Five reasons to be optimistic about the 2016 Nationals

There is no rational way to review the Nationals’ just-completed spring and not emerge optimistic.

Pretty much everything of consequence the Nationals needed to see or do over the last six weeks came to fruition. There were hardly any setbacks along the way. Players are healthy. The new manager has instilled a much-needed laid-back and confident vibe around the clubhouse.

And then there’s the actual on-field performance. The Nationals won the mythical Grapefruit League pennant, going a staggering 18-4-3 in exhibition play. And it should be noted that two of the losses came in walk-off fashion off relievers who aren’t making the team. They outscored the opposition by a nearly 2-to-1 margin (169-88).

Now, of course there’s no way to know whether any of this will actually mean anything in the long run. When they take the field Monday afternoon in Atlanta, their record will be 0-0.

But opening day is supposed to be about optimism, so that’s what we’re going to focus on today. Below is a list of five reasons the Nats should be optimistic about 2016. (In the interest of being fair and balanced, we’ll follow up tomorrow with five reasons the Nats should be pessimistic about the coming season. Though to be honest, it was a lot harder to come up with five pessimistic items than it was to come up with five optimistic ones.)

OK, put on your rose-colored glasses, ‘cause here’s an especially sunny outlook for the 2016 baseball season in D.C. ...

1. BRYCE HARPER
Harper-Red-HR-Swing-Sidebar.jpgIn a word: Duh. How can the return of the unanimous National League MVP, who still is entering only his age-23 season, be viewed as anything but the No. 1 reason to get excited about this team? Harper was the complete package last year, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t do it again this year. In fact, there’s legitimate reason to wonder if he could be even better because of all the healthy talent around him (more on that below).

Here’s the most encouraging sign from Harper this spring: He’s not satisfied in the least with his or his team’s 2015 performance. Consider his answer to a question about how he officially “arrived” last season.

“When you think about arriving, or think about: ‘Oh, I’ve done it, or I’ve done this or done that,’ that’s when you start going downhill,” he said. “Rent’s paid every day.”

How can you not get fired up listening to this kid? Harper wants to be the very best player in baseball. He might already be that; he’s certainly on the short list. And he’s always going to yearn to be even better.

2. THE ROTATION
Perhaps the most disappointing unit on the Nationals roster last season was a starting rotation that was supposed to be one of the all-time greats and instead was merely good. But look deeper into the composition of that group entering 2016, and there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic.

It begins with Max Scherzer, who in spite of his brief-yet-damaging late-summer slump, did ultimately put together the best pitching season in club history. His numbers alone would have made him a serious Cy Young Award contender most seasons, but he was barely in the discussion because of the out-of-this-world performances by Jake Arrieta and Zack Greinke. There’s every reason to believe Scherzer will be one of the game’s top aces again this year. He has the physical gifts, he has the pitching smarts and he has the desire to be the best and wants the ball when it matters most.

The real key to the rotation, though, might well be Stephen Strasburg. It’s amazing how he has become something of an overlooked commodity around here, but make no mistake, he remains one of the best pitchers in baseball. And he proved that over the second half of 2015, once he overcame some nagging injuries that were the byproduct of a minor ankle sprain in spring training. Over his final 13 starts, Strasburg was 8-2 with a 1.76 ERA, 110 strikeouts and only 12 walks. And here’s a surprising fact: As bad as he was in the first half, Strasburg actually wound up in 2016 besting his career marks in strikeout rate and walk rate while nearly matching his career WHIP.

The back of the rotation may not feature the big names last year’s group did, with the departures of Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister. But Gio Gonzalez remains an above-average left-hander, Tanner Roark had a dominant spring and is thrilled about returning to the rotation full-time and Joe Ross was a revelation as a rookie. Oh, and there’s another ace-in-waiting on the way. (More on that in a moment.)

3. THE LINEUP IS HEALTHY AND REALLY PRODUCTIVE
What was the biggest reason for the Nationals’ disappointing 2015? You can make the case it was the massive casualties they suffered to their lineup, which resulted in only one game all season featuring the eight everyday players who were supposed to play every day.

Well, all eight projected starters are healthy right now, and if they collectively produce the way they did all spring, this could prove to be quite a potent lineup. The Nationals scored an average of 6.8 runs per game in Grapefruit League play. They crushed 33 homers in 25 games. They scored seven or more runs seven times in their last 10 games. And much of that production came from their regulars, against legitimate opposition.

Ryan Zimmerman watches hit white.jpgBen Revere and Daniel Murphy bring a sorely needed element of contact to this lineup. Ryan Zimmerman took things slowly this spring to make sure the foot that ailed him last year didn’t have to withstand any unnecessary wear and tear and wound up looking mighty productive by the end of camp. Anthony Rendon is 100 percent healthy again and looks like his elite self from 2014. Jayson Werth started to get hot late in the spring. And Wilson Ramos, after having LASIK surgery in February, is seeing the ball better than ever and tearing the cover off it.

Put all of that around Harper, and you’ve got the makings of an awfully impressive lineup.

4. DEPTH, BOTH IN THE MAJORS AND MINORS
One reason all those injuries proved so devastating last season is that the Nationals simply didn’t have enough depth to fill in the gaps. They appear to be in much better shape in that regard this season.

Michael A. Taylor had a phenomenal spring, maintaining a .500 batting average into late March, and he’s not even going to make the everyday lineup. Don’t worry, though, because he’s going to get plenty of at-bats before it’s all said and done. Clint Robinson and Stephen Drew are capable of stepping in as temporary starters if someone gets hurt.

And, of course, there are two big-time prospects waiting in the wings to be called upon should they be needed. Lucas Giolito is the top pitching prospect in baseball, looked incredibly comfortable in his first big league camp and is poised to crack the Nationals rotation sometime this summer. Trea Turner acquitted himself well this spring, too, and only needs a little more fine-tuning at Triple-A Syracuse before he’s ready to take over as the Nats’ everyday shortstop.

5. DUSTY BAKER
It’s impossible to say how much difference a manager makes. Was Matt Williams a major reason for the Nationals’ division title in 2014? Was he a major reason for their fall from grace in 2015? We’ll never know for sure.

But Dusty Baker brings a lot to the table, and there’s a lot to like about the sixth manager in 12 seasons in D.C. First and foremost, he’s a great communicator, able to form bonds with players of all ages and backgrounds. That much was evident all spring.

Don’t discount his actual on-field managerial performance, either. The Giants and Cubs each improved by more than 20 wins in Baker’s first year at the helm. It took three years in Cincinnati before that happened, but that roster needed the time to grow.

Baker has never inherited a team with this much talent. That has allowed him to take a mostly hands-off approach this spring that has been appreciated by players and could pay dividends by season’s end.

“I like the closeness of this team,” he said. “They’re really close. I feel like the leader of the orchestra. I’m the maestro. Like Miles Davis, you gotta let ‘em play.”

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