With pitchers and catchers in West Palm Beach, Florida today, as the defending NL East champion Washington Nationals officially kick off Spring Training, we take a look at the Top 5 questions we want to see answered this Spring.
Without further ado, and in no particular order, here are the big questions for the Nats as the 2018 campaign gets started...
1. Extensions, Extensions, Extensions:
Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Mike Rizzo (among others) are set to hit free agency after the 2018 season ends. Will the Nationals (and the Nats’ ownership group in Harper and Rizzo’s cases), get out ahead of things and lock any of their pending free agents up ahead of time to save themselves a little bit of drama next winter?
Stephen Strasburg signed an extension before he became a free agent, agreeing to a 7-year/$175M deal, though that agreement was player-driven according to everyone that was involved in the negotiations.
Will any of the aforementioned Nationals do something similar to what Stras did?
And how about third baseman Anthony Rendon, who is set to become a free agent after the 2019 season?
Rendon told reporters this winter he was open to the idea of a long-term deal.
“Why not stay with one organization?” the Nats’ 2011 first round pick asked rhetorically.
“It’s a great organization, and it’s great to see how we’ve changed over the years, so it would be good to stay.”
Rizzo declined to openly discuss details of talks about Harper with his agent Scott Boras this winter, and asked about his own future, told reporters, it was the furthest thing from his mind heading into the season.
Murphy? He said this winter, when asked about a potential extension to keep him in the nation’s capital, that that was an offseason question, “... just not this offseason.”
2. Nationals’ No. 5 starter:
Rizzo stated the obvious in a recent MLB Network Radio interview, telling hosts Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette that A.J. Cole, who is out of options, and coming off a strong stretch of outings late last season, is the frontrunner for the fifth spot in the rotation behind Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Tanner Roark.
Will the Nationals add a starter via free agency (Jake Arrieta) or trade (there are still some names out there that are reportedly available), or will they see what Cole can do if others like Erick Fedde, Edwin Jackson, or Tommy Milone don’t beat the 26-year-old right-hander out for the fifth spot?
Asked about the depth in the organization behind the top six or seven options for the rotation, Rizzo mentioned 2017 Draft picks Seth Romero and Wil Crowe.
What does that say about the prospect depth among pitchers in the Nationals’ system?
Should the Nationals add a starter to the mix who can slot in behind Scherzer and Stras and push Gio and Roark back?
3. Health of Shawn Kelley/Koda Glover:
Asked about the depth in the bullpen in the aforementioned January 31st MLB Network Radio interview, Rizzo said he received good medical reports on both Shawn Kelley and Koda Glover, relievers who could, if healthy, give the Nats’ admirable depth in the ‘pen.
Kelley, however, hasn’t looked right since Game 5 of the 2016 NLDS, and he struggled to keep the ball in the yard last season. He was diagnosed with bone chips in his elbow last September, but he didn’t have surgery. Will the two-time Tommy John recipient bounce back to his 2016 form in the third year of the 3-year/$15M deal he signed with the Nats?
What about Glover, the hard-throwing right-hander who tore the labrum in his hip in 2016, rehabbed it rather than opting for surgery, then dealt with back and shoulder issues that limited the 24-year-old, 2015 8th Round pick to just 19 1⁄3 innings last season.
Rizzo acknowledged this winter that Glover’s quick rise may have led to the injury issues he’s dealt with.
“We pushed him pretty fast,” Rizzo said. “You talk about college to the big leagues in just a little over a year, and his stuff kind of dictated that he was moved at that pace. And I always think that relievers develop faster than any other position, and I think as much as his developmental curve affected him, I think his makeup affected him, because he tried to push through things, he tried to battle through things, he wanted to be in the big leagues and wanted to pitch through some pain, and I think that ended up biting him at the end.”
Will the Nationals, who are still rumored to be considering bullpen additions, bring in an additional arm, or will they go with what they have, trusting their bullpen depth and back-end strength with the three-headed monster of Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle?
4. Michael A. Taylor in center field:
Michael A. Taylor, 26, had a breakout season in 2017, given an opportunity to play on an everyday basis after Adam Eaton was injured last April.
Taylor, who’d struggled to secure a spot in the outfield previously, put up a .271/.320/.486 line with 23 doubles and 19 homers in 113 games and 432 plate appearances, over which he was worth 3.1 fWAR, and he capped the big season off by hitting two home runs in the NLDS matchup with the Chicago Cubs.
“He’s a really good, dynamic, impactful player that we have under control for a long time and that’s priced very nicely for us,” Rizzo told reporters this winter when he was asked about potentially selling high on the outfielder, who’d struggled offensively before 2017.
“He’s come a long way for us and I think he’s just scratching the surface,” the GM added.
Taylor is penciled in as the everyday center fielder going into Spring Training, with Eaton shifting over to left and Bryce Harper in right.
Will Taylor, who had a combined .228/.281/.363 line over 231 games before last season, continue to grow and realize his potential in 2018?
Asked about heading into the season as the starting center fielder, Taylor said he would treat Spring Training as he always did when he was fighting for a spot.
“I’m trying to take the same approach as I have in years past,” he explained, “and every year just come out ready to go and be in the best position I can be to go out there and play in whatever role I’m in. If that’s the case, then it’s nice, but anything can happen.”
5. Are Murphy and Eaton healthy, 100% and ready for 2018?:
Adam Eaton suffered a torn ACL and meniscus in his left knee and a high ankle sprain in his left leg last April.
Daniel Murphy underwent cartilage [debridement] and a microfracture surgery on his right knee after the 2017 campaign ended.
Both are healthy heading into 2018, though the plan is to take things slow this Spring and focus on being ready for Opening Day, as opposed to the Grapefruit League opener.
“Coming to Spring Training we’re going to go very, very easy on Daniel Murphy,” Rizzo said in the recent MLB Network Radio interview mentioned above.
“He had the microfracture surgery and he’s coming along well, and we’re going to go easy on Adam Eaton too, to get his sea legs under him so he can perform [over] the long haul of the baseball season.”
Eaton hasn’t seen live pitching since last April. Murphy put together another solid season in 2017, and is headed for free agency next winter if he doesn’t sign an extension.
Both have big years ahead of them, and the Nats need them healthy. Will they be 100% on Opening Day?