Many Nationals fans are still feeling the sting of disappointment from 2015, when preseason World Series predictions dissolved in a cloud of injuries, disappointing performances and clubhouse dissension. The Nats finished out of the postseason and watched as the National League East rival New York Mets stole their division, playoff and pennant dreams.
For all but the most optimistic fans, there are no such lofty dreams this season. With a new manager in Dusty Baker, a revamped bullpen and new faces at key positions, there are crucial questions that need to be answered if even the most modest dreams of success will come true.
1. Will the Nats find their leadoff man?
The Nats must replace one of game's top table-setters in Denard Span. In the 2014 playoff season, Span led the league in hits with 184 and had a .355 on-base percentage. Last season, when healthy, his numbers were at least as good, but he could not stay in the lineup long enough to make a difference.
Now Ben Revere is leading off and playing center field. The former Phillie and Blue Jay had a fantastic spring, but will his .429 OBP carry over to the regular season? Or will he revert to the player who walked just 13 times in 151 games? Can he hold down a regular outfield job with his questionable arm? And who would supplant Revere atop the order if he falters? Could it be Trea Turner, the top prospect who is supposed be getting everyday work in Triple-A?
2. Will the bullpen be any better?
Even when the Nats were playing their best ball last season, the back end of the bullpen was their obvious weakness. That's why general manager Mike Rizzo acquired Jonathan Papelbon at the trade deadline, in a deal that blew up in his face. Deposed closer Drew Storen imploded spectacularly as a setup man down the stretch and Papelbon attacked National League MVP Bryce Harper in the dugout.
Now Papelbon is one of the few pieces remaining from last season's bullpen. Can he still be a top closer at 35, and will his temperament work in the team's favor? Can new setup man Shawn Kelley duplicate the 2.45 ERA and 1.09 WHIP he achieved last year in spacious Petco Park or will he move back to the 4-plus ERAs he logged with the Yankees and Mariners? Will Blake Treinen keep up his amazing spring stats or will he go back to being the inconsistent situational reliever he was last season, when former manager Matt Williams ignored his horrendous reverse splits?
3. Will the walk-year players rise to the occasion?
Last season, Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Span and Doug Fister were challenged to step up and earn the big free agent contracts they'd be seeking. It didn't happen for any of them, and those shortcomings weighed heavily in the disastrous 2015 campaign.
This year's callouts include Stephen Strasburg and Wilson Ramos. Strasburg, likely headed for free agency after this season, has never lived up to the hype he generated as a rookie in 2009. Deserving or not, his career 3.09 ERA and reputation for being fragile have drawn criticism from fans who wanted to see him as a No. 1 starter, carrying the team. Will this finally be the year he puts it all together? Or will more early exits and visits to the disabled list have his critics happy to see him leave?
Ramos was finally healthy all year in 2015, but his .229/.258/.358 line in a career-high 128 games was his lowest ever, and his 15 homers were one fewer than he managed in 78 games in 2013. Throw in his reputation for dropping throws to the plate and you've got a guy entering his walk year with a lot to prove. He will need to return to the kind of numbers he put up in his previous four seasons in Washington if he wants to say behind the dish here, or anywhere else on a regular basis.
4. Can the Nats fill the gaps in the outfield?
Bryce Harper was challenged in this space to finally put together a complete, injury-free season. Did he ever! But the team had little else around him, especially in the outfield. Injuries to Span and Jayson Werth, inconsistent play by rookie Michael A. Taylor and a lack of organizational depth in the outfield hurt the team. Now the Nats have guys who can play both left and center field in Revere and Taylor. Werth is back for a sixth season in a Nats uniform, but looking for his third in which he plays more than 130 games. If the Nats can keep those three healthy and productive alongside Harper, they could be dangerous.
5. Can the team stay healthy?
Injuries are an unknown factor for every team, but they bit the Nats hard in 2015. Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Werth, and others all went down for extended stretches, undermining the season. The team has a new medical staff, and has taken it easy on the 36-year-old Werth and 31-year-old Zimmerman in spring training. Rendon has been healthy and productive, as well. If the these guys can stay in the lineup for any length of time and the Nats can answer the other questions positively, they could make the dreams of their most die-hard fans come true.
Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.