by Brian McNally

WASHINGTON — Three times in the past five seasons, the Nationals have won the National League East and made the playoffs. And three times they have been eliminated in the National League Division Series in heartbreaking fashion.

Is this finally the year Washington breaks through?

The Nats enter the season with a few more question marks than 2016, formidable competition in the New York Mets, who are healthy again, and a window to win that seems to be closing fast with this current group.

But … Opening Day is the time for optimism, so here are five reasons 2017 will be different:

The Odds

Seems like shaky ground to stake your case. But the Nats have made the playoffs three times in five years and easily could have advanced in postseason series against the Dodgers (2016) and Cardinals (2012). It’s not like they were outclassed. If an 18-inning loss to the Giants (2014) goes their way then that series likely would have gone to five games, too. Even in its two “down” years, Washington won 86 (2013) and 83 (2015) games and finished second in the NL East each time.

Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA ratings system believes the Nats will win 86 games. Fangraphs sees Washington as a 92.5-win team and FiveThirtyEight has them at 92 also. In other words: Respected prediction sites believe the Nats are a good bet to make the postseason again and that’s the hardest part. October baseball is as much luck as it is skill.

Whether making it as a division champ or a wild-card team, Washington will have a legitimate shot at a World Series title.

A Full Season of Trea Turner

It took until summer for the Nats to promote their top prospect in part because they didn’t really have a position for him. So he bided his time in Triple-A learning center field, and after a promotion in the second half, he quickly became one of baseball’s best players.

A demon on the base paths, Turner stole 33 bases in 73 games. One can imagine him easily topping 50 this season. In tight playoff games, where runs are always at a premium, the Nats always seem to lose. But Turner is the type of weapon that can tip the balance by forcing his way into scoring position. He’ll hit at the top of the order again.

The one big question: Can he adjust back to shortstop, where Danny Espinosa gave Washington one of the better defensive players at the position in 2016? Either way, just having him for a full year provides huge value.

The Return of Bryce Harper

No, the 2015 Most Valuable Player didn’t go anywhere. But mysterious ailments (a neck injury?) and a sudden dropoff in production rendered him a lesser player in 2016. His mechanics seemed off. His power declined. Teams also refused to pitch to him and he didn’t handle it well the final four months of the season.

But we’re also comparing Harper’s season to one of the best seasons ever by a Major Leaguer. If he can get his OPS back up above .900 and top 30 homers — he was at .814 and 24 in 2016 — then Harper will do more than his fair share to get Washington back to the postseason as he inches closer to free agency.

The Rotation

There’s some concern here. Stephen Strasburg’s health is always a worry, though he showed no signs of problems in spring training. Max Scherzer is now 32. Will he begin the decline phase of his career? Gio Gonzalez is a reliable, if frustrating, presence. Tanner Roark is simply one of the best pitchers in baseball with a sub-3.00 ERA in two of the last three years.

The Nats hope Joe Ross can give them a full season. The depth isn’t what it was and the health of the top two starters can’t be taken for granted. But as a group, this again should be Washington’s strength and will give it a chance to win virtually every night.

Roster Upgrades

The Nats had to give up three highly regarded prospects, including top pitching prospect Lucas Giolito, to do it, but they acquired a quality starting outfielder in Adam Eaton. He is a fine defensive player and lengthens the lineup as a No. 2 or No. 6 hitter.

Eaton had a .790 OPS last season. He isn’t a player who carries a team, but he’s a professional bat in a lineup that needed another one and can handle center field or right field, though he’s a better fit in right than center, where he will play the majority of his innings.

Washington lost Wilson Ramos to free agency, but their longtime catcher was gone before last season even ended, thanks to a torn right ACL on September 26. They weren’t going to replace Ramos’ bat at that position, but adding catcher Matt Wieters late in free agency at least stabilizes them there.

Wieters, 30, never became the star expected when Baltimore drafted him No. 5 overall in 2007. But he has power (117 career homers), a strong arm even after 2014 Tommy John surgery to repair torn elbow ligaments and a reputation as a smart game manager. Advanced analytics question Wieters’ pitch-framing skills, but as a No. 8 hitter and a veteran catcher he has value.

The Nats are a deeper team in 2017. Maybe this really is their year.

Follow Brian McNally on Twitter.


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