With about two more months to go until the regular season ends, and with the postseason picture becoming more clear, it’s become obvious that unless something changes drastically, the Nats are going to play the winner of the NL Central in the playoffs. And right now, it’s looking like that team is going to be the Cubs (unless the Brewers can fulfill my chaos-fueled wishes and unseat the Cubs).
The Nationals are currently in the middle of their series at Wrigley, and with one more game to go between the two, the season series stands tied at three apiece. Whoever wins Sunday’s game wins the season series, and, more importantly, holds the tiebreaker over the other should their overall records be tied at the end of the season, meaning that team would get home field advantage in the playoffs. Despite what their records might end up being, home field advantage is huge, and it’s important to win Sunday’s game.
Nonetheless, besides that small reason, the series finale doesn’t matter nearly as much as the playoffs. As the Nationals currently have a banged-up squad and a cushy division lead, the biggest concern is looking ahead to the playoffs. In doing that, we can take a look at the potential NLDS matchup and see who has the advantage, position by position.
First Base: Zimmerman vs. Rizzo
Advantage: Nationals (slightly)
The only reason I say slightly is because Rizzo has turned around from his miserable start of the season and has gotten rather hot of late. Rizzo currently sports a slash line of .260/.388/.515, while Zimmerman sports one of .309/.352/.573. Zim has mashed 24 home runs and driven in 76, cooling off a little bit after his hot start, and Rizzo has 26 home runs and has driven in 70. Both have been playing some solid defense, and both have been fairly clutch hitters. Rizzo is hitting .289 with RISP, and .261 with two outs, while Zimmerman is hitting .305 with RISP and and .312 with two outs. While I’m sure some people with no faith in Zimmerman’s season would still pick Rizzo, Zimmerman is having an MVP-caliber season, and if he can find his stroke and get hot at the right time, he’ll be a force to contend with in the postseason.
Second Base: Murphy vs. Zobrist
This one was no contest. Last year’s World Series MVP just hasn’t found his touch again. While his season has been hindered by injuries, his .225/.317/.368 slash line is still pretty ugly. He’s driven in a mere 32 runs and hit eight homers. Meanwhile, Murphy is having yet another MVP-worthy season, hitting .332/.384/.577, along with 19 home runs and 76 RBI. Murphy is also considerably more clutch: with RISP, Zobrist is hitting .211 while Murphy is hitting a ridiculous .425. Murphy just continues to produce, and he doesn’t look to be stopping anytime soon. Not to mention that he has tortured the Cubs in recent history. This category has a clear winner.
Third Base: Rendon vs. Bryant
The baseball world gasps! How dare I pick Rendon over last year’s MVP! Well… Rendon is playing much better. He’s having a monster year, while Bryant just isn’t recapturing his MVP form. Bryant is hitting .275/.388/.509 with 20 home runs and 48 RBI, while Rendon is hitting .312/.417/.574 with 21 home runs and 71 RBI. Still aren’t convinced yet? With RISP, Bryant is hitting .225 while Rendon is hitting .380. This isn’t even bringing the defense into account. Bryant is solid, but tends to move around on the field a bunch. Rendon consistently plays Gold Glove-caliber third, and he would be talked about so much more if it wasn’t for a particular someone in Colorado. Last year might have been a different story, but this year, it’s Rendon’s turn.
Shortstop: Turner vs. Russell/Baez
Advantage: Nationals (when healthy)
This category is a lot more up in the air because of the number of injury questions. Turner has been out since late June after getting hit on the wrist, and there’s no guarantee of how he’ll perform when he comes back. But a completely healthy Turner has the advantage over either Addison Russell or Javier Baez, the Cubs’ options for shortstop. While not having the ridiculous rookie season he did last year, Turner was hitting a respectable .279/.324/.422 with 7 home runs, 32 RBI, and 53 runs scored doing the primary chunk of his work from the leadoff spot. Russell, while battling injuries and issues of his own, hit .241/.305/.417 with 10 home runs and 36 RBI. Baez is hitting .267/.306/.487 with 15 home runs and 45 RBI. Not to mention that Turner is hitting .297 with RISP while Russell and Baez are hitting .211 and .250. All three of the shortstops can play high-caliber, electric defense, but Trea’s X-factor is his speed. So far this season he’s swiped 35 bases, using his speed to unsettle opposing pitchers and fielders. Russell and Baez have stolen 7 bases between them. Turner has the ability to jumpstart an offense, and the Nationals will desperately need it when he comes back. A healthy Turner has the advantage over the Cubs, but without him the Cubs take the shortstop advantage. Wilmer Difo has been doing an excellent job in Trea’s absence, but it isn’t the same.
Catcher: Wieters vs. Contreras
This is the first position in which I believe the Cubs have a distinct advantage. Matt Wieters, while starting out fairly hot, has significantly decreased his productivity, while Willson Contreras has been absolutely white-hot of late. Wieters is hitting .244/.295/.373 with 7 home runs and 38 RBI, while Contreras is hitting .279/.347/.514 with 19 homers and 68 RBI. Both have been clutch, but Contreras still has the edge, hitting .392 with RISP over Wieters’s .308. Contreras is the Cubs’ best hitter, along with some great catching and an arm that can throw out runners left and right. Wieters’s numbers have been underwhelming, and a hot streak could really help the Nationals in the postseason.
Left Field: Werth vs. Schwarber
Advantage: Nationals (when healthy)
The only reason this one is a question at all is because of health. Kyle Schwarber is having a miserable season, hitting .192/.306/.421 with 17 home runs and 36 RBI. He has had a lot of trouble, and was even sent down to the minors at one point during the season. Werth, in very limited time, has fared better: .262/.367/.446 with 8 homers and 28 runs scored (all in 47 games), along with a solid .300 with RISP compared to Schwarber’s .145. However, a toe injury has sidelined him longer than expected. When healthy, left field is no contest. But the question remains health: can Werth come back soon, and can he perform at the level he was at?
Center Field: Taylor vs. Almora/Happ
Advantage: Nationals (slightly)
Before his injury, Taylor was having a remarkable season filling in for Adam Eaton. He hit .278/.320/.510, all considerably higher than his career average, along with 12 home runs and 35 RBI, perhaps on pace to break his career highs. Meanwhile, center field has been a bit of a rotating door for the Cubs; Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ have been sharing most of the time along with Jon Jay. Almora has hit .272/.326/.391 with 4 homers and 23 RBI in 86 games, while Happ has hit .244/.319/.491 with 14 homers and 35 RBI in 68 games. Taylor has the slight edge in clutch status, hitting .286 with RISP while Almora and Happ are hitting .262 and .264. Taylor has also been playing stellar defense and doing a steady job leading off. Fortunately for the Nationals, he does seem to be making progress in his rehab appearances, and hopefully his return is imminent. Brian Goodwin has been performing admirably in his absence, but a healthy Taylor gives the Nationals a slight edge.
Right Field: Harper vs. Heyward
The fact that I’m even trying to make a comparison is a little laughable. Harper wins this one in a landslide, returning to his MVP form and perhaps on his way to another MVP honor. Harper is hitting .327/.424/.620 with 28 home runs and 81 RBI, while Heyward is hitting .247/.304/.387 with 8 homers and 39 RBI. And I think that’s all I need to say about that.
Advantage: Nationals (when healthy)
On paper, these look to be two of the best rotations in the National League. Last year, this would have been a matchup to behold. But this year, the Cubs’ rotation just hasn’t performed. Their starters have an ERA of 4.33, with an opposing slash line of .248/.316/.426, a 2.66 K/BB, and a 287 BABIP. All of these numbers are significantly worse than their 2016 numbers, most notably the ERA, which was 2.96. Their lowest starter ERA is Kyle Hendricks with 3.81; Hendricks ended last year with an ERA of 2.13. In contrast, the Nationals starters have an era of 3.63, with an opposing slash line of .229/.299/.383, a 3.06 K/BB, and a .282 BABIP; and all of these numbers would be considerably better without a few fluke starts.
Among their four main starters, the Nationals only have one starter with an ERA worse than the Hendricks (the Cubs starter with the best ERA), and that is Tanner Roark with a 4.80 ERA. In fact, Max Scherzer’s and Gio Gonzalez’s ERAs (2.21 and 2.66 respectively) rank second and third in the National League, behind only Clayton Kershaw. The Nationals would take this one easily, but the real question is health. Stephen Strasburg is currently sidelined, hopefully for a short amount of time, but there are still questions in the air. Scherzer has a stiff neck and says he’s okay, but I still instinctively worry. Gio isn’t injured, but he’s currently on paternity leave at a shaky time for the rotation. These pop-up injuries, along with Joe Ross going down, has left the rotation less than solid, but Roark coming back to form recently has anchored the starters for the moment. If all four starters come back healthy and performing well, the Nats starters have the significant advantage.
Despite recent additions the Nationals made, the Cubs still win this category by a big margin. I feel like I don’t even have to spit out that many numbers; this has been the story the entire season for the Nats. The Cubs bullpen has an ERA of 3.37 and an opposing batting average of .213, while the Nats bullpen has an ERA of 5.11 and an opposing batting average of .272. While the deadline acquisitions of Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, and Brandon Kintzler help boost the bullpen and give it a whole new look, the Cubs countered by acquiring Justin Wilson from the Tigers, who was a potential target of the Nationals. In short: the offense needs to get to the starters before the bullpen comes into the game.
With all things considered position-by-position, on paper, it looks like the advantage goes to the Nationals. However, that advantage relies heavily on health status. The Nationals very much need Werth, Turner, and Taylor back for this to work. They’ve been chugging along without them, but it hasn’t been easy. Health is the number one key to success. Additionally, anything can happen in the postseason. I can say anything I want here, but nothing matters except what happens on the field in October.