Washington baseball fans will not have to wait until September to consider how the 2016 Nationals are. Supporters will have enough of a sample by April 28. That’s the day the Nats complete a month of 18 games against the have-nots of the National League East. If Washington hasn’t won at least 12 games against the Braves, Marlins and Phillies, put a fork in the Nationals, they’re done. The club cannot afford another slow start.
With new spark in the top of the lineup with .300 hitter and potential 30-base stealer Ben Revere in center and hitter’s hitter Daniel Murphy at second, the Nats are primed to score more runs than last year. Bryce Harper’s RBI total should surpass the 99 he had in 2015. (This won’t happen before the all-star break.)
With the season opener only hours away, there is no reason to believe the Nationals will have a bad beginning. The starting pitching looks sound, the team is faster and Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman are healthy. Manager Dusty Baker will be wise to keep a short lease on Werth. Zimmerman was second on the squad with 73 RBI and third on the team with 16 homers last year in spite of playing just 95 games.
The infield will see Rendon and Zimmerman on the corners with Danny Espinosa at short and newcomer Daniel Murphy at second. Espinosa is a fielder. Murphy is a hitter. If Espinosa gets off to a horrid start at the plate and Trea Turner s called up to replace him, the middle infield could become a black hole with balls going in, but never coming out – at least not until the Revere runs them down. Clint Robinson proved himself last year and will backup Zimmerman. Stephen Drew, 33, hit just .177 this spring and .201 starting for the Yankees in 2015, will back up the other infield positions.
If Baker offers Wilson Ramos some rest behind the plate, and Jose Lobaton more regular at bats, Washington could be much better at catcher. Ramos had Lasik surgery in the off-season so that might help his batting average recover from last year, but at 257 pounds, Ramos might be the slowest hitter in baseball. Baker should give him some rest, particularly against southpaws.
Washington will start Werth, Revere and Harper in the outfield from left-to-right. Harper is the reigning NL MVP. If Harper only accomplishes 80 percent of what he did last year, that would be 37 HR, 80 RBI and bat .264, he could still be in the MVP conversation in 2016. Revere returns something Washington line up lacked since Denard Span was injured in 2015: Speed. Given his poor year in 2015, health problems and age, no one knows what Werth has left.
Behind them, and angling for time, is Michael A. Taylor. He has been hot this spring, but was subject to streaks last year playing for the injured Span. His future is bright. Matt den Dekker earned the final outfield slot on the bench, but will be in Syracuse.
Although den Dekker has played better this spring and is more versatile, he has one option left. He hit .300 with 4 HR this spring. Still he was optioned to Triple A, as he should have been. Den Dekker is not a pinch hitter at this point is his career. He should be playing every day.
The big question is why do major league clubs bother with spring training if managers keep friends over talent? Chris Heisey is a perfect example. He hit .182 in 55 at bats with the Dodgers last year and hit only .233 in Florida this spring. Still, the 31-year-old, who played for Baker in the past, made the major league roster April 1 – no joke. Meanwhile, Tony Campana, who didn’t play last year because of an ACL injury, was sent to Syracuse after hitting .300 in preseason. The difference: Heisey hits right handed, Campana hits left handed.
The starting rotation is not as good on paper as it has been in the past with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Joe Ross and Tanner Roark, but it is still on of the best in baseball.
The bullpen is questionable. Jonathon Papelbon will close. The big test should come in the home opener April 7, if Gonzalez only lasts 5 innings against the Marlins, fans will see what this new pen can do.