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Washington Nationals

Who has been MVP of the Nationals so far?

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Choosing a Most Valuable Player has always sparked multiple arguments over what the award means, what it should mean, and what the criteria are. Is it to be taken literally based on its title? Should the voters take seriously the BBWAA ballot instructions and act accordingly? Or is it entirely up to the voter?

This is especially difficult when a determination is made before the season is over — in this case, before 100 games have been played. To pick a first-half MVP does not lend full context to the team’s results and the player’s ability to maintain for the whole season.

Regardless, there are methods that can be used to decide who is “most valuable.” This must be assessed when choosing.

A logical way to pick a winner is to account for all aspects and consciously avoid boxing oneself in by making broad-based eliminative statements. For the 2017 Washington Nationals, several players are having excellent seasons as they team has risen to the top of the National League East with a lead that has stabilized near 10 games despite having one of baseball’s worst bullpens.

How to discern “most valuable?”

Is it the obvious best player, Bryce Harper, with his 1.021 OPS, 41 extra-base hits, and a .431 on-base percentage?

Could it be Anthony Rendon who, after a slow start, has been one of baseball’s best players hitting for power and average and playing excellent defense at third base?

How about Ryan Zimmerman, whose comeback from three injury-plagued and unproductive seasons has elicited memories of why he was known as “Mr. Walk-Off” and was the Nationals’ lone star as they rebuilt?

Daniel Murphy has evolved from a player the Nationals grudgingly signed — when pursuits of Ben Zobrist and Brandon Phillips fell through — into a slugging, clutch star who has maintained his hitting for his whole tenure in Washington.

A case could be made for Michael Taylor. A former top prospect who had lost his starting job, he was forced into regular playing time when costly trade import Adam Eaton was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Taylor was given a chance with the widespread expectation that the Nationals would eventually need to acquire an outfielder. He has posted an OPS of .831 with 12 homers, 10 stolen bases, and good defense in center field.

Then there’s ace starting pitcher Max Scherzer. He started the All-Star Game for the National League, is leading the majors in ERA, ERA+, WHIP, hits per nine innings and strikeouts per nine. He is leading the National League in strikeouts, strikeouts per nine innings, and complete games.

In this case, with a first-place team and the number of worthy candidates, the logical way to determine “most valuable” while adhering to the basics outlined by the BBWAA is to look at the production, assess the value, and come to a combined objective and subjective conclusion as to where the team would be without that player. If the loss of the player was coverable, his value is naturally diminished based on the circumstances.

With that, the Nationals’ Most Valuable Player is Max Scherzer.

The Nationals’ offense is so powerful that it has lost Eaton and maintained; it lost Trea Turner and it maintained; it lost Jayson Werth and it maintained. When a team has the offensive depth the Nationals do, it’s possible to withstand losing the above listed MVP candidates and survive. That includes Harper. Naturally, it’s not optimal to lose a bona fide star or any productive bat, but the “value” is diminished by that which surrounds them.

With Scherzer, his innings-eating prowess and on-field brilliance are two factors. A decisive factor is the amount of pressure he takes off the rest of the starting rotation and mitigates the club’s terrible bullpen by pitching deeply into games. He has pitched into the seventh inning in 13 of his 18 starts. There was one game in which he did not give the club six innings. In that game, he pitched five.

Stephen Strasburg was anointed as the future of the franchise from the time he was the consensus No. 1 selection in the 2009 amateur draft. Injuries, shutdowns and drama — both self-inflicted and circumstantial — have diminished him from star-level ace to a very good starter who is better suited to being number 1-A behind a horse like Scherzer. That filters down to Gio Gonzalez, a two-time All-Star and former second runner-up for the Cy Young Award in his own right, who can settle in where he belongs: as a good number three.

Ironically, the Nationals were expected to have one of the deeper starting rotations in baseball with Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and Joe Ross. Roark has had a poor first half; Ross is similarly struggling and is having arm trouble.

Without Scherzer, the problems at the back end of the rotation and bullpen make it unrealistic to expect the Nationals to be much better than a few games over .500, if that. The same cannot be said regarding their offense because they’ve lost players and maintained their position. Based on his multiple tangible and intangible contributions, it’s Scherzer.

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