WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Washington Nationals have their worries and weaknesses, from identifying a closer to fretting about an almost entirely new up-the-middle defense of Derek Norris at catcher, Trea Turner at shortstop and Adam Eaton in center field, with only Daniel Murphy, hardly known for his glove, returning at second base.
But the stock market has a wonderful piece of worldly wisdom: “The bear case always sounds better.” Predictions of calamity resonate with humans, perhaps because our worst experiences leave a deeper psychological mark than our best ones. Every day on Wall Street, you can hear the sky-is-falling crowd, even though the U.S. market has gone up almost 10 percent per year since the Civil War.
There’s a bull case for the Nats that’s easily missed — one that may become evident every time the team comes to bat. With average health and production, the Nats will score more runs than any team since the sport came back to D.C.
Murphy and Turner may not hit .347 and .342 again, but Bryce may hit more. It’s the whole assemblage, plus the bench, that holds such promise.
The Nationals’ record is 763 runs, set last season. That was a pleasant but unspectacular eighth best in the major leagues. Can the Nats get more than 800 runs, reaching the level of the world champion Chicago Cubs (808 in 2016)? Well, they better. The Cubs have top-drawer pitching and hitting. You’ll only match or beat them if you have both components, too. The Nats have spent two years assembling their optimal lineup pieces. Now it’s time to see whether the whole powder-keg project ignites.
Why anticipate a summer full of high scoring in Washington?
A core insight into offense in this century is the emphasis on stringing together high-on-base-percentage players. You create constant pressure on the base paths, open up big innings and don’t have to wait for swing-and-trot offense. Such lineups are often effective against top postseason pitchers who can stifle power.
Few teams have five hitters who can match the top of the Nationals’ order in overall offensive quality, but especially in the ability to get on base. The big league average on-base-percentage is .322. Last year, the quintet of Eaton, Turner, Murphy, Harper and Anthony Rendon had stellar on-base marks of .362, .370, .390, .373 and .348. Likely No. 6 man Jayson Werth had a .356 mark in his last 111 games after his wrist fully healed, comparable to his .362 career mark.
As added spice, the Nationals’ first six hitters, as a group, are far above average in their ability to steal, bunt or play hit-and-run against tough pitching. Those six men stole a combined 90 bases last year, even though Turner only played 73 games. “With Davey Lopes coaching him, Eaton will break his career best in steals ,” General Manager Mike Rizzo predicted. Get ready for 130 steals from six men? “We like to run,” Rizzo said.
Can the Nats approach the soul-crushing on-base percentage of the Boston Red Sox, who scored 878 runs last year? Probably not, because the American League has the designated hitter and because Norris, who has occasional power, is a slightly below-average on-base man (.309 career).
But, in 2017, the Nats hope not to have the drag of almost 1,500 plate appearances by poor-to-horrid on-base players like Ben Revere, Michael Taylor, Clint Robinson and Danny Espinosa, all between .260 and .306 last season.
Yes, this leaves the question of Ryan Zimmerman, as well as who will be the No. 1 man off the bench — the kind of player who often gets 400 chances to hit.
That’s where lefty-hitting first baseman and left fielder Adam Lind, 33, comes into play. The Nats signed him as a free agent for only $1.5 million. I’m going with “steal.” Asked why he came to D.C., Lind said, “It’s a J-O-B. I didn’t have many offers.” As for his main task, he said, “I think they got me to pinch-hit.”
I think not.
Lind once had 35 homers and 114 RBI in a season. Another year, he hit .321. “I’ve seen him hit some bombs,” Nationals hitting coach Rick Schu said. The last four years, his slash line is a virtual duplicate of Zimmerman’s career slash line — in other words, very good. And in three of the past four years, he has hit 20 homers.
If Zimmerman’s revamped hitting approach doesn’t work well, or Werth’s fragile wrist is injured again, or if Lind simply starts to hit, you may see Lind get the same 430 plate appearances he had last year in Seattle’s big park with 20 homers and 58 RBI. Will he provide rest to Werth and Zimmerman or move into a quasi-platoon at first base?
You don’t know. But the Nats have never had a bench bat with his 186-homer cred. He was available because he hit .239 last year. Few things help a lineup like length. Lind, as well as Stephen Drew (.864 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 2016), who backs up at second base and shortstop, and Chris Heisey, who has pinch-hit thump, give the Nats a roster in which only backup catcher Jose Lobaton elicits spectators to say, “Let’s go for a hot dog.”
Manager Dusty Baker says he has been waking up in the middle of the night with “a hundred” possible lineup permutations. Eaton hit leadoff for the White Sox and could stay there if the Nats decide they don’t want three lefties in a row at Nos. 2-3-4. None of them have bad splits against southpaws, but you don’t want a tough late-inning lefty specialist to be able to attack all three in a row.
Turner couldn’t care less whether he hits No. 1 or No. 2. He gives off the understated but distinct impression that it’s the league, not him, who will have the problem either way. His high baseball IQ snaps to attention when the Leadoff Question is asked. It’s just a trade-off, not a choice. “If you hit second, it means fewer steals but more RBI and more chances for situational hitting,” Turner said.
Before Nationals games begin this year, it will be Baker who has the headaches, trying to figure who bats where, who gets a day off to stay fresh, what lineup will match the weakness of that day’s pitcher. Do we run on this guy or pound him?
After the games begin, however, if the Nats have even normal luck with injuries, it’s likely to be the other club that has the headaches. Maybe migraines.