It’s time. Nationals pitchers and catchers must report to their new spring training digs in West Palm Beach, Fla., by tomorrow. Position players have until Friday and the club’s first full-squad workout is scheduled for Sunday. There are a few new faces, but most of last season’s 95-win team remains intact. Still, as always, there are questions entering 2017. Here are five of them.
1. Who’s the closer?
Let’s just get this question out of the way because it’s probably the biggest and definitely the most discussed. At the beginning of the offseason, five teams were unquestionably seeking a closer and three elite free agent choices were on the market. The Yankees (Aroldis Chapman), Dodgers (Kenley Jansen), and Giants (Mark Melancon) got those three. The Cubs traded for Wade Davis, who had very recently been in that top tier, to fill their vacancy. The Nationals, after offering Melancon less money than the Giants and offering Jansen more money than the Dodgers, were left with nothing. Not even taking a flier Greg Holland, who signed with the Rockies.
So the Nationals, as has been constantly repeated in this space, don’t have a clear-cut choice for the ninth inning. The favorites are Shawn Kelley (80 strikeouts in 58 innings in 2016, but durability is a concern after two Tommy John surgeries) and Blake Treinin (2.28 ERA in 2016 and has the stuff, but mental makeup is a concern for club officials). Koda Glover could emerge, but likely not by Opening Day. And there’s still time for General Manager Mike Rizzo to find the solution via trade before the games matter. Perhaps David Robertson?
2. Will Stephen Strasburg stay healthy?
Last May, the Nationals and Stephen Strasburg agreed on a seven-year, $175 million contract extension – with a couple opt-outs in the middle — to secure the ace before he hit free agency. It was a risk, but Strasburg had regained his ace form and Washington saved some money by locking him up before he became the best starting pitcher on the free-agent market by miles.
Five weeks later, he was on the disabled list with an upper back strain. A month-and-a-half after that, he was back on it with elbow soreness. And three weeks after that, he walked off the mound with a more serious elbow injury. It could’ve been worse – it was a partially torn pronator tendon, which didn’t require a second Tommy John surgery as initially feared – but he missed the remainder of the season. The Nationals have made the playoffs three of the past five seasons. The first time, Strasburg was shut down. The second time, he made one start and threw five innings. The third time, he was hurt. The Nationals could use a healthy Strasburg to return to the postseason and finally advance beyond the Division Series for the first time.
3. Will Bryce Harper “bounce back”?
The quotation marks are not a typo. They’re there because Bryce Harper was not bad in 2016. In fact, his season was very good by most 23-year-old’s standards. But very good was not the bar Harper set in 2015, when he was Bondsian with 42 home runs and a 1.109 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. The Nationals expected an elite middle-of-the-order presence and got that — from Daniel Murphy.
It appeared as though Harper would continue his annihilation through the first month in 2016, but then his production plunged. Harper batted .235, slugged .392, and hit 15 home runs in 124 games from May through September. He missed a few games with a neck injury, but the Nationals adamantly denied reports that Harper was dealing with a right shoulder issue, and Harper and his camp never publicly confirmed them.
Now, with two seasons left until he headlines one of the strongest free-agent classes ever, the Nationals are confident the real Bryce Harper is closer to the 2015 version despite having never approached that astonishing level of production in any of his other four seasons. Without Wilson Ramos to pick up some of the slugging slack, they probably will need him to be to reclaim the National League East title.
4. Can Trea Turner repeat his rookie magic over a full year at shortstop?
The Nationals probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs in 2016 if Trea Turner hadn’t converted to center field midseason and emerged as one of the best players in the majors over the second half. But Washington never saw center field as Turner’s permanent home. He was a shortstop and it was a matter of when the Nationals would move him there. The Nationals decided on 2017, acquiring Adam Eaton from the White Sox to play center field and then shipping disgruntled shortstop Danny Espinosa to the Angels later that week.
Turner, 23, has always been a shortstop – he played there at North Carolina State and played 232 of his 245 minor league games there – but he has never played more than 111 games at shortstop in a professional season and evaluators have questioned his arm strength, though he seemed to have plenty in center field last season and the Nationals insist he possesses enough. Offensively, Turner will likely move down to second in the order behind Eaton. Simply doubling his monstrous production — .342 batting average, .937 OPS, 13 home runs, 33 stolen bases in 73 games – is unrealistic, but a full year of Turner should provide a substantial upgrade.
5. What’s left of Ryan Zimmerman?
Ryan Zimmerman’s job status was never in question. Rizzo maintained – over and over – that Zimmerman, who has at least three years and $46 million left on his contract, would be Washington’s starting first baseman in 2017. He insisted Zimmerman’s dreadful production in 2016 – the numbers include a .218 batting average and .642 OPS, both well below his previous career worsts – was the result of injuries derailing his rhythm and plain bad luck.
Zimmerman did hit the ball hard often, posting one of the highest exit velocity averages in baseball, but he didn’t hit many line drives – his 16.7 line drive percentage was 13th-lowest in the majors among players with at least 400 plate appearances and if we’re talking exit velocity we should point out launch angle is also important – and, as a result, his .248 BABIP was sixth-lowest in baseball. The 32-year-old Zimmerman reversed his fortune in the playoffs, batting .353 with five extra-base hits in Washington’s five-game loss to the Dodgers, which the Nationals hope indicate Zimmerman, the first face of the Nationals, can rebound in 2017.