Here, in no particular order, are the Top 5 questions facing the NL East Champion Washington Nationals, who once again failed to advance past the NLDS...
5. Bring back The Buffalo or find a new everyday catcher?: Wilson Ramos, 29, was on his way to free agency and what should have been a significant payday.
Through 131 games, the seven-year veteran put up a .307/.354/.496 line with career highs in doubles (25) and home runs (22) in 523 plate appearances, over which he was worth a career-best 3.4 fWAR.
Late in the season, however, on a soggy day in D.C., on a fairly innocuous play at the plate, he suffered the second significant right knee injury of his career.
Ramos underwent surgery for what Jon Heyman at FanRag reported on Twitter on Saturday, was an ACL tear and a minor meniscus tear. The timetable for return? 6-7 months. So he won’t be ready for the start of the 2017 campaign.
It was a cruel blow for Ramos, and for the Nationals, who got solid catching from Jose Lobaton and Pedro Severino in the postseason, but missed Ramos.
So what now? Do the Nationals bring Ramos back? If not, they have to go out and sign an everyday backstop, right? Or do they believe in a combination of Severino and Lobaton behind the plate in 2017?
Ramos, himself, acknowledged that after two knee surgeries, he might be better off in the American League.
“I would love to stay here and keep playing for this team,” Ramos said through an interpreter.
“They’ve given me the opportunity in my career that I haven’t gotten anywhere else. Unfortunately this injury happened so close to the end and it may affect whether I’m able to stay [with a] National League team or not, but if it’s up to me, I definitely would like to keep playing for the Nationals and play as long as I can.”
4. What was wrong with Bryce Harper?: If Bryce Harper didn’t play with an injury of some sort to his shoulder/neck, it might be more worrisome than if the Nationals’ soon-to-turn 24-year-old slugger was healthy throughout his .243/.373/.441, 24 double, 24 HR, 3.5 fWAR season.
Coming off a .330/.460/.649, 38 double, 42 home run, 9.5 fWAR season in 2015, which earned him an NL MVP award, Harper struggled from May on, after getting off to a strong start.
ESPN.com’s Buster Olney, citing information from ESPN’s Stats & Info, broke down the defending National League MVP’s struggles:
“Harper crushed fastballs in 2015, with a 1.189 OPS against them, the best in the majors. His .853 OPS against fastballs in 2016 ranked 85th of 146 qualified hitters.
“The same can be said for pitches on the outer half. Harper had a 1.175 OPS on those pitches in 2015, also the best in the majors. His .804 OPS on those pitches in 2016 ranked 46th.
“And it's the same story in the upper half of the zone. He had a 1.208 OPS on those pitches in 2015, compared to .823 in 2016.”
If he wasn’t dealing with an injury, the fact that he couldn’t figure out what was wrong over five-plus months should be a reason for concern.
Will we eventually hear that Harper was playing with a neck/shoulder issue?
Will he come back at full strength in 2017, his next-to-last season of team control before free agency? And about that rumored $400-$500M extension everyone was talking about this past winter?
3. Can Stephen Strasburg return to full strength?: Through 17 starts this season, Nats’ starter Stephen Strasburg was (13-0) with a 2.51 ERA and a .195/.258/.307 line against in 114 2⁄3 IP.
Over his last seven starts, which took place around a DL stint for right elbow soreness, the 28-year-old right-hander, who signed a 7-year/$175M in May, was (2-4) with a 7.36 ERA and a .287/.338/.515 line against in 33 IP.
His season ended after a 2 1⁄3-inning outing against the Atlanta Braves on September 7th.
Strasburg suffered a flexor mass strain and a partial tear of the pronator tendon in his right arm.
Though he threw off the mound in some bullpen sessions during the NLDS, Dusty Baker acknowledged that Strasburg wasn’t going to ready for the NLCS if the Nationals did in fact advance.
“He's progressing as well as we'd like,” Baker said. “It's never as fast as you'd like. But again, he won't be available for the next series. It would be a miracle if he was.”
Will he be ready for the start of the 2017 campaign? Will he be back to the pitcher he was at the start of the 2016 season? How many questions can we tag on to the end of this section?
2. Trea Turner at short? Danny Espinosa = utility man?: Outside of a .309/.418/.704, five double, nine home run month of June, it was more of the same from Danny Espinosa at the plate this season. Espinosa’s defense was solid in his return to short, but with a bat in his hands, the 29-year-old infielder struggled to make contact once again.
Asked during the Nationals’ NLDS run, if he considered replacing Espinosa at any time during his .172/.272/.280 second half or during the postseason, Dusty Baker had this response:
“Well, who else do I have?” Baker asked.
“That’s my answer. If you can give me somebody better, than I can play somebody instead of him. Certain times, you have certain people on your team and that’s what you got. My job is to hopefully get the most out of him and make him better.”
Trea Turner, Wilmer Difo, Stephen Drew?
Will Turner transition back to short after he moved to center this season? Will Espinosa end up in a utility role? Will the Nationals stick with Espinosa for another season at short?
1. Closer?: Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo talked about potentially signing Mark Melancon long-term after the veteran closer was acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates at the non-waiver trade deadline.
In an interview on 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s The Sports Junkies, Rizzo discussed the possibility of bringing Melancon back, though the 31-year-old reliever is headed for free agency this winter.
“Nobody has talked about [Melancon] just being a rental,” Rizzo said. “We don’t know what’s down the road. Looking at it from the player’s standpoint, he’s a month away from being a free agent.
“There’s no rationale and reason for him to sign a contract or an extension now.
“He’ll take it to free agency and then we’ll be in the market place with the rest of the teams that are looking for a closer.”
“There are several closers on the market next year. We’ve paid for closers in the past.
“We’ve paid a lot of money for closers in the past and we’ll take a look at the landscape and where we can implement our dollars in the best way and the way to allocate our dollars in the best way and we’ll see where it goes.”
Melancon was 17 for 18 in save opportunities with the Nationals, with a 1.82 ERA and a .202/.224/.279 line against in 29 2⁄3 IP.
Will the Nationals turn to an in-house option? Will the Nationals finally get Aroldis Chapman after pursuing him on several occasions? Will they finally forego traditional back end of the bullpen roles in favor of matchups?