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Washington Nationals 2016 Season Preview: Win one for Dusty Baker!

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The Washington Nationals have a new manager, a new coaching and medical staff and some new additions to the lineup and bullpen. Can the Nats bounce back from a disappointing 2015 campaign and win a World Series for Dusty Baker?

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome Back: Get to know your 2016 Nationals

The first big move the Washington Nationals made this winter was to fire Matt Williams and hire Dusty Baker. Nats' GM Mike Rizzo and the Nationals' front office moved on from Williams two years into his career as a manager and brought Baker in on a two-year deal, giving the veteran of twenty years on the bench in the majors another opportunity to try to win it all before he's done with his second career in the game.

"This is my fourth and final team and beyond compare, this is the best talent," Baker said during his introductory press conference in the nation's capital. "That's why I was excited about coming here and most of the other teams that I had were either on the bottom or near the bottom and had to rebuild from the bottom.

"I asked a friend of mine, 'How come I always get teams and have to build them up?' And he said, 'Dusty, you do more with less,' and I told him that I was ready to do more with more. So, I'd like to try that. They've got some great talent here. They have young talent here. It's a mixture of youth and experience at the same time and I've always liked that formula."

The Nationals got a skipper with a history as a player's manager who can handle a clubhouse and Baker, 66, got one last chance to cap off his career with the one thing that's eluded him in his second life in baseball.

"You hate to have voids in your life," Baker said of having not won a World Series as a manager. "You can live without them, but I'd rather not."

Joining Baker in D.C. is Chris Speier, his bench coach, who worked with the new Nats' skipper in Cincinnati and got the call again. He said his goal is help Baker get that ring he's been after for twenty-plus years as a manager.

"I have one. Arizona Diamondbacks, I was the third base coach when they won in 2001," Speier explained this winter, "but I know Dusty doesn't have one as a manager and that's a big, big goal for me, for him to finally get that to put that on his legacy."

"Dusty is no.1, I just have to say, away from the baseball side, is probably one of the greatest human beings that I've ever met, the most giving man that I've been around in a long, long time. A lot of things that he does off the field for a lot of different people go unnoticed. And he makes my position, again, it's easy.

"There are very little things that he demands. The other thing about him is he's a great delegator.

"He says, 'You have the defense,' and if he's got any questions about it he'll come to me, but he delegates really, really well. And he gives those that work for him responsibility and he holds it together, he's kind of the glue. So it's easy."

Speier isn't the only one who is excited about playing for Baker.

"Definitely a guy that you want to play for," defending NL MVP Bryce Harper told reporters when he arrived at Spring Training.

"A player's manager for sure. He just wants you to work hard and do everything right and he understands the game. I think that's the biggest thing. He understands the mentality, he understands the grind of playing every single day and there's nothing better than having a manager who understands the game of baseball."

Even with the rotation they have, with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the top, the lineup, which when healthy will grind out at bats and cause opposing pitchers fits, and even with the promise of prospects like Trea Turner, and one day soon Lucas Giolito, contributing, the Nationals won't be the unanimous preseason favorites to win the NL East, National League or the World Series this time around, like they were before last season, but as Harper told reporters this winter, including the Washington Post's Chelsea Janes, proving people wrong might be more fun than proving them right.

"I hope everybody in the book dismisses us," Harper said.

"Because that means we’re going to go out there and do everything we can to prove people wrong. We’re a great team, we’re a great organization. I think we have the staff, I think we have the coaches and the manager to do it."

With the pressure of meeting expectations off of them, a motivated new manager looking to make one last run, a 23-year-old MVP who believes the best is yet to come and an entire organization that is determined to take the next step, is this the year that the Nationals bring a World Series championship to the nation's capital?

Can the Nats win one for Dusty Baker? Let's take a look at the 2016 Washington Nationals...

Key additions:

Daniel Murphy, Ben Revere, Oliver Perez, Shawn Kelley, Yusmeiro Petit, Trevor Gott, Mike Maddux, Davey Lopes

Key Departures:

Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Drew Storen, Ian Desmond, Yunel Escobar, Denard Span, Matt Thornton, Craig Stammen, Casey Janssen

Nationals' 2016 Rotation Outlook:

  1. Max Scherzer - RHP - 2015 Stats: (14-12), 33 G, 33 GS, 228 ⅔ IP, 2.79 ERA, 2.77 FIP, 34 BB (1.34 BB/9), 276 Ks (10.86 K/9), .205/.242/.358 line against, 6.4 fWAR.
  2. Gio Gonzalez - LHP - 2015 Stats: (11-8), 31 G, 31 GS, 175 ⅔ IP, 3.79 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 56 BB (3.54 BB/9), 162 Ks (8.66 K/9), .264/.336/.374 line against, 3.7 fWAR.
  3. Stephen Strasburg - RHP - 2015 Stats: (11-7), 23 G, 23 GS, 127 ⅓ IP, 3.46 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 26 BB (1.84 BB/9), 155 Ks (10.96 K/9), .233/.278/.375 line against, 3.4 fWAR.
  4. Joe Ross - RHP - 2015 Stats: (5-5), 16 G, 13 GS, 76 ⅔ IP, 3.64 ERA, 3.42 FIP, 21 BB (2.47 BB/9), 69 Ks (8.10 K/9), .223/.280/.348 line against, 1.4 fWAR.
  5. Tanner Roark - RHP - 2015 Stats: (4-7), 40 G, 12 GS, 111 IP, 4.38 ERA, 4.70 FIP, 26 BB (2.11 BB/9), 138 Ks (5.68 K/9), .279/.325/.459 line against, -0.2 fWAR.

Remaining Nationals' Rotation Questions:

While the signing of Bronson Arroyo this winter raised some questions about whether or not the 39-year-old veteran could potentially crack the Nationals' rotation, new pitching coach Mike Maddux seemed pretty sure which five were going to part of the rotation from the start this winter.

Talking to reporters at Nats WinterFest in December, the then-newly-hired member of Dusty Baker's staff talked to reporters about the staff he was inheriting.

"I like the inventory. What an inventory of arms over here, man. I look at a rotation that features Max Scherzer up top, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Joe Ross, Tanner Roark, you know everybody's got their own schtick going on there: One guy is pitching with two colored eyes. Another guy is pitching with his ears out there. And you've got the one lefty in there and you've got the younger brother of another guy out there and then you've got old Tanner that just came out of nowhere a couple of years ago wins 15 ballgames and then goes and sits on his thumb last year out in the bullpen, so it's a very interesting mix of what we have. And then the bullpen has been retooled.

"You look at some good middle relief that's been signed here recently and that's going to lead us up to the back end.

"Really on paper, the inventory is outstanding and that's something I'm really looking forward to."

Even early this Spring, Maddux, who came to D.C. with an impressive history of improving the pitching staffs wherever he's gone, has been putting his stamp on the Nationals' pitchers:

Can Max Scherzer straighten out his second-half home run issues? Will Stephen Strasburg pick up where he left off last season and continue to dominate the way he did down the stretch last season after his first DL stint?

Will Maddux get Gio Gonzalez back to 2012 form? He's already working with the left-hander, tweaking his mechanics to get him to pick up his target earlier in his delivery than he had previously.

Did the Nationals break Tanner Roark by moving him to the pen last year after his breakthrough season in 2014? Can Joe Ross add a third/fourth pitch to his fastball/slider mix?

Maddux

Nationals' Projected Everyday Lineup [ed. note - "Not necessarily Dusty Baker's preferred order."]:

  1. Ben Revere - CF - 2015 Stats: 152 G, 634 PAs, 306/.342/.377, 22 2B, 7 3B, 3 HRs, 31 SB, 1.9 fWAR.
  2. Anthony Rendon - 3B - 2015 Stats: 80 G, 355 PAs, .264/.344/.363, 16 2B, 5 HRs, 1 SB, 0.9 fWAR.
  3. Bryce Harper - RF - 2015 Stats - 153 G, 654 PAs, .330/.460/.649, 38 2B, 1 3B, 42 HRs, 6 SB, 9.5 fWAR.
  4. Ryan Zimmerman - 1B - 2015 Stats: 95 G, 390 PAs, .249/.308/.465, 25 2B, 1 3B, 16 HRs, 1 SB, 0.6 fWAR.
  5. Daniel Murphy - 2B - 2015 Stats: 130 G, 538 PAs, .281/.322/.449, 38 2B, 2 3B, 14 HRs, 2 SB, 2.5 fWAR.
  6. Jayson Werth - LF - 2015 Stats: 88 G, 378 PAs, .221/.302/.384, 16 2B, 1 3B, 12 HRs, -0.3 fWAR.
  7. Wilson Ramos - C - 2015 Stats: 128 G, 504 PAs, .229/.258/.358, 16 2B, 15 HRs, 0.4 fWAR.
  8. Danny Espinosa - SS - 2015 Stats: 118 G, 412 PAs, .240/.311/.409, 21 2B, 1 3B, 13 HRs, 2.3 fWAR.

Nationals' Opening Day Roster/Bench Remaining Questions:

Dusty Baker talked from the start this Spring about the difficult decisions he would have to make when it came to the Nationals' Opening Day roster. Over the weekend, the Nats' skipper made the tough decision to cut Tyler Moore after four years on the bench for the hard-hitting outfielder/first baseman. He's going to take all the time he can to make the last decisions he has to when it comes to the Nationals' bench.

"There are some things going down to the wire," he said this weekend, as quoted by MLB.com's Bill Ladson.

"The bullpen, the bench, that's probably two areas where [we] are undecided."

Clint Robinson is the primary backup at first behind Ryan Zimmerman. Stephen Drew, who offers left-handed pop off the bench (he hit 17 HRs last season), can back up all around the infield. Jose Lobaton will back Wilson Ramos up behind the plate again this season.

Michael A. Taylor is going to be the Nationals' fourth outfielder (for now) with Baker telling reporters this Spring that he plans to get the 25-year-old (who is tearing it up in Grapefruit League action) plenty of at bats while taking advantage of Taylor's talent to get veteran outfielder Jayson Werth the rest he needs to make it through a full season at 36-going-on-37 years old.

So who will join the five players mentioned above on the bench, claiming the final spot? Brendan Ryan? Chris Heisey? Reed Johnson? Matt den Dekker? Scott Sizemore?

Baker is apparently going to wait as long as he can to make the final decisions on his bench.

Nationals' 2016 Bullpen:

  1. Jonathan Papelbon - CL - 2015 Stats: (4-3), 63 ⅓ IP, 2.13 ERA, 3.70 FIP, 24 SV,12 BB (1.71 BB/9), 56 Ks (7.96 K/9), .220/.280/.360, 0.4 fWAR.
  2. Shawn Kelley - RHP - 2015 Stats: (2-2), 51 ⅓ IP, 2.45 ERA, 2.57 FIP, 16 BB (2.63 BB/9), 63 Ks (11.05 K/9), .216/.273/.323, 0.9 fWAR.
  3. Felipe Rivero - LHP - 2015 Stats: (2-1), 48 ⅓ IP, 2.79 ERA, 2.64 FIP, 2 SV, 11 BB (2.05 BB/9), 43 Ks (8.01 K/9), .198/.249/.295, 0.9 fWAR.
  4. Oliver Perez - LHP - 2015 Stats: (2-4), 41 IP, 4.17 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 15 BB (3.29 BB/9), 51 Ks (11.20 K/9), .238/.319/.362, 0.5 fWAR.
  5. Yusmeiro Petit- RHP - 2015 Stats: (1-1), 76 IP, 1 SV, 76 IP, 15 BB (1.78 BB/9), 59 Ks (6.99 K/9), .256/.289/.454, -0.1 fWAR.
  6. Blake Treinen - RHP - 2015 Stats: (2-5), 87 ⅔ IP, 3.86 ERA, 3.49 FIP, 32 BB (4.26 BB/9), 65 Ks (8.65 K/9), .252/.344/.348, 0.4 fWAR.

Remaining Nationals' Bullpen Questions: Who gets the final spot?

Matt Belisle? Sean Burnett? Aaron Laffey? Rafael Martin? Nick Masset? Trevor Gott? Give it to Gott!

It's a new-look bullpen for the Nationals in 2016 and GM Mike Rizzo did a lot of work to reshape his relief corps after getting disappointing results in 2015. He talked about rebuilding the bullpen from the start this winter. So how will the Nationals big signings (Kelley, Perez, Petit) fit in?

Will Papelbon reward Rizzo's faith? Will Treinen get left-handers out? Where does Kelley fit in? Eighth-inning man?

Can Kelley handle closing duties should Papelbon falter physically or suffer another emotional breakdown detrimental to the team or organization?

Rizzo talked about the new additions and holdovers in an MLB Network Radio interview this winter:

"We also see the young players that we feel are going to step up for this year," Rizzo explained, "with Blake Treinen and Felipe Rivero and that type of group and we feel that we've got not only good power swing and miss bullpen type of guys, we've got great depth that we can go to the minor leagues when we need to because you never have enough pitching."

2016 Nationals' Prospect Watch:

When do Trea Turner and Lucas Giolito make it to the majors? Assuming, of course, that Dusty Baker doesn't take Turner to the nation's capital at the start of the season. Will the Nationals really wait till June to bring Turner up?

Do they manage Giolito's innings so he's available down the stretch should they make a run?

How long before Reynaldo Lopez is up as part of the Nationals' bullpen?

How does everyone's favorite outfield prospect Victor Robles build on his .343/.424/.479 season with the New York/Penn League's Auburn Doubledays?

According to Baseball Prospectus, Robles "...is one of the most intriguing long-term talents in the minors right now, and with another year of development he has a strong chance of being included in the Top 10 on the 2017 edition of the Top 101."

Does 21-year-old, 2013 3rd Round pick Drew Ward take a step in his development after a .249/.327/.358, 19 double, six home run season at High-A Potomac?

Were Pedro Severino's small sample size Spring numbers (7 for 16, .two doubles, two walks, one K in 10 games) a sign of something good for the catcher at the plate, like Dusty Baker said, or a sign he can hit fastballs early in ST?

For a look at some independent analysis of the Nats' top prospects, check out Baseball AmericaBaseball Prospectus and SBNation's Minor League Ball.

FBB 2015 Prospect Watch List (published 2/14/15):

Joe Ross, Drew Ward, Jakson Reetz, Jake Johansen... Felipe Rivero?

FBB 2016 Prospect Watch List:

Victor Robles, Drew Ward, Austin Voth, A.J. Cole, Andrew Stevenson, Erick Fedde... Reynaldo Lopez? Wander Suero?

National Perception of the Nationals:

SI.com (2016 Projected Record and Finish: 83–79 (.512), second in N.L. East):

Plus: "For as good as Harper is, the team around him isn’t bad, either. The Nationals have a top-five starter in Max Scherzer and a former No. 1 pick in Stephen Strasburg to anchor one of the best rotations in baseball. Anthony Rendon returns healthy after losing most of 2015 to oblique and knee injuries; if he can get back to his near-MVP form from ‘14 (125 OPS+, 6.6 WAR), he and Harper will give the lineup a tremendous 1-2 punch."

Minus: "Despite their advancing years and increasing fragility, the Nationals opted to stick with their veterans; aside from Murphy and Revere, the team made no other notable additions to the roster, hoping instead that last year’s group would bounce back and play up to its potential."

CBSSports.com: (94-68, first in N.L. East)

Plus: "Ross came over last offseason in one of my favorite trades of the winter -- the Nationals got Ross and Turner for Steven Souza -- wowza -- and he had a fine MLB debut in 2015, giving the Nats 76 2/3 innings of 3.64 ERA (111 ERA+) ball. Tyson's younger brother picked up a splitter this spring and could be poised for a huge breakout season."

Minus: "The shortstop position is in a state of flux following Desmond's free agent defection. The Nationals seem to want top shortstop Trea Turner to spend some more time in Triple-A, leaving the job for either Espinosa or Stephen Drew. Probably both, really. I'm guessing they'll split duties for the time being since neither is a guy you want to play every single day."

Yahoo.com: (Ninth overall, no record prediction)

Plus: "Despite losing Jordan Zimmermann in free agency and missing out on several targets of their own, the Nationals are still talented enough to win the NL East. If everything comes together under Dusty Baker, they can win 95 games and get to the World Series behind Scherzer and Strasburg. The reality though is that Washington will have to take the NL East away from the New York Mets, and that won't be easy."

Minus: "We saw the worst case for Washington last season when they faltered down the stretch, won just 83 games and missed the playoffs. That same scenario would again be the worst case for Washington, and it's very much in play. The only difference is this season their best might not be enough, because the teams they're chasing for the NL pennant all got a little better."

Fangraphs: (88-74, second in N.L. East)

Plus: "The big Nationals advantage is the presence of Bryce Harper -- he’s probably the best player on either roster. He’s quite possibly the best player in the whole National League."

Minus: "There’s carryover from the last regular season, when the Nationals were one of the most disappointing winning teams in memory. That’s going to remain the most recent baseball until there’s even more recent baseball..."

Vegas, baby: As of this post, the Nats have the ninth-best odds to win the World Series, the fifth-best odds to win the National League and second-best odds to win the N.L. East behind the Mets.

Best-case Scenario?:

"Dusty really stuck out as the guy that was the right manager at this particular time for the Nationals with the team that we had in place and the atmosphere in Washington, D.C.," Mike Rizzo said.

Will Baker get the Nationals over the top, to their third National League East title in the last five years and hopefully past the division series for the first time?

Worst-Case Scenario?:

"Werth tears a hamstring doing a pop-up slide in 40 degree weather and Zimmerman's foot pain acts up again standing around for three hours a night. Taylor OBPs .275 subbing for Werth, Robinson is exposed as a career minor leaguer playing first everyday for Zimmerman.

"On June 1, the Nats aren't even .500 while the Mets are winning two out of three in every series and the Marlins -- yes, the Marlins -- enjoy a resurgence behind a healthy Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton.

"At that point, Giolito and Turner are finally summoned from the minors, and are both injured in a rookie hazing incident initiated by Papelbon."

What you have to see to call the season a success?

There's no other option -- in order for the Nats 2016 season to be considered a success, they have to make it to the postseason. Once there, anything can happen, as we all are well aware.

The Nats have some obvious obstacles to overcome to make the second season, but there is talent enough to make that happen, as long as everyone (mostly) stays healthy, their "givens" (Harper, Scherzer, Strasburg, Gonzalez) perform as expected, and the reconstructed bullpen is better than last year's 'pen.

Looking at the National League as a whole, the Nats don't necessarily have to win the East to make the playoffs (but it certainly wouldn't hurt). The Nats (and Mets) have the benefit of the unbalanced schedule this season -- the Braves and Phillies could be two of the three worst teams in all of baseball, so their record should get a bump from those games. It's imperative, even, that the Nats take advantage of the rebuilding organizations in their division, just like the Phillies and Braves did to the Nats not so long ago.

If the Nats fail to qualify for the playoffs this season, there could -- and probably should -- be big changes in D.C., both in personnel and management. There's too much talent in this organization and too much money handed out to veteran players for ownership to justify failure to make the postseason again.

Would you be happy just to qualify for the playoffs, even if it's "just" via wildcard? Do you need to see the Nats advance? Is it "World Series or Bust" for you?