Not many people expected the Washington Nationals to be in a “comeback” position in 2016. The Nats were picked by many to win the World Series in 2015, but instead missed the postseason entirely. It cost manager Matt Williams his job and there were plenty of unsightly moments, perhaps the worst being the dugout fight between MVP outfielder Bryce Harper and closer Jonathan Papelbon. So will the toxic atmosphere be gone this season?
The Nationals led the division at the beginning of August, but the New York Mets surged ahead and never looked back. Things got ugly at the end for Washington, with the aforementioned dugout fight culminating a massively disappointing season in DC. Enter Dusty Baker, who hasn’t managed since 2013 with Cincinnati. Harper is coming off an MVP season, and Max Scherzer was a legitimate Cy Young candidate until September, but there were many thoroughly disappointing players that epitomized an underachieving season.
Reasons for Hope
It starts with the star power, namely Harper and Scherzer. Washington’s big splash free agent did not disappoint, throwing two no-hitters and posting a 2.79 ERA over 228 2/3 innings, striking out 276. Mets postseason star Daniel Murphy was brought in to anchor second base, and despite his antics, Papelbon is still a very reliable closer. Ben Revere is a spark plug atop the lineup, and the team is hoping that Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth can stay healthy and contribute for a full season.
Reasons for Doubt
One of the sore spots for Washington in 2015 was its bullpen. Though it ranked sixth in the NL in ERA, the relievers blew 23 saves, third-most in the league. Granted, the bulk of those came before the team acquired Papelbon, but major question marks remain. As for the offense, Harper will need protection behind him or pitchers will work around him. Big seasons from Murphy, Anthony Rendon, Werth, and Zimmerman will go a long way, but that remains to be seen. The rotation is not what people thought it was behind Scherzer. Jordan Zimmermann left via free agency, and it seems like Stephen Strasburg is good for at least two or three disabled list stints per season.
Will they or won’t they?
The saving grace for WAshington is the tepid state of the National League East. The Mets look poised to stay among the league’s elite for years to come, but whether they can sustain the momentum from last year’s pennant run is up in the air. Neither the Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins, nor Philadelphia Phillies look ready to compete, so if the Mets take a step back, the Nationals could very well claim the division crown as they did in 2012 and 2014.