On paper, a Nationals-Dodgers NL Division Series is a fascinating matchup, because there's certainly no shortage of name value. Clayton Kershaw! Bryce Harper! Max Scherzer! Game 1 is Friday at 5:30 p.m. ET/2:30 p.m. PT on FS1.
But if we've learned anything about how postseason baseball works, it's about timing as much as it is anything else, and the timing is absolutely not working in Washington's favor right now. Stephen Strasburg (flexor) and Wilson Ramos (knee) won't be available, while it remains to be seen how much Daniel Murphy (buttocks) and Harper (thumb/shoulder, maybe) will be able to provide. Meanwhile, the Dodgers are finally getting healthy, with Kershaw and Rich Hill each taking regular turns.
Still, it remains arguably the most interesting matchup of the first round, just because of how much star power there is on both sides. Let's go through a position-by-position breakdown.
:: NLDS: Dodgers vs. Nationals coverage ::
This should have been a tough call, because of the 24 catchers with at least 300 plate appearances this year, the hitting rankings went like this: 1) Ramos, 124 wRC+ 2) Yasmani Grandal, 123 wRC+. (That's Weighted Runs Created Plus, where 100 is league average.) But now the Nationals are forced to go with backups Jose Lobaton (career line of .226/.302/.331, 77 wRC+) and rookie Pedro Severino (38 career plate appearances), while the Dodgers not only get Grandal's 27 home runs, they get what Baseball Prospectus refers to as baseball's best pitch-framing catcher.
Big advantage: Dodgers
Adrián González, who turned 34 in May, put up his weakest full season (112 wRC+), and had his lowest slugging percentage (.435, well below his career average of .492). While he had a brief summer resurgence, as 10 of his 18 homers this year came in July and August, Gonzalez finished the year ice cold, hitting .239/.297/.348 (77 wRC+) after Sept. 1. Still, Ryan Zimmerman, who turned 32 in late September, put up a .218/.272 /370 (67 wRC+) line that wasn't only his worst season, it was the sixth-weakest of 203 hitters with at least 400 plate appearances.
Murphy is very likely to gain Most Valuable Player support, for good reason -- he was the second-best hitter in the league this year, and you might remember what he did last postseason. Unfortunately, Murphy's sore backside has kept him from starting since Sept. 17, and while he's expected to play in the NLDS, it's fair to ask how much he'll be affected. On the other hand, while Chase Utley has been essentially a league-average hitter this year (97 wRC+), much of that came during a hot start that he couldn't maintain. Since June 1, Utley is hitting only .236/.292/.381 (83 wRC+).
Big advantage: Nationals, if Murphy is healthy
Though Danny Espinosa's lack of ability to get on base (.306 OBP) led to poor overall offensive production (79 wRC+), a career-high 24 home runs and baseball's strongest shortstop throwing arm (average of 91 mph on "competitive throws"), per Statcast™) allowed him to be useful. Even so, Corey Seager put up a .308/.365/.512 (137 wRC+) rookie season that lets you choose your accolade: Best shortstop season this year? Yep. Best shortstop season by a Dodger, ever? Yep. Squarely in the MVP race? You bet.
Big advantage: Dodgers
Would you believe that over the last three seasons, the only third basemen to outhit Justin Turner (138 wRC+) are Josh Donaldson (146 wRC+) and Kris Bryant (143 wRC+)? But don't sleep on Anthony Rendon, who had a fantastic 2014 before an injury-plagued '15. Like Turner, Rendon got off to a slow start this year, hitting a woeful .242/.310/.286 (63 wRC+) in April, and like Turner, Rendon has been much better since, hitting .275/.355/.481 (120 wRC+) after May 1. Turner gets the edge, but this is closer than you think.
Small advantage: Dodgers
Without a regular left fielder in Los Angeles, this looks like a job share between rookie lefty Andrew Toles and veteran righty Howie Kendrick. Toles has had just 115 plate appearances, but has raked (.314/.365/.505, 132 wRC+) and has shown a cannon arm that averages 97.5 mph; Kendrick has been below-average (91 wRC+) with a weak arm (85.5 mph) and may spot for Utley at second against lefties. For Washington, 37-year-old Jayson Werth has had himself a decent year (101 wRC+) after a poor 2015, but his days as a big slugger seem to be behind him. Werth has, however, crushed lefties both this year (172 wRC+) and for his career (149 wRC+), which could be a big deal against Kershaw and Hill.
If not for Seager, then Trea Turner would probably have the NL Rookie of the Year Award all to himself, because Turner has been nothing short of spectacular. He's basically put up the same line (.342/.370/.567, 147 wRC+) as Nelson Cruz, except Turner has done it with good center-field defense and elite speed, stealing 33 bases in half a season. Los Angeles' Joc Pederson, for his part, did a great job stemming last year's second half collapse, increasing his slugging percentage from .417 to .495 while also improving his contact rate and reducing his whiffs.
That this is so close tells you a lot about Harper, who since May 1 has been just average -- .235/.367/.392 (100 wRC+) -- as whispers about whether he was fully healthy were piling up even before his latest thumb injury. Meanwhile, the Dodgers hoped to replace Yasiel Puig with a trade for Josh Reddick, who was a wreck in August (.161/.223/.172) before an outstanding September (.382/.417/.544). And Puig himself, infamously demoted to Triple-A after the Reddick deal, has shown excellent power since his return (.281/.338/.561, 137 wRC+). These are three talented players, and it's so difficult to know which version of them you'll get on any given day.
Slight advantage: Nationals
Depending on the starter, the Dodgers could have some combination of Puig, Andre Ethier, Kendrick, Charlie Culberson, Carlos Ruiz, and catcher/infielder Austin Barnes on the bench, and that's a deep group that has experience and versatility. Murphy's availability could affect the Nats, but expect to see names like Severino and veterans Clint Robinson, Chris Heisey, Ben Revere, and Stephen Drew for Washington.
When healthy, Kershaw is the best pitcher on the planet. When healthy, Hill has proven himself to be elite. Of 200 starters with 100 innings thrown in 2015-'16, these two are 1-2 in ERA, by a lot, and third starterKenta Maeda and his 3.48 ERA have proven to be a pleasant surprise, as he's piled up low exit velocity. Now, Washington ace Scherzer absolutely deserves to be mentioned with the same respect, because he's got a career-high strikeout percentage (31.5 percent, second among starters), and is more likely than any of those three to win the NL Cy Young. Behind him, Tanner Roark may be among the most underrated pitchers in baseball; FanGraphs recently referred to him as "Washington's version of Kyle Hendricks," and that's not far off. If it were Scherzer, Strasburg, and Roark, this might be a dead heat.
It's not, though. Strasburg isn't likely to pitch, and that means the third Nationals starter may be Gio Gonzalez, who will be hoping that Los Angeles' inability to hit lefties (72 wRC+, worst in baseball) overcomes the fact that he is having, by just about any measure, his worst full season. As far as potential Game 4 starters, other than Scherzer on short rest, Joe Ross is very talented, but he has pitched only 9 2/3 innings in the second half due to a shoulder injury, and rookie A.J. Cole has a 5.17 ERA. The Dodgers might be able to throw rookie sensation Julio Urías there; the domino effect of Strasburg's injury will hurt.
Slight advantage: Dodgers
Fed up with Jonathan Papelbon, the Nationals made it a point to acquire Mark Melancon from Pittsburgh at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, and he's been very good for them. In 30 games, Melancon has allowed only six earned runs (1.82 ERA), he's struck out a batter per inning, and most importantly, he's blown only two leads. The only thing is, Kenley Jansen has an unthinkable 104/11 strikeout/walk ratio, and batters are hitting just .147 against him.
The underrated Dodgers bullpen was so productive that it was named MLB.com's Bullpen of the Year, thanks in part to surprising contributions from names like Joe Blanton and Grant Dayton, though the loss of Adam Liberatore to elbow surgery could hurt. The Nationals have a talented group of their own, and can counter with Shawn Kelley, who quietly whiffed 80 in 58 innings, and sinkerball specialist Blake Treinen. They may try to take three lefties, potentially Sammy Solís, Oliver Pérez, and Marc Rzepczynski, to try to attack Los Angeles' weakness against southpaws.