Grading the 2017 Washington Nationals: Position players

Photo by Marlene Koenig for TalkNats

Sorry, Nats position players: You don’t escape without being graded too, just like the pitchers.

(In case I need to disclaim: These grades are determined by an entirely unscientific process that involves my own gut feeling. Disagree? Tell me why I’m wrong in the comments section. That’s what it’s there for!)

Again, I thought about splitting this up, but Howie Kendrick, Adam Lind, and Wilmer Difo all played both infield and outfield this season and…huh. That’s actually not very many guys who did both. Oh well.

Matt Wieters

Well, jeez. The Nats signed Matt Wieters to a two-year, $21 million deal thinking they were getting the multiple-time Gold Glover and All-Star, and instead, they ended up with a guy who turned in the worst offensive season by any everyday catcher in baseball. I mean yikes. There were guys who hit for a slightly lower average, but Wieters was preternaturally bereft of power this season after popping 17 home runs last year; he hit just 10 in 2017. He finished up with a .225/.632 line, with a sad 63 OPS+ (which adjusts for home ballpark conditions).

Wieters was also far from exceptional behind the plate. Once, and as recently as 2016, among baseball’s premiere defenders against stolen bases, his caught-stealing rate plummeted from 35% last year to 25% this year. After allowing just one passed ball last year, he had five this year in just two more games started. Baseball Prospectus also rated him among the worst catchers in the league at pitch-framing, calculating that he cost his team 7.1 runs that way. It was two defensive misplays by Wieters (one of which was incorrectly called by the umpiring crew) that provided the Chicago Cubs with two crucial runs in Game 5, making him one of the authors of the Nats’ last loss of the year.

All that being said, Wieters consistently earned high marks from his pitchers, who praised him for calling good games. Gio Gonzalez was effusive after Wieters caught eight no-hit innings from him in July, while Max Scherzer often credited Wieters’ pitch-calling during his career-best, Cy Young Award-worthy campaign. The stats do bear this out: Wieters posted a 3.61 catcher’s ERA, markedly better than the team’s overall 3.88 ERA.

It might not be saying much (we’ll get to that in a moment), but Wieters was undoubtedly the Nats’ best catcher in 2017. They’ll just have to hope that, assuming he doesn’t opt-out of the second year of his deal, he’s a bit higher on the MLB leaderboard next season.

Grade for Matt Wieters: D+

Jose Lobaton

Jose Lobaton was the worst player in baseball to somehow stick on a major league roster for an entire season this year. Never by any means a good hitter, Lobaton cratered to a .170/.525 line this season, which is abysmal. It took until June 24, in his 21st game played, for him to record his first RBI that didn’t come on a solo home run (it was his third overall). Lobaton didn’t make up for it with great catching skills, either, with a terrible 20% caught-stealing rate, six errors and three passed balls in just 50 games, and a horrendous 4.48 catcher’s ERA. He was worth a full win below replacement, according to Baseball-Reference. The Nats went 17-26 in his starts. He was picked off first base in Game 5 of the NLDS, with a runner on second base, to end the inning. It was his only appearance of the playoffs.

Lobaton is a free agent this winter. He’ll be very, very fortunate to get a major league deal heading into his age-33 season. While he was a fun presence in the Nats’ clubhouse, Lobaton’s on-field contributions surely will not be missed.

Grade for Jose Lobaton: F

Ryan Zimmerman

Once regarded as the “face of the franchise” in Washington, Ryan Zimmerman had seen his career fall on hard times in recent years. Forced to move across the infield to first base after shoulder issues limited his arm at third base, Zimmerman promptly slumped in 2015 (also dealing with plantar fasciitis and other injuries that season) and 2016 (again losing time to injury but rarely effective even when healthy). Although only heading into his age-32 season, Zimmerman looked like he might be coming up on the end.

As it turned out, Zimmerman played like a man with something to prove, and boy, did he prove it. Earning his first All-Star berth since 2009 with an incandescent first half, Zimmerman dropped off a little in the middle part of the season but still finished with a .303/.930 batting line that will likely net him some Most Valuable Player Award votes. Surprisingly, Baseball-Reference was fairly lukewarm on him with a 2.7 WAR, although after being a zero-WAR player over the previous three seasons, that’s a significant improvement.

Zimmerman’s career year can give the Nats substantial hope that their former and current star can be a future star as well. That would transform a contract extension that was looking like one of the worst business decisions in franchise history just a year ago into something like a net positive, or at least net neutral; he remains under team control through 2020, with the final year figuring as an $18 million team option.

Grade for Ryan Zimmerman: A+

Daniel Murphy

It’s weird how quietly Daniel Murphy turned in a second straight MVP-caliber season, overshadowed by the big comeback story of Zimmerman at first base, the big breakout of Anthony Rendon at third base, the ever-popular saga of Bryce Harper in the outfield, and of course the incredible pitching performances of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. But for the second consecutive year, Murphy placed second only to a member of the Colorado Rockies in the National League batting race, and his .322/.928 line figures as “elite”, especially for a second baseman.

Murphy appeared at times to be trying out new approaches at the plate, which are borne out by oddly symmetrical increases in his walk and strikeout rates from his career year in 2016. In just 11 more plate appearances than 2016, Murphy walked 17 more times and struck out 20 more times than he did last year. Neither rate is still particularly high, but it’s an interesting deviation; his walk total of 52 during the regular season ranks as by far the highest of his career.

Overall, Baseball-Reference also thought Murphy was somewhat less valuable this year, reckoning him for a 2.8 WAR, down a little less than two full wins from 2016. That’s still a solid sum, especially for a player who made $12 million this year and has intangible benefits to his team because he serves as a de facto hitting coach when he’s not out on the field himself.

Grade for Daniel Murphy: A-

Anthony Rendon

Wow, what a year for Anthony Rendon. Last year voted the NL Comeback Player of the Year for rebounding to nearly 2014 levels after struggling through injuries that limited his playing time and power in 2015, Rendon this year is a legitimate candidate for MVP. He had a stellar offensive year, with the rare triple slash of better than .300/.400/.500 (or .301/.937, in terms of average and OPS), while rating as one of the best defensive third basemen in the game.

Somehow, Rendon was not invited to the All-Star Game, with Nolan Arenado and Justin Turner representing the National League’s third basemen. He’ll be in the conversation for both a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger, along with the MVP award most people believe will go to Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton, but there is a very real possibility that Rendon will end up collecting no hardware for a truly stellar season in which he was worth 5.9 rWAR, hit a career-high 25 home runs, and batted in a career-high 100 runs.

Rendon has unfortunately not performed well in his past two postseason series. Game 1 this year was a horrible time for him to commit his first fielding error in two and a half months, a botched transfer on a groundball along the third-base line that ultimately led to a run scoring. But Rendon hardly stood alone among players in that series whose bats were put into deep freeze by excellent pitching from the other side. Aside from the crucial error on a ball that could have easily been ruled foul, it’s hard to blame Rendon for how the series turned out.

Grade for Anthony Rendon: A

Trea Turner

Trea Turner burst onto the scene in the middle of last year and immediately put up crazy offensive numbers while doing a competent job in a position he had never played before, center field. This year, after moving to shortstop, he couldn’t quite replicate the performance that had made him a surprisingly strong second in NL Rookie of the Year voting. Turner missed about two months with a broken wrist after being hit by a pitch and demonstrated substantially less power than he had in 2016.

In 2016, Turner tripled eight times and homered 13 times in just 324 plate appearances, which is not too shabby at all for a guy who was never regarded as much of a power threat. But in 2017, given 447 plate appearances, Turner hit just six triples and 11 home runs. The numbers confirm what the eye test said: Turner’s power stroke just didn’t quite come back this year, and it wasn’t all because of the broken wrist. Turner had 315 plate appearances in the first half, broadly comparable to his entire 2016 campaign, and put up only seven homers and four triples. His worst month of the season was actually May, in which he hit an anemic .239/.630. He struggled particularly against left-handed pitchers, demonstrating pronounced reverse platoon splits.

All of this belies a .284/.789 batting line that most teams would gladly take from a speedy shortstop who is capable of leading off. Turner also posted a franchise high in stolen bases with 46 despite missing roughly a third of the season. His defense moving back to the infield was solid, although Baseball-Reference rates it as slightly below average in terms of defensive runs saved; remarkably, he only committed eight errors during the season. Baseball-Reference pegs him for 2.6 WAR, most of it generated on offense.

Turner was among the many authors of the Nats’ playoff defeat, as although manager Dusty Baker used him as his leadoff hitter in all five games, he never rewarded Baker, hitting a paltry .143/.408 and only stealing one base in the series. The Nats will have to find a way to make Turner a more consistent hitter under the bright lights; in the 2016 NLDS, he struck out 11 times in 24 plate appearances. And they will hope he will get a shot at redemption batting in the top of the order in October 2018.

Grade for Trea Turner: B

Jayson Werth

This was the veteran Jayson Werth’s age-38 season, and there’s not much else to say but that he played like it. Father Time is undefeated, and although Werth remained an everyday player longer than most, he is staring down the barrel of a likely bench role if he can even get a major league guarantee at all after hitting just .226/.715 around an extended stint on the disabled list following what appeared to be a fairly innocuous foul ball to the foot in early June.

Werth actually was doing pretty well before the injury — not a world-beater, but hardly embarrassing himself with a .262/.814 line and eight home runs through 196 plate appearances. But after returning in late August, Werth was one of the worst players in baseball, hitting just .155/.512 for the rest of the season. This offensive downturn was compounded as Baker moved Werth to right field in the absence of Bryce Harper, where he committed three errors in 129 innings and appeared at times to be lost, infamously once losing a flyball in the lights, reaching up to catch it, and then reacting with apparent confusion when the ball dropped about 20 feet behind him. Even after moving back to left field, Werth was little better, multiple times coming within inches or feet of catching a ball in the playoffs that a better left fielder would have handled.

The question about Werth that will be asked in front offices around baseball is whether the agonizing performance down the stretch is the new normal for the shaggy outfielder, or whether a full off-season of rest and little or no time in the field will lead to a resurgence in Werth’s offensive numbers toward something like the slash line he put up before getting hurt. While Werth is unlikely to get any offers to play every day in the major leagues, he could get a deal to play off the bench or even platoon at designated hitter if there are teams that believe he can return to form at age 39. And the question about Werth that the veteran himself will have to ask if he doesn’t get any offers to his liking is whether it is time to surrender to Father Time and consider a job as a coach or special assistant — maybe even with these Washington Nationals.

Grade for Jayson Werth: D

Adam Eaton

This was supposed to be a great year for the Nats with an unstoppable line-up. They acquired Adam Eaton for three top pitching prospects over the winter and (after a fashion) installed him at the top of the order, giving Washington a truly potent L-R-L-R-L-R top six of Eaton-Turner-Harper-Zimmerman-Murphy-Rendon. The results didn’t lie: In April, the Nats were by far baseball’s best offense, and Eaton exploded out the gate with what would have been a career year at the plate…

But Eaton’s .297/.854 batting line would end up standing for the entire year, as the Nats’ center fielder tore ligaments in his knee while running hard to beat out an infield single in a late-April game against the New York Mets. Eaton, who had become a fan favorite in just a few weeks in the curly W, vowed to do all he could to come back in time for the playoffs. He didn’t quite make it.

The good news is that Eaton should be fully healed and is still under contract through 2021. He turns 29 in December, so he’s nowhere close to being over the hill. The Nats will hope for an entire season of Eaton, with no freak injuries or any other ailments — and they’ll hope it looks like April 2017 did. He seems likely to slot in as Washington’s leadoff or two-hole hitter next year, reprising a tough tandem with Turner that should frequently give the heart of the order a runner or two in scoring position to drive home.

Grade for Adam Eaton: incomplete

Bryce Harper

Amazingly, Bryce Harper just wrapped up his sixth straight full season in the major leagues. Oh, and he just turned 25. The former wunderkind has become a reliable star, returning to form after playing through a little-discussed injury last year that limited his effectiveness at the plate; he turned in a .319/1.008 batting line around yet another freak injury that left him with little time to gird for the postseason.

Harper looked like he was on course for possibly a second MVP award when he injured his knee on the exact same play that took down his teammate Eaton months earlier. In a rain-soaked game against the San Francisco Giants in mid-August, Harper hyperextended his knee but miraculously avoided ligament damage. Even still, it took weeks for Harper to recover from the bone bruising and calf muscle strain, and he came back still searching for his timing at the plate. He launched just one home run after coming off the disabled list, but it was a big one: a no-doubter crushed to right field to tie Game 2, just when the Cubs appeared on course to take a commanding 2–0 series lead.

When he wasn’t himself in 2016, Harper sought to help his team in other ways, most notably by using his healthy legs. Harper stole 21 bases last year (although he was caught 10 times, a rather poor success rate), but this year, he appeared to abandon base-stealing as part of his offensive strategy, swiping just four plus one more in the postseason. And while Harper’s triple slash approached his 2015 greatness, in which he was unanimously voted as National League MVP, the WAR calculators weren’t quite as impressed; after totaling nearly 10 rWAR in 2015, Harper was credited with a (still-impressive) 4.7 rWAR this year.

Grade for Bryce Harper: A-

Michael A. Taylor

The Nats needed someone to step up after the injury to Eaton, and Michael A. Taylor was perhaps an unlikely candidate. Hitting just .095/.226 in extremely limited action to that point in the season, Taylor was asked to fill in for a potential All-Star. He did it. Although he continued to exhibit a high strikeout rate and endure cold streaks, Taylor ended a third straight season filling in for an injured starting center fielder with a career-best .271/.806 batting line and 19 home runs (plus two more mammoth blasts, one of them a grand slam, in the postseason).

Taylor was the Nats’ postseason hero on offense this year, with a .333/1.178 line over the five games the team played. It certainly wasn’t his fault they didn’t get past the Cubs, as his big blast put Game 4 on ice and a three-run shot early in Game 5 gave the Nats the lead. During the regular season, he and Brian Goodwin paired well in filling in for Eaton (Goodwin stepped into the role after Taylor injured an oblique and missed more than a month midway through the season), with Taylor providing the superior defense of the two. Taylor also remained a stolen-base threat, bagging 17 this season, although he was caught seven times. Baseball-Reference gives him a 2.6 WAR, his first-ever positive rating by that metric.

On the whole, Taylor effectively resuscitated a playing career that was on life support after an unimpressive rookie season in 2015 and a downright disastrous year bouncing between Triple-A Syracuse and the majors in 2016. The Nats, facing a glut of outfielders, could choose to use this moment to sell high on a young player with promising tools who finally managed to put them all together this year; or they could stick with Taylor as their starting center fielder next season, shifting Eaton to a corner, believing that this breakout season and great NLDS performance signals that their former top outfield prospect has finally turned a long-awaited corner.

Grade for Michael Taylor: A-

Brian Goodwin

Quietly, Brian Goodwin turned in a critical season filling in first for the injured Werth in left field and then for the injured Taylor in center field. The pop we’d been hearing about for years showed up, as he cranked 13 home runs in 278 plate appearances en route to a .251/.811 batting line closely mimicking what Werth contributed prior to his injury. Unfortunately, the injury bug came for Goodwin too, who was hurt just a day after Harper’s knee injury and would not pick up a bat in a major league game for the rest of the season (although he was called upon for a couple innings in left field during the NLDS).

Baseball-Reference was less impressed with Goodwin’s contributions, giving him just a 0.3 WAR despite the work he did plugging holes in an injury-plagued outfield. And it’s certainly true that Goodwin was overshadowed by the emergence of Taylor, the exciting debut of Victor Robles, and big contributions from part-time players Howie Kendrick and Adam Lind this season. But for a team that needed a few third-stringers to step up, Goodwin got the job done.

Grade for Brian Goodwin: B+

Chris Heisey

The first impending free agent the Nats re-signed last year (not counting Stephen Strasburg, extended on a multi-year deal midway through the season) was reserve outfielder and pinch-hitter extraordinaire Chris Heisey. Although his overall stats weren’t particularly impressive, Heisey starred in a few great moments for the team in 2016, including a three-run home run in NLDS Game 5 that brought the Nats within a run of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Unfortunately, 2017 wasn’t as kind to Heisey, who couldn’t stay healthy and was totally unproductive when he wasn’t on the disabled list.

By the time the Nats released Heisey in late July, he had struggled to a dreadful .162/.485 line over just 79 plate appearances. The 32-year-old didn’t catch on anywhere and spent the rest of the season as a free agent, having faced a significant setback earlier that month trying to rush back from a ruptured biceps tendon. While he was reportedly a favorite of Baker and formed a close friendship with fellow part-time player Stephen Drew in 2016, Heisey appears very unlikely to return to the fold with the Nats, and after making the team as a non-roster invitee last year, he’ll probably have to hope for the same outcome with another organization next spring.

Grade for Chris Heisey: F-

Ryan Raburn

The Nats found a ready replacement for the oft-injured Heisey this year in veteran utilityman Ryan Raburn. Despite past experience at multiple infield and outfield positions, Raburn was used exclusively as a left fielder and pinch-hitter in his time with the Nats, which was truncated by a trapezius injury in late July that ultimately ended his season. All told, he hit .262/.735 across 69 plate appearances, not great but not unduly awful for a 36-year-old acquired in a minor trade with the Chicago White Sox and called up as bench depth from Triple-A Syracuse midway through the season.

Grade for Ryan Raburn: C

Howie Kendrick

The Nats finally acquired a permanent solution to their revolving door of right-handed corner outfielders when they acquired Howie Kendrick in a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies in late July. Kendrick, who had dealt with injuries in the first half of the season, posted very impressive August numbers and appeared to provide the Nats with an immediate boost in the lineup, slotting into the hole left by the injured Jayson Werth and then by Bryce Harper. But he couldn’t sustain his hot hitting in September, and by the time the playoffs rolled around, he had seen his once-abundant playing time dry up almost entirely. He ultimately hit .293/.837 for the Nats over 178 plate appearances while hitting an uncharacteristic seven home runs, a degree of power he hadn’t demonstrated in years. Kendrick is a free agent this winter, another rental who performed well for the Nats but wasn’t a factor in a still-elusive league pennant, much less a world championship.

Grade for Howie Kendrick: B


This entry was posted in Analysis. Bookmark the permalink.