STEPHEN STRASBURG | RIGHT-HANDER | AGE: 28
2016: 15-4, 3.60 ERA, 1472/3 IP, 4.16 K/BB
When healthy, Strasburg might be the best pitcher in baseball. But he often isn’t, and he wasn’t for the majority of the second half last season, including the playoffs because of a pronator tendon tear. The 28-year-old looked like his usual self in spring training, his stuff seemingly unaffected by pitching exclusively out of the stretch for the first time. The question, as always with Strasburg, is whether he can stay healthy. The Nationals’ fortunes may ride on it.
TANNER ROARK | RIGHT-HANDER | AGE: 30
2016: 16-10, 2.83 ERA, 210 IP, 2.36 K/BB
After spending 2015 shuttling in and out of the bullpen, Roark returned as a permanent member of Washington’s starting rotation last season and continued where he left off in 2014, solidifying his standing as perhaps the best under-the-radar starter in baseball. With the success came an unprecedented workload — 214 1/3 innings pitched, including the postseason — and a spot on Team USA for the World Baseball Classic, which included one relief appearance over two weeks before he started in the semifinals against Japan. The Nationals weren’t happy about his idle time and hope the preparation change won’t impact his performance.
GIO GONZALEZ | LEFT-HANDER | AGE: 31
2016: 11-11, 4.57 ERA, 1771/3 IP, 2.90 K/BB
High pitch counts and deliberate pace plagued Gonzalez again in 2016 as he posted the worst ERA of his career since becoming a full-time major league starter in 2010. But he also stayed healthy and took the ball every five days. It was typical Gonzalez: reliable yet frustratingly unreliable. The 31-year-old has set making the All-Star Game in Miami, his home town, as a goal this season, It could be his final chance in Washington — he needs to log 180 innings, which he hasn’t done since 2013, to vest a $12 million option for 2018.
JOE ROSS | RIGHT-HANDER | AGE: 23
2016: 7-5, 3.43 ERA, 105 IP, 3.21 K/BB
While much was made of the Nationals draining their major-league-ready-pitching-prospect supply by trading Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez this winter, Ross doesn’t turn 24 until late May and could end up being better than both of them. Unlike Giolito and Lopez, Ross has already proven capable of starting in the big leagues. And as he enters his second full major league campaign, his potential hinges on whether he can stay healthy and consistently throw an effective change-up to supplement his sinker-slider combo.
BLAKE TREINEN | RIGHT-HANDER | AGE: 28
2016: 4-1, 2.28 ERA, 67 IP, 2.03 K/BB
Treinen is probably the Nationals’ most important reliever even if he doesn’t close games. The former starter always had the stuff, but he finally put it all together last season, putting out fires out of the bullpen on a regular basis with one of baseball’s best sinkers. While he didn’t pile up the strikeouts expected from someone whose fastball averaged 95.7 mph, Treinen had the second-highest groundball percentage among 135 qualified relievers last season — Zach Britton was first — and his hard-hit percentage was 13th.
SHAWN KELLEY | RIGHT-HANDER | AGE: 32
2016: 3-2, 2.64 ERA, 58 IP, 7.27 K/BB
Kelley enjoyed perhaps his best season as a major leaguer in 2016, posting career bests in innings pitched (58), strikeout rate (12.4 per nine innings) and strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’ll return as a back-end staple, whether as the closer or a setup man, but the two-time Tommy John surgery recipient is always one pitch away from a career-ending elbow injury and the Nationals must remain cautious with his workload.
KODA GLOVER | RIGHT-HANDER | AGE: 23
2016: 2-0, 5.03 ERA, 19 2/3 IP, 2.29 K/BB
Glover soared through the Nationals’ farm system in 2016, climbing from Class A Potomac to the majors in less than five months, and the 2015 eighth-round draft pick is suddenly one of the organization’s most important relievers. Team officials had always viewed the hard-throwing and confident Glover as the organization’s future closer, but he looks to be ahead of schedule. He showed flashes of that potential when he first arrived in Washington last July before he pitched through a hip injury and posted a 7.27 ERA in September, and again in spring training.
THE REST OF THE BULLPEN
The Nationals have a couple new names in their relief corps, but the most notable difference between the 2016 bullpen and this iteration is the lack of a dedicated long reliever/mop-up man. Yusmeiro Petit assumed the role last season, but his option wasn’t picked up and the Nationals decided not to replace him with one of the long-relief candidates they invited to spring training. Instead, the two spots up for grabs after veteran right-hander Joe Blanton signed were expected to go to Glover and left-hander Enny Romero. Blanton, a former starter, was stretched out to three innings during spring training so he could perhaps provide spot starts and longer outings when necessary. Romero would be the group’s third left-hander, joining Sammy Solis and Oliver Perez, and could be its best if he consistently throws strikes like he did in the Grapefruit League and World Baseball Classic, where he touched 100 mph.
MATT WIETERS | CATCHER | AGE: 30
2016 (with Orioles): .243 BA, 17 HR, 66 RBI, .711 OPS
For the first time since 2011, the Nationals’ starting catcher is someone other than Wilson Ramos. It initially looked like Derek Norris would assume the role, but he was bumped out by Wieters, who was unemployed until signing a two-year contract on Feb. 24 worth $21 million with an opt out after this season. A four-time all-star with the Orioles, Wieters likely won’t produce at the plate like Ramos did in 2016, but he is highly regarded for his game-calling and had just one passed ball while throwing out 35 percent of base stealers last season. But he started just 111 games behind the plate in 2016, and metrics indicate he is one of the worst pitch framers in baseball.
RYAN ZIMMERMAN | FIRST BASE | AGE: 32
2016: .218 BA, 15 HR, 46 RBI, .642 OPS
The Nationals never wavered from Zimmerman returning as their starting first baseman despite posting one of the worst offensive seasons for an everyday player in 2016. Both Zimmerman and team officials believe a couple tweaks, better luck and sustained health will produce a bounceback season, reminiscent of when he would carry the club for stretches as the face of the franchise during his prime. It can’t get much worse than having the third-lowest batting average and the seventh-lowest OPS in baseball among batters with at least 450 plate appearances.
DANIEL MURPHY | SECOND BASE | AGE: 32
2016: .347 BA, 25 HR, 104 RBI, .985 OPS
When the Nationals settled on signing Murphy before last season — after missing out on Brandon Phillips and Ben Zobrist — they expected a steady contact hitter with some pop and limited defensive skills. What they got was arguably the best hitter in the National League at a bargain price. The late bloomer’s production — steady and prolific — was vital for a Nationals lineup that didn’t get expected contributions from other parts. A regression is inevitable and team officials didn’t exactly like his limited playing time in the World Baseball Classic, but all signs point to Murphy, who was the runner-up in the NL MVP race to Kris Bryant, continuing as one of the best middle-of-the-order bats in baseball.
TREA TURNER | SHORTSTOP | AGE: 24
2016: .342 BA, 13 HR, 40 RBI, .937 OPS
The Nationals’ decision to convert Turner to center field last summer was exactly what they needed to spark a lineup that was getting the worst production from center field and the leadoff spot in baseball. He displayed more power than he ever did in the minors, complementing the unexpected surge with 33 steals in 73 games and good-enough defense in center. He was, simply, one of the best players in the sport over the second half. Now Turner is back at shortstop, his natural position, after Washington shipped Danny Espinosa out to the Angels, and he is presumably back at the top of the batting order despite career leadoff man Adam Eaton’s arrival. He has always been a shortstop, but growing pains are likely and Turner will have to adjust to opposing pitchers’ adjustments.
ANTHONY RENDON | THIRD BASE | AGE: 27
2016: .270 BA, 20 HR, 85 RBI, .797 OPS
After an injury-riddled 2015, Rendon got off to a disastrous start last season — he was batting .229 with a .628 OPS through May 17 — but returned to his 2014 form in the second half, posting an .866 OPS with 11 home runs and 20 doubles in 68 games. Manager Dusty Baker believes Rendon, a reigning Gold Glove finalist, will steal more than the 12 bases he took last season — Baker recently revealed Rendon was hindered by a nagging leg injury — and his right-handedness will prove crucial behind the left-handed-hitting duo of Murphy and Bryce Harper.
BRYCE HARPER | RIGHT FIELD | AGE: 24
2016: .243 BA, 24 HR, 86 RBI, .814 OPS
What went wrong with Harper in 2016 was a recurring debate in baseball circles during the offseason. Did he play hurt as a couple reports suggested? Was he pressing? Were his mechanics off? Harper won’t say, but whatever the reason, Harper wasn’t the Bondsian force he was during his 2015 MVP campaign. Instead, he was mediocre after April, posting a .759 OPS with 15 home runs in 124 games from May 1 through the end of the season. While Harper may never put up numbers like 2015 again — nobody other than Barry Bonds has accumulated an OPS+ higher then Harper’s 198 in 2015 since 2002 — Harper looked more like that version in spring training, mashing Grapefruit League pitching with a quieter stroke, though he reported to camp heavier than the last couple years with more muscle on his 6-foot-3 frame.
ADAM EATON | CENTER FIELD | AGE: 28
2016 (with White Sox): .284 BA, 14 HR, 59 RBI, .790 OPS
Eaton’s combination of steady — if widely unrecognized — production and cheap contract enticed the Nationals to give up three promising pitching prospects for him in December. It was a price many in the industry deemed too expensive, but Eaton filled a void and allowed the Nationals to upgrade at shortstop with Turner over Espinosa. Defensively, Eaton will return to center field, where he was one of the best defenders in baseball in 2014 and one of the worst in 2015, after a standout year in right field. Offensively, he has been a leadoff hitter for most of his career, but Baker will begin the season batting him sixth to avoid having too many left-handed hitters at the top of the lineup.
JAYSON WERTH | LEFT FIELD | AGE: 37
2016: .244 BA, 21 HR, 69 RBI, .752 OPS
Werth believes he can play another five seasons, but this is probably his final one in Washington, as his seven-year, $126 million contract expires this fall. He will spend the season back as the club’s everyday left fielder, possibly batting second again after finding some success there behind Turner in 2016. After missing a sizable chunk of 2015 with his third major wrist injury, Werth crushed left-handed pitching, posting a 1.031 OPS in 141 plate appearances, and said this spring that his wrist feels stronger than a year ago. That bodes well for a Nationals lineup that can use all the right-handed power it can get.
The Nationals will probably employ the same bench on Opening Day as they did last year, with one exception. Adam Lind, not Clint Robinson, will serve as the club’s backup first baseman/occasional left fielder. The 33-year-old Lind’s numbers were down across the board with the Mariners last season, but he still managed to hit 20 home runs for the sixth time in his career and agreed to a major league contract the day before pitchers and catchers reported. Joining him on the bench will be outfielder Michael A. Taylor, outfielder/pinch-hit specialist Chris Heisey, utility infielder Stephen Drew and catcher Jose Lobaton. Taylor put up huge numbers in spring training, but he did that last year and it didn’t transfer to when games mattered. Meanwhile, Heisey slugged nine home runs in just 155 plate appearances and Drew bounced back from a forgettable 2015 with the Yankees to compile an .864 OPS in his first year as a bench player. Lobaton returns for his fourth season as the backup catcher after appearing in just 39 games last season.
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