Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper (34) waits to bat during an exhibition baseball game against the Minnesota Twins at Nationals Park, Saturday, April 2, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
The 2015 season was an utter disaster in almost every conceivable fashion for the Washington Nationals.
Thing went sour from the start with the team suffering a severe spring training injury bug, losing major contributors like Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Denard Span, Casey Janssen and Doug Fister. Other players that weren’t injured simply played poorly, and the team was also mismanaged by an overwhelmed and inexperienced Matt Williams. It all hit the fan, of course, with the highly reported physical altercation between last season addition and known hot head Jonathan Papelbon and the eventual National League MVP Bryce Harper.
Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker, right, looks on during the seventh inning of an interleague exhibition baseball game against the Minnesota Twins, Friday, April 1, 2016, in Washington. The Nationals won 4-3. Also seen is Washington Nationals’ Reed Johnson (5). (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
A major overhaul was needed after a season during which visions of a World Series title and parade down Pennsylvania Avenue went awash in the most painstaking ways. The Matt Williams experiment was finally put out to pasture as veteran manager Dusty Baker was brought in to shake up the clubhouse. One of the major issues this team suffered from last year was a lack of urgency and the absence of anyone with the cache to shake up the locker room. Being a steady, balanced manager isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when things are obviously not going as expected things need to change, and Williams never seemed to embrace that. We won’t have to worry about that with ‘Ol Dusty. He will ruffle feathers all season and I’m all for it. For a team on the cusp of wasting their window of contention, his experience should bring about some inspired play from players who honestly need a kick in the butt.
Despite only 83 wins, Harper was a runaway MVP winner last season. At age 22, he batted at an average of .330 with 42 home runs, 38 doubles and 99 RBI (runs batted in) in 654 plate appearances, emerging as MLB’s brightest star. It was a shame to waste such a magnificent season. The great thing is Harper seems to still be improving in every facet of his game, which gives the Nationals a great base to build around. Off season additions Daniel Murphy and Ben Revere will give Harper some much-needed protection and tough outs early in the batting order. If you add those guys and pray for the health of the trio of Rendon, Zimmerman, and Werth, the lineup could be very dangerous. Danny Espinosa takes over at shortstop for departed fan favorite Ian Desmond, and after a great spring training, young prospect Michael Taylor is actually fighting his way into the lineup in the outfield.
Washington Nationals shortstop Danny Espinosa (8) jumps but misses a line drive hit during an exhibition baseball game against the Minnesota Twins at Nationals Park, Saturday, April 2, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
The pitching staff is a mixed bag. The starting rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzales, Tanner Roark and Joe Ross can compete with the best of them but bring concerns as well. Ross is only in his second season Roark was one of the disappointments last season – flip-flopping between starter and reliever – and Strasburg is coming into his free agent season. Losing mainstay Jordan Zimmermann will hurt, but it’s up to these guys to hold the fort down until young phenom Lucas Giolito is ready to take his spot in the rotation.
Calling the bullpen a disaster last season would be an understatement. A complete overhaul was in order and GM Mike Rizzo did what he could do in free agency, signing veterans Shawn Kelley, Trevor Gott, Yusmeiro Petit and Oliver Perez to shore up the unit. Bringing back Papelbon as the closer may backfire and reeks of a salary budget move. If he can’t do his job or win back the trust of his clubhouse, this team will implode just like last season.
The 2015 Nationals were easily the most disappointing team in MLB last season. And while they buckled under heavy expectations, the New York Mets emerged as a contender and kicked the Nats further down the hole they dug for themselves. With key additions and lower expectations, the 2016 Nats will try being a sleeper contender instead of a heavy favorite.