Around the Horn: Nats' outfield in line for big year

With Harper and Eaton in their prime and Werth healthy, unit could be one of Majors' best

Around the Horn: Nats' outfield in line for big year

The Nationals have already packed up their truck full of equipment and the start of Spring Training is drawing closer. With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to West Palm Beach, Fla., by Feb. 14, it's time to break down the Nats' roster.

This is the latest installment of a multipart Around the Horn series taking a position-by-position look at the projected starters and backups heading into the season. This one examines the Nationals' outfielders.

Around the Horn: Catcher | First base | Second base | Third base | Shortstop

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals expect their outfield to be a strength in 2017, with two of their starters among the best in the sport and still in the prime of their career, as well as a team stalwart who is entering the final year of his contract but has proved he still has something left to offer.

Right fielder Bryce Harper and center fielder Adam Eaton are expected to be two of the most feared hitters in the Nationals' lineup this season, and the success or failure of this season likely will be tied to them. And left fielder Jayson Werth will begin the final year of his seven-year contract, during which he helped transform Washington into an annual contender. The Nats have a chance to be one of the most productive outfields in the Majors.

It begins with Harper, as most things do with these Nationals. He's aiming to bounce back from what qualifies as a down year after winning the NL Most Valuable Player Award in 2015. Last season, Harper posted a .243/.373/.441 line, with 24 homers, an .814 OPS and 3.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), according to FanGraphs. Those numbers were a sharp drop from his MVP season, when he hit .330/.460/.649 with 42 homers, a 1.109 OPS and 9.5 WAR. There was never a clear answer what caused this decline and injury speculation surrounded Harper for much of the second half, but the Nats insisted he was healthy.

Harper's fast start to 2016

Harper spent this offseason focused on finding his 2015 form, and the Nationals believe he will return to being one of the best players in the NL next season. Steamer projections are also counting on a rebound from Harper, tabbing him to hit .286/.413/.532 with 30 homers, a .944 OPS and 5.4 WAR.

The Nats traded somewhat of a small fortune to acquire Eaton and pair him with Harper in the outfield. Eaton might be a bit underrated around the Majors, but for the past three seasons with the White Sox, he has been among the game's best outfielders. Washington values the consistency, which might be best exemplified by his on-base percentages the past three seasons: .362 in 2014, .361 in '15 and .362 in '16.

Eaton could feel pressure in DC

The biggest question mark surrounding Eaton will be his ability to play center field. He was converted to right field, where he excelled, in 2016 after playing a lackluster defensive center field in 2015. That said, Eaton was dealing with an injury in '15 and was very good defensively in center field in '14, so the Nationals are not concerned about how he will adjust at the position. Steamer projects a bit of a drop-off for Eaton at .288/.355/.412 and 2.6 WAR, with the low projected WAR likely a result of the position change.

Werth will turn 38 in May, but he answered any questions about whether he can be a healthy and productive player last season. He avoided the injuries that had hampered him in years past to play 143 games and post a 1.1 WAR, and he was one of the team's hottest hitters during the playoffs. Keeping Werth on the field will be important again for Washington; he is one of the leaders of this team and should still have something to offer, especially given his ability to get on base (he reached base in 46 consecutive games last season, tying a franchise record). Werth is projected at .257/.343/.415 next season with 15 homers and a 0.6 WAR.

Werth's running grab

The Nats re-signed outfielder Chris Heisey early this offseason, but he will be used mainly as a pinch-hitter and for spot starts against left-handed pitchers. So their true fourth outfielder who would start in case of an injury is a bit unsettled. Michael Taylor is the favorite for that spot, but he struggled mightily last season when he got the chance to play full-time after Ben Revere landed on the DL. Taylor likely will compete with Brian Goodwin, a first-round pick in 2011 who made huge strides to reach the Majors for the first time and competed for a spot on the postseason roster.

Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.