In 2012, the favored Washington Nationals collapsed against the St. Louis Cardinals. In 2014, the favored Washington Nationals never really got going against the San Francisco Giants. In 2016, the Washington Nationals are *not* favored in the NLDS, despite having home-field advantage for the third time. In fact, not many people give them much of a chance of beating a team with their own set of playoff demons in recent seasons, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Will this be the year the Nationals finally break through and reach the NLCS, or will the Dodgers prevail to set up a tantalizing matchup with either the Chicago Cubs or San Francisco Giants?
The one word that will probably come up more than any other in this series is “health.” The Nationals are far from healthy, while the Dodgers are finally on the mend. Washington will be without catcher Wilson Ramos and starter Stephen Strasburg in the NLDS, while second baseman Daniel Murphy and outfielder Bryce Harper are both banged up.
This is obviously less than ideal. Murphy was the Nationals’ best hitter in 2016, and Ramos wasn’t far behind him. Harper is the reigning NL MVP. Strasburg was the team’s second- or third-best starter this season. These injuries are forcing some lesser players into key roles. Rookie Pedro Severino, who has all of 32 career major league at-bats, will get the start behind the plate in Game 1, while Gio Gonzalez slides into the starting rotation for the Nationals behind Max Scherzer and (presumably) Tanner Roark. Harper and Murphy are both expected to play and start in their usual positions for the Nationals.
As for the Dodgers, their injury questions are nonexistent. Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill missed time during the regular season, but will start the first two games of the series, piggybacked by Kenta Maeda in Game 3. All of the Dodgers’ top relievers, aside from Adam Liberatore, are healthy. None of their key position players are battling any ailments. For a team that dealt with so many injuries this year, walking into the Postseason relatively unscathed is a boon for Los Angeles.
Gonzalez is really the key for the Nationals. He’s the one left-hander that Washington can start in this series, which is important, given that the Dodgers are pitiful against left-handed pitchers. That’s also why Dusty Baker will be carrying three lefty relievers in this series — likely, the trio of Oliver Perez, Mark Rzepczynski, and Sammy Solis. Runs in those late-game situations could be at a premium, emphasizing the need for the Dodgers to jump on Washington’s starting pitching.
Offensively, the advantage rests with the Dodgers, and it would have even if the Nationals were fully healthy. The word that may best describe the Nationals offense is “pedestrian.” Jayson Werth is hitting .244/.335/.417, good for a 101 wRC+. Danny Espinosa has 24 homers, but his overall .209/.306/.378 line results in a 79 wRC+. Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper each have a 112 wRC+. Ryan Zimmerman looks about cooked, hitting .218/.272/.370 with 15 homers – that’s a 67 wRC+.
And then, there are the Dodgers. Chase Utley has had a mediocre year, hitting .252/.319/.396 (97 wRC+), and the right field “platoon” of Josh Reddick and Yasiel Puig has been varying degrees of disappointing (.258/.307/.335 for Reddick, .263/.323/.416 for Puig)… but that’s about all in terms of mediocrity. Adrian Gonzalez’s .285/.349/.435 line isn’t great, but it’s still good for a 112 wRC+. Shortstop Corey Seager has homered 26 times and is hitting .308/.365/.512. Third baseman Justin Turner has hit 27 longballs and put together a .275/.339/.493 line. Catcher Yasmani Grandal has 27 homers and a weird-looking .228/.339/.477 line, while center fielder Joc Pederson is slashing .246/.352/.495 with 25 dingers.
Scherzer is capable of outdueling Kershaw in Game 1, and one or two runs may be enough for either team to claim the first game of the series. Getting one win in a Kershaw-started game would be massive for the Nationals, especially if Gonzalez can exploit the Dodgers’ struggles against left-handers in what will probably be his one start of the series.
However, that may be asking too much. Los Angeles is simply too strong, and too healthy, for the Nationals to handle in this series. With a healthy Ramos and Strasburg on the roster, this would be a much more competitive series. Alas, the Nationals will probably see another fine opportunity to win a playoff series fall by the wayside due to circumstances outside of their control.