Pressure’s on Harper and Zimmerman to bounce back this spring

The final countdown to spring training has arrived, and so we’re spending the final days of the offseason counting down the Nationals’ top storylines of the spring. We continue today with Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman’s attempts to bounce back from rough years ...

Raise the subject of Nationals who underperformed in 2016, and the first two names out your mouth are likely to be Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman. And raise the subject of the Nationals most in need of a bounce back in 2017, and again Harper and Zimmerman are the names that probably come to mind first.

They are lumped together for these purposes, but really their situations are quite different. Harper didn’t actually have a bad year. He just had a bad year by his ridiculously high standards, and that may or may not have been the byproduct of neck/shoulder ailment. Zimmerman truly did have a bad year, but not because of injury. And given the downward track his career has taken as he advances into his 30s, there are legitimate reasons to wonder whether he has the ability to right his ship anymore.

This much is clear: The Nationals need better performances from both star players this season.

Harper seems the safer bet to return to previous form, but that’s assuming whatever ailed him last summer is no longer an issue. The young slugger insisted throughout he was physically fine despite reports of a problem with his right shoulder and/or neck. Even without official confirmation, anyone who watched him swing on a regular basis could tell something wasn’t right, that he couldn’t drive outside pitches to the opposite field the way he did with so much authority during his MVP campaign in 2015.

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An offseason of rest may have done Harper good. He’s skipping the World Baseball Classic this spring to focus his attention on preparing for the Nationals’ season, which won’t upset anybody who wears or roots for the curly W.

Now we’ll see if he is able to find that old swing, the one that almost certainly will earn him a record-setting contract two years from now. We’ll also see if he’s able to rediscover the patience that also was such a hallmark of his MVP season.

There’s no debating it in hindsight: Harper got frustrated last season with the manner in which opposing teams pitched to him. He took his walks early on, but after a maddening series against the Cubs in May when he set records for walks and intentional weeks only to be stranded on base after Zimmerman failed to deliver behind him in the lineup, Harper couldn’t help but start expanding his strike zone.

Harper did seem to resolve that issue somewhat by season’s end and started taking his walks with more regularity. But by that point, he wasn’t hitting for much power at all. He slugged an atrocious .304 over his final 27 games, producing only one homer and five doubles.

What kind of tone will Harper set when he arrives in West Palm Beach? Will he be the confident, charismatic star who showed up to Viera in 2015 and declared “Where’s my ring?” (No, he didn’t get the ring, but he did wind up with one of the best individual seasons in baseball history.) Or will he be the cliché-spewing, unemotional guy he was through much of last year, totally ignoring his own plea to “Make Baseball Fun Again”?

We know how Zimmerman will be when he shows up. The first baseman’s steady-as-she-goes demeanor hasn’t changed a bit since he was drafted 12 years ago. He’ll do his talking at the plate, where he’ll attempt to prove he’s still got it after watching his OPS decline each of the last four seasons.

Injuries were the leading cause of concern for Zimmerman from 2012-15, but that wasn’t the problem in 2016. He simply lost the ability to drive the ball the way he had throughout most of his career, grounding into a never-ending stream of well-struck outs.

The challenge Zimmerman faces this spring: How to keep hitting the ball hard but to hit it at a higher angle, turning those scorched grounders into doubles to the gap. We should get a sense as the spring plays out how successful the tweaks he’s working on with hitting coach Rick Schu have paid off.

And if they don’t? Well, Zimmerman’s contract - he’s still guaranteed $48 million over the next three years - ensures he’ll get a prolonged opportunity to snap out of it. But there could come a time as 2017 plays out that Dusty Baker is forced into making a difficult decision.

All the more reason for Zimmerman, like Harper, to start to erase doubts right out of the chute this spring.

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