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Nationals Mailbag: Is Dusty Baker’s future contingent on the NLDS? Should Jayson Werth start?

Dusty Baker is in the final year of his contract. (Nick Wass/Associated Press)

Welcome to a special pre-playoff edition of our sporadic but informative Monday Mailbag. We took your questions on Twitter and via email, and we answered a handful of them as best we could. Below, find thoughts on Dusty Baker’s future, Jayson Werth’s playoff playing time, a potential extension for Anthony Rendon and so much more. Thanks, as always, for sending questions.

Is any contract extension for Dusty contingent on getting the team past the first round? — Patti, @dcpatti13

Chelsea: The sense I have gotten all season, from February to May, June to late September, is that Dusty Baker’s contract is not contingent on anything other than his desire and physical ability to manage next season.

As we’ve reported a few times, Mike Rizzo wanted to get a deal done in spring training, before the season — a sort of feel-good, good-faith story heading into the season. Ownership, which has no history of giving early extensions to managers, didn’t want to. So they didn’t.

Then the Lerner family obviously had some very serious off-field things to seize their attention, and exactly how much that affected any potential midseason talks is unclear. But the fact of the matter is that everyone involved continues to say they expect Dusty back if he wants to be back. The wait is not a wait-and-see. It’s wait until the contract he signed is up, since that’s what he committed to. I get the sense that’s how ownership thinks about it.

The players like Dusty. Rizzo likes Dusty, though he doesn’t always agree with him, and I think both sides think that’s healthy. There’s mutual respect between the two, and as Dusty said here, he understood what he was getting into in terms of job security when he got here. The Nationals do not sign managers long-term. They just don’t. He also said he expects a raise in his next deal, and it would be hard to find justification — given the current managerial market and the fact that he won at least 95 games and the division twice in a row — that he doesn’t deserve one. So maybe money will hold things up for a bit this offseason. Maybe it won’t.

But to answer the original question, no. Whenever I ask, I’m told that Rizzo posed a question to ownership before the season: If we have a bad season or don’t make the playoffs (or whatever it was), would that make you decide not to bring Dusty back? The answer, I’ve been told, was no. In other words, if Dusty wants to be back, he can come back. Who knows exactly how much there is to that, but either way, he didn’t have a bad season. I don’t think a lot has changed for either side. He’s healthy and wants to manage. The Nationals franchise is healthy and winning under his management. I think that’s all both sides need to know, outside of exactly how much Dusty would want to manage again next season.

The Nationals’ pair of aces trumps all in the playoffs — unless something cramps their style

Is Stephen Strasburg going to start Game 1? — Alfonso Ortiz, @EsElJefe

Jorge: Even before Max Scherzer walked off the mound with a tight hamstring Saturday night, one could’ve argued that Stephen Strasburg should start Game 1. Scherzer’s final season numbers were better. He is the favorite to win a second straight NL Cy Young. But Strasburg has been the best pitcher in baseball since coming off the disabled in mid-August. He’s peaking at the right time.

Scherzer was “upbeat” about his injury Sunday. He was sure it was just a tweak, and a precautionary MRI confirmed his instincts. Scherzer said Sunday it was too soon to talk about Game 1, but he pointed out that the Game 2 starter could start Game 5 on normal rest. So he has at least thought about the possibility of not pitching Game 1. Manager Dusty Baker said Scherzer’s injury will “probably” affect the Nationals’ rotation. It’s not a matter of whether Scherzer pitches in the NLDS; it’s a matter of when. And it could be Saturday for Game 2, or even Monday for Game 3.

If it is, the Nationals will turn to Strasburg, who allowed five runs over 53 2/3 innings in his eight starts since Aug. 19. It was historic dominance. Here’s a look at where he ranked in various categories among pitchers who logged at least 35 innings during that span:

ERA: 1st (0.84)
Slugging percentage against: 1st (.219)
Home runs allowed: T-1st (1)
Extra-base hits allowed: 2nd (6)
Batting average against: 4th (.171)
On-base percentage against: 5th (.227)
Strikeouts: 6th (63)

Scherzer said he would have stayed in Saturday were it a playoff game. But it wasn’t. It was Game 161 with nothing at stake, and the Nationals took the cautious route. Strasburg, who has pitched in just one playoff game in his career, affords Washington the chance to take that route a bit further. It’s a luxury no other team in baseball has: the option to choose from two of the five best starting pitchers in baseball to start Game 1.

Chances Anthony Rendon gets an extension this offseason? — Daniel Igersheim, @igersheim

Chelsea: I think there is a chance, maybe even a good one. But remember that Rendon is now a high-profile, MVP-caliber Scott Boras client. Those guys tend to hit free agency, with one recent and relevant exception (Strasburg).

Rendon is under contract through 2019, meaning he will hit the free agent market at age 29. He made $5.8 million this season, a number that will probably increase a great deal in arbitration.

In the past, when inquiring about the potential for a Rendon extension, the Nationals’ stance seemed to be that he was too much of an injury risk. He had a history of injury at Rice University, and he lost a large portion of the 2015 season to a knee injury, compounded by an oblique injury he suffered while rehabbing the knee.

But after his monster 2017 season, Rendon has now played at least 147 games in three of the past four seasons — and that number would have been higher had Dusty not had the luxury of resting regulars so often this year. His numbers have been remarkably consistent when he’s healthy, and after this season he’s a .280 career hitter who’s hit 20 or more homers in those three healthy seasons. His defense is outstanding. He runs well. In other words, I think there’s plenty of justification there for an extension, and probably enough new evidence about his durability to convince the Nationals to consider it.

Now, I think the likeliest scenario is the Nats buy out his final years of arbitration. They’ve done unique deals for him before. As for an extension past that, again — the Boras hurdle. But as everyone knows, Boras, Ted Lerner and Rizzo have a history of getting stuff done. Rendon just might be that Strasburg-like character who says, “You know what? I’m comfortable here. I don’t like attention. I know what I’m dealing with here. Maybe I want to stay.” I don’t know that for sure, but he seems like a creature of comfort, much like Strasburg in some ways. In other words, I definitely would say the chances of an extension for Rendon are higher than they have been, for what that’s worth.

Which player would you play in LF and insert in the lineup vs. right-handed pitchers? — Dennis
Would you start Jayson Werth or Adam Lind in LF for playoffs Game 1? — SeaJay, @Seafare54

Jorge: These two questions are variations of one: Is Jayson Werth the Nationals’ undisputed starting left fielder entering the playoff? My answer is, I think so, but it could be more complicated than that. The Nationals could choose to go game by game.  I don’t think we’ll see Lind out there unless it’s an emergency situation. He’s a huge weapon against right-handed pitching, but playoff baseball is about run prevention above all else, and his defense hurts the cause. He was one of the best — if not the best — pinch hitters in baseball this season and will likely be used in that role against right-handed pitching in the playoff. The choice in left field, I think, would be between Werth and Howie Kendrick.

Werth struggled for nearly a month after returning from nearly a three-month absence. After going 2 for 4 with a homer in his first game back, Werth, who was dealing with a minor shoulder injury, went 7 for 65 (.108) with three doubles, six walks and 21 strikeouts. But the 38-year-old looked significantly better over his last handful of games. He made consistent good contact against the Phillies and Pirates, going 4 for 15 with two walks, two doubles, a home run and a few other hard-hit balls that went down as outs.

So Werth seemed to find a rhythm in what was an emotional time, playing in perhaps his final games at Citizens Bank Park, where he starred for the Phillies, and his final regular season games at Nationals Park, where he became a franchise cornerstone.

Kendrick, meanwhile, batted .293 with an .893 OPS in 52 games after Washington acquired him July 29, but hit just .229 with a .656 OPS over the final month of the season. He has also dealt with a tight hamstring recently.

Now let’s add some other variables. Werth is a clubhouse leader and fan favorite in the final year of his contract. Benching him would, at the very least, create an odd scene. He also has the experience Baker loves; Werth’s resume includes 58 career playoff games and big October moments. Just last year, he went 7 for 18 with four walks (and nine strikeouts) in Washington’s five playoff games against the Dodgers. But he’s 38 and coming off a fractured toe. Meanwhile, Kendrick batted .227 in nine playoff games with the Dodgers last season and is a career .214 hitter in 108 postseason plate appearances.

These Nationals have more postseason experience than ever before. But will it matter?

Last, and perhaps most important, let’s take a look at how each player has fared against Cubs pitchers.

Here’s Werth:

Here’s Kendrick:

Kendrick has had some success against a few Cubs relievers and two starters in tiny sample sizes — right-hander Kyle Hendricks and left-hander Jose Quintana, whom Werth has never faced. So maybe Kendrick starts against them and comes off the bench the other games. Or maybe Werth, who has a .931 career OPS against left-handed pitchers, is the starter no matter what. My semi-educated guess is the latter.

How worried should we be about the recent performances of Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark? — Michelle S, @aNatsFan

Chelsea: Not too worried. Or at least, no more worried than anyone was about those two before this weekend.

As Gio said Sunday, the last game of the season isn’t much to read into. Yes, one could counter with Jordan Zimmermann’s 2014 no-hitter and the 8 2/3-inning gem that followed in Game 2 of the NLDS, but that guy was on a hot streak. I don’t think anything you saw from Gio on Sunday informs anything you’ll see next week. He didn’t want to admit it, but he looked sick. He lost weight. He’ll be fine by next week, at which point the normal Gio concerns come into play: Can he get out of jams? Can he avoid jams altogether? Will he nibble, or will he attack?

If he’s healthy, and working with Matt Wieters like he has this season, there’s no reason to expect a debacle — although a near no-hitter might be too much to ask, too. But whatever happens then probably won’t have much to do with what happened this weekend or since they’ve clinched. Gio always struck me as a guy that needed major motivation and to really commit to his focus. It’s an ongoing battle for him. These few weeks, he hasn’t looked as locked in. I think the playoff will provide a jolt, and the Nationals hope it’s enough.

As for Roark, he’s just been a little shaky all season. I don’t read into Sunday at all. He came in as a reliever. Nothing mattered. It was a long and grueling game. Focus was not prevalent. Roark’s been much better in the second half and treasures big game opportunities — like the ones he got in the World Baseball Classic. Those things mean a lot to him. If he can keep the ball down and get the two-seamer moving, he’ll be fine. Adrenaline seems the bigger concern for Tanner, not what’s happened recently. I think all these guys have struggled with the lack of meaning this week, no matter what they say to the contrary. They’ve been waiting for meaningful games all season. Honestly, I expect them to react well to them.

Will Victor Robles make the major league roster out of spring training in 2018? — Theresa Sullivan, @tasullivan1

Jorge: The answer probably depends on two things beyond whether the Nationals think Robles is ready: if the Nationals flip an outfielder or two for help elsewhere, and if they’d rather prevent Robles from reaching Super-2 status. Robles impressed in his short stint as the youngest player in the big leagues and could make the postseason roster this week. But the Nationals have a logjam in the outfield.

As of now, Washington is projected to have Bryce Harper, Adam Eaton, Michael A. Taylor and Brian Goodwin under contract next season. Add emergency outfielder Wilmer Difo, and that’s potentially five outfielders on the major league roster, which is more than enough.

If Washington keeps them all — this is me speculating here — I don’t see Robles making the roster out of spring training. And even if they think Robles is a better option than Goodwin, I don’t think the Nationals want their 20-year-old top prospect riding the bench. He could use at-bats every day. So to make room for him, the Nationals would have to trade a projected starter — Harper, Eaton or Taylor. Taylor is the obvious choice. They could sell high for pitching help or something else. Or they could decide Taylor has figured it out and have Robles replace Harper in 2018.

And, as mentioned above, there’s the Super-2 matter. Basically, players with three years of service time become eligible for salary arbitration. But players between two and three years of service could be eligible if they’re in the top 22 percent of that demographic. To avoid that, the Nationals could just push Robles’s arrival next year deeper into the season.

Who will be the last man on the bench? What will the bullpen look like? Will Robles make the playoff roster? — Lots of people, over and over

Chelsea: Lucky for you guys, we wrote about all this just this morning, anticipating these very questions. Here, we break the playoff roster down for you, bit by bit. Click, and all your questions will be answered.

Read more on the Nationals:

In MLB playoff format, ‘Sometimes those off days can be tough on good teams’

Max Scherzer ‘upbeat’ after hamstring injury, but not yet committing to NLDS Game 1

Jayson Werth hears cheers as Nationals go quietly into postseason

Done for the season with yet another injury, Shawn Kelley figuring out ‘plan of attack’