzuki entering concussion protocol and somewhat up in the air for the NLCS. Backup/occasional starter Yan Gomes has been an up-and-down hitter throughout his career, but provides generally superior defense to Suzuki. That said, catcher isn’t really a position of strength for the Nationals. But they certainly do exist.
Their infield is led by third baseman, MVP candidate, perpetually underrated superstar, and pending free agent Anthony Rendon. He is certainly the best righty bat in the Nats lineup and will be the most infuriating player to see Andrew Miller inexplicably face in critical situations. The next-most reliable infielder is shortstop Trea Turner, who is coming off his best full season at the plate and is one of the sport’s most gifted base thieves, stealing 35 bases this postseason with just five times caught.
The rest of the infield is a bit of a hodgepodge—it doesn’t have Rendon-level star power but it does have remarkable depth. Game 5 hero/Remember Some Guys Hall of Famer Howie Kendrick has been one of the sport’s craziest stories in 2019, sporting a 142 OPS+ in 370 plate appearances and alternating between his long-time position of second base, where he is now a bit of a liability, and first base, where he has certainly hit well enough to justify a lineup spot. Our Old Friend Matt Adams got limited playing time in the NLDS, but could see himself playing more often against the righty-heavy Cardinals rotation. Veteran Asdrubal Cabrera has been a fantastic addition since being acquired from the Texas Rangers, while fellow veteran Brian Dozier has been less than his MVP candidate form from his time earlier this decade with the Minnesota Twins. And Ryan Zimmerman, the first draft pick of the Washington Nationals following their 2005 relocation, has been largely confined to pinch hitting duty as of late, but as he demonstrated with his Game 4 home run, he isn’t done yet.
For as much attention as Ronald Acuna Jr. deservedly gets, one can make a case that Juan Soto is the superior freakishly young hitter. For the second consecutive season, the man who isn’t even old enough to buy beer put up a walk rate over 16%, and this time belted 34 home runs to go along with it. Fellow hotshot youngster Victor Robles had a breakout 2019, combining superior center field defense with decent hitting and good speed (think Harrison Bader of 2018, but over a full season), but is currently nursing a hamstring injury—he may still play, but this could severely hamper a player so reliant on speed. And while Adam Eaton may not quite be that level of talent, he’s a solid right fielder, while fan favorite Gerardo Parra and former center field fixture Michael A. Taylor give the Nationals a decent bench.
A storyline that you are sure to grow entirely sick of during this series, one which can be most quickly ended with a Cardinals sweep, is that of Bryce Harper. Harper committed the egregious baseball sin of declining a contract with the Washington Nationals and instead accepting more money to play with the Philadelphia Phillies. The Nationals even did that thing they always do (and are currently doing in half-hearted negotiations with Rendon) by offering Harper a contract with a material chunk of the money deferred to a future date–a recipe for funny Bobby Bonilla facts but which, because of inflation and interest, hurts the value of the contract for the player. I’ve already seen the “hey the Nats never won a playoff series with Harper and now they have, he must have been holding the team back!” take several times (my personal favorite retort was noting that Doug Mientkiewicz won more World Series titles with the Boston Red Sox than Ted Williams). And unlike, say, the “Clayton Kershaw is holding the Dodgers back because he’s a choker!” narrative, this one seems actively harmful (Kershaw is extremely wealthy and while he seems like a nice guy, sports are a zero sum game so I don’t really care if he struggles because it means somebody else succeeds). Should players, artificially kept well below their fair market rate for their first half-dozen MLB seasons, and often for their first decade in professional baseball, accept less money? They should not. The Nationals have an awesome outfield and they weren’t really hurt by letting Harper go, but good on him for getting as much money as he could.
The greatest strength of the Nationals is very simple–they have a top three starting rotation that can maybe be matched in baseball, but cannot be eclipsed. Stephen Strasburg is finally starting to get the credit he deserves–after being perceived as nearly a bust because the hype surrounding him was so extraordinary, he is now an unquestioned ace-level pitcher. Max Scherzer, though his recent form has been a bit off lately, is still a terrifying sight on the mound. And Patrick Corbin, a “this really seems like overkill” free agent signing from last off-season, was merely tied for fifth in the National League in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement among pitchers (and third on his own team).
These three guys pitched more than one would expect in the modern, cautious era of pitcher usage during the NLDS. Scherzer pitched in relief; Corbin pitched in relief twice. The four Nationals pitchers who started games for them (the aforementioned three plus Anibal Sanchez) pitched a total of 33 innings; traditional relievers threw 12. Eventually, the Nationals are likely going to have to go to their actual bullpen. And if you thought the Cardinals had bullpen concerns, the Nationals’ relievers are easily the single weakest unit in this series. The team’s three most used relievers all had ERAs over 4 (and #4 had an ERA of 3.91…and #5 had an ERA of 6.65). Even closer Sean Doolittle, a normally good pitcher who is also one of the most genuinely likable players in baseball, had a 4.05 ERA, 4.25 FIP, and 5.08 xFIP this season.
If the Cardinals and Nationals were meeting in the NLDS, with both teams fresh, I’d pick the Nationals. Simply, I think they have more talent–maybe not by leaps and bounds, but by enough that I would consider them favorites. But the Cardinals are the team more equipped for this series. The key to victory for the Nationals is sprinkle in some big offensive performances so that the team can feel comfortable letting relievers/playoff memes Hunter Strickland and Fernando Rodney close out huge leads. And to be clear–this offense absolutely can do that! But will they? Eh, maybe.
I’m saying no. Cardinals in 7. I’d like to think Mike Shildt printed out FanGraphs’s playoff odds, which have the Nationals as a nearly 2-to-1 favorite, and posts them throughout the Cardinals’ locker room. Because this series is, and should be perceived as, essentially a coin flip.