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The disaster that was the 2015 Washington Nationals is best left to the dustbin of history. The consensus pick to win the World Series, the Nats crashed in August and were essentially eliminated by the second week of September. The lingering image of their season was new closer Jonathan Papelbon with his hands around the neck of soon-to-be-named MVP Bryce Harper in the season’s waning days. Based on their offseason moves, Washington’s management appeared to have chalked the whole mess up to Matt Williams’ ineffective managing. Williams’ firing, and the hiring of Dusty Baker to replace him, was the team’s signature move of the winter.
Their player pursuits were mostly fruitless, as they fell short in attempts to acquire Brandon Phillips, Ben Zobrist, Darren O’Day and Jason Heyward, before finally scoring with a three-year deal for Daniel Murphy. Add it all up, and the Nationals appear to be banking on the notion that 2015 was more or less an aberration and a failure of management, and that their talent-laden roster, helmed by a new skipper, can fulfill its lofty promise — one year later.
Jordan Zimmermann’s departure after an excellent run in Washington was a fait accompli, one whose impact was lessened by the signing of Max Scherzer the winter before. But even with Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg atop the rotation, the loss of Zimmermann — a steady 200-inning, 15-win performer — will hurt. That is especially true in light of Gio Gonzalez’s decline from a 21-game winner and third-place Cy Young finisher in 2012 to an undependable mid-rotation guy with a bloated 1.423 WHIP in 2015. But the Nats believe that they have young reinforcements on the way, in not only Joe Ross, a revelation during a 13-start apprenticeship in 2015, but also top prospect Lucas Giolito. With Tanner Roark moving back from the bullpen to reprise (the Nats hope) his 2014 role as rotation workhorse, this could still be a very formidable rotation. But without Zimmermann to lean on, it looks a lot less deep.
The Nationals will head into spring training with Papelbon as the team’s closer — despite the fact that he got into a very public fight with Harper, the team’s best player. Any hopes that Drew Storen would reclaim his role as the Nats’ ninth-inning option ended in January when he was dealt to Toronto for outfielder Ben Revere. Papelbon — whose acquisition at the trade deadline pretty much coincided with the Nats’ slide to oblivion — saved 39 games for Philadelphia as recently as 2014. Meantime, Felipe Rivero returns as the top lefty setup man, with newcomers Yusmeiro Petit, Oliver Perez and Shawn Kelley — as well as holdovers such as Blake Treinen and Rafael Martin — giving the pen some much-needed depth. One under-the-radar player the Nationals missed in 2015 was bullpen stalwart Craig Stammen, who missed the season following elbow surgery. They will miss him again in 2016; he was non-tendered.
Ian Desmond’s departure via free agency robbed the Nationals of not only their starting shortstop for the previous six years, but also the soul of their clubhouse. The Nationals had already acquired his eventual replacement, highly regarded prospect Trea Turner, but preferred to start Turner in Class AAA for some final seasoning. The Christmas Eve signing of veteran infielder Daniel Murphy was the piece that made it all fall into place. With Murphy in the fold to play (mostly) second base, Danny Espinosa — coming off a resurgent 2015 season spent mostly as a super-utility player — is expected to get the bulk of the playing time at shortstop. That is, until Turner’s anticipated midseason arrival.
Anthony Rendon emerged as one of the top young hitters in the game during a stellar 2014 season, but injuries to his knee, oblique and quadriceps plagued him throughout a disappointing 2015. This year, presumably healthy again, he returns to third base — where he spent the bulk of his time in 2014 before shifting to second base last year. The Nationals hope he can also return to his 2014 form at the plate. At first base, veteran Ryan Zimmerman also needs to stay healthy in 2016 after missing 168 games the past two seasons and seeing his OPS decline in 2015 for the third straight year. At age 31, he can still rake when healthy, as evidenced by the .311/.372/.652 line he put up over the final 39 games of 2015.
The Nats gave the outfield a much-needed upgrade by adding Revere to play center. A 2007 first-round pick by the Twins, Revere is a career .295 hitter who played well in a pennant race for the Blue Jays last season. He stole a combined 31 bases in 2015 and has topped 40 steals twice in his career. Jayson Werth, penciled in to play left field, continues to showing signs of a deepening decline. He played in only 88 games in 2015 and hit .221 with an alarmingly low .685 OPS. Meantime, in right field, Baker will be happy simply to write Harper’s name in the lineup every day. The 2015 season was the one in which the former phenom produced his long-awaited breakout, winning MVP in a unanimous vote.
In a career plagued by injuries, Wilson Ramos always found a way to produce at the plate, leaving the Nationals to wonder what he could do if he could stay healthy for an entire season. The answer came in 2015, and it was not the one the Nats wanted. Despite playing in a career-high 128 games, Ramos regressed offensively, putting up an OPS (.616) roughly 100 points below his career norm and 163 points below his breakthrough rookie season of 2011. A career high strikeout rate of 20 percent was a big part of the problem. At the same time, Ramos’s defensive work is stellar enough that no one in Washington will complain too much — though the hope is he comes back with a big year at the plate in what will be his free agent “walk” year.
After eight years in the minors (broken up only by a couple of cups of coffee in the bigs), burly Clint Robinson got his shot with the Nationals as a corner utility man and turned it into a breakthrough year, hitting .272/.358/.424 with 10 homers in 352 plate appearances. He’ll return in 2016 as the left-handed anchor of a bench that also includes right-handed corner man Tyler Moore and extra outfielder Michael Taylor as well as Stephen Drew — signed in late December — and a backup catcher (likely Jose Lobaton).
Because GM Mike Rizzo went out on a limb to hire Williams as manager prior to the 2014 season — based largely on his history with Williams and despite Williams’ lack of experience — his failure lies largely at Rizzo’s feet, one of the GM’s few major missteps in Washington. With their latest managerial move, the Nationals’ hiring process itself came under scrutiny when the team reportedly reached initial agreement with Bud Black, only to lowball him with their first contract offer and, when Black bristled, toggle toward Baker. In the end, the Nationals still may have gotten the right guy, as Baker is uniquely skilled and experienced at handling challenging clubhouses — which the Nationals’ almost certainly will be. The analytics crowd will hate Baker’s under-reliance on advanced stats, but his best work is done behind the scenes and away from the cameras.
Compared to the hype and hysteria of a year ago, the Nats will be flying under the radar at the start of 2016, which is exactly what they need. They still have largely the same talented roster that most pundits envisioned winning the World Series in 2015 — headed by a once-in-a-generation hitter in Harper — and the 1-2 punch of Scherzer and Strasburg is the envy of nearly every team in baseball. But since the Nats last made the playoffs, in 2014, the Mets have emerged as a dangerous force in the NL East. With some better luck on the injury front, steps forward from young players such as Taylor and Ross and the expected infusion of talent from prospects Turner and Giolito, the Nationals should be back in the hunt for a division title, and possibly more.
Prediction: 2nd NL East (Wild Card)
CF Ben Revere (L)
3B Anthony Rendon (R)
RF Bryce Harper (L)
1B Ryan Zimmerman (R)
2B Daniel Murphy (L)
SS Danny Espinosa (S)
LF Jayson Werth (R)
C Wilson Ramos (R)
1B/OF Tyler Moore (R)
1B/OF Clint Robinson (L)
C Jose Lobaton (S)
OF Michael A. Taylor (R)
INF Stephen Drew (L)
RHP Max Scherzer
RHP Stephen Strasburg
LHP Gio Gonzalez
RHP Tanner Roark
RHP Joe Ross
RHP Jonathan Papelbon (Closer)
LHP Felipe Rivero
RHP Yusmeiro Petit
LHP Oliver Perez
RHP Shawn Kelley
RHP Blake Treinen
RHP Rafael Martin