Five reasons to be pessimistic about the 2016 Nationals

Yesterday, we offered up five reasons to be optimistic about the 2016 Nationals. Today, we take the devil’s advocate approach and offer up five reasons to be pessimistic about this season.

Truth be told, it was a lot tougher to come up with five negatives than it was to come up with five positives. That, in itself, should offer up reason for everyone to be optimistic about the Nationals. But this is far from a perfect team, and there are legitimate areas of concern entering the season. Or at least areas that need to be questioned.

With that in mind, turn away now if you can’t handle this. Otherwise, proceed with caution as we offer up a pessimistic outlook on the 2016 Nationals ...

1. THE NATS ARE RELYING ON SEVERAL VETERANS WITH INJURY HISTORIES
It’s easy to say the Nationals were done in last season by injuries that decimated their lineup, and that they will be much better if they just stay healthy in 2016. The problem with that, of course, is assuming those players are magically going to stay healthy this year when they haven’t been able to do it in the past.

zimmerman-injured-thumb-sidebar.jpgRyan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth sit atop that list here. Both veterans, when healthy, are really productive players and bring as much to the Nationals lineup as anyone not named Bryce Harper. But facts are facts. Zimmerman has played in only 156 combined games the last two seasons, he’s 31 and he’s still dealing in some capacity with the plantar fasciitis condition that plagued him in 2015. Werth played in only 88 games last season, his surgically repaired shoulder remains something of an issue and he turns 37 on May 20.

That’s to say nothing of Wilson Ramos’ checkered injury history (prior to 2015, when he finally stayed healthy), the fact Anthony Rendon took way too long to heal from what seemed like a minor injury last season and the fact Stephen Strasburg dealt with all kinds of nagging ailments last year.

Yes, the Nationals have better depth now to deal with injuries, but on some level it’s still kind of dangerous to rely on multiple veterans who have established a pattern of getting hurt in the past.

2. THE BULLPEN IS FULL OF QUESTION MARKS
There’s no question the bullpen was the Nationals’ weakest link in 2015, contributing to 13 games lost when they led in the seventh inning, eight games lost when they led in the eighth inning. (For comparison’s sake, the 2014 Nats lost only six games they led in the seventh. That seven-win difference from 2014 to 2015 equals the seven games they finished behind the Mets last year.)

Mike Rizzo performed a major overhaul of his bullpen over the winter. Gone are Drew Storen, Craig Stammen, Matt Thornton and Casey Janssen. In are Shawn Kelley, Yusmeiro Petit, Oliver Perez and Matt Belisle. But will that new group be better? It’s hard to say for sure.

All of the newcomers (plus returning relievers Jonathan Papelbon, Felipe Rivero and potentially Blake Treinen) either have enjoyed recent success or are intriguing young arms with high ceilings. But not one member of this group is an absolute sure thing. Who among these relievers can you definitively predict what you’re going to get in 2016?

This very well might turn out to be a very good bullpen. It also might very well turn out to be a problem area again.

3. THE LACK OF ROTATION DEPTH
The Nationals’ starting five is good-to-very good. No, it’s not as star-studded as last year’s group appeared to be on opening day, but there are only a couple of teams in baseball that wouldn’t take Max Scherzer-Strasburg-Gio Gonzalez-Tanner Roark-Joe Ross over what they already have.

But what happens if one of those guys goes down? Or worse, what if two of them go down?

Of course you can say that about any club. Hardly anyone can afford to lose starting pitchers. But the Nationals’ replacement options, at least early in the season, aren’t great. Bronson Arroyo was supposed to help in this department, but he won’t be ready until at least May (if ever) with a shoulder tear. Lucas Giolito is the best pitching prospect in baseball, and he’s probably going to become a major part of this rotation before the year is up. But the organization really prefers to delay the 21-year-old’s debut until at least midsummer, given his innings restrictions and long-term importance to the organization.

So who does that leave to step in if somebody gets hurt in April or May? Right now, the Nats would be choosing from among a group of Triple-A starters that includes A.J. Cole and Taylor Jordan, or perhaps Petit (who has been an emergency starter in the past). With due respect to those involved, those options don’t inspire a lot of confidence.

4. THE NATIONAL LEAGUE IS TOP-HEAVY
There’s nothing the Nationals can do about it, but it is one of the challenges that faces them this year. There are at least seven clubs in the National League that should be really good in 2016: the Nats, Mets, Cubs, Cardinals, Pirates, Dodgers and Giants. And the Diamondbacks and Marlins feel like they’ve got a chance to be really good as well, though neither is a sure thing.

Papelbon going into tunnel sidebar.jpgThe league’s six other teams (Braves, Phillies, Brewers, Reds, Padres and Rockies) are almost certainly going to be really bad, which means the Nats are going to have to beat up on those guys or risk not being able to keep pace with the others.

We saw last season just how good the Mets can be. And while you’ve got to think some of the ridiculously good luck they enjoyed in the second half has to even out just a little bit, any team with a rotation of young studs like they’ve got in Queens has to been seen as close to a lock to contend.

Which means the Nationals either have to beat out the Mets for the NL East crown or else battle it out with several other teams for the two wild card berths. Figure the two Central clubs that don’t win the division will be in the mix, as well as at least the West’s runner-up.

That’s a lot of competition to simply appear in a one-game, winner-take-all showdown after a 162-game marathon.

5. CAN THEY TAKE ON SALARY AT THE TRADE DEADLINE?
We saw last summer how dramatic a late-summer trade can be to a contender’s fortunes, both positive and negative. The Nationals knew last July they needed bullpen help. Rizzo wanted to acquire one of two elite closers that were available: Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel. He wound up trading for Papelbon, in part because ownership informed him he couldn’t add any more salary to the 2015 payroll, according to club sources.

Who knows what difference it would have made had the Nationals acquired Chapman or Kimbrel instead of Papelbon? Storen might still have melted down after getting demoted to a set-up role. But it’s fair to ask whether Rizzo will have the same restrictions if he wants to swing a late-July deal this season.

You always hope your club has no glaring needs at that point. But often it does. And as we saw with the Mets and Yoenis Cespedes last summer, a blockbuster deadline deal can make all the difference. Will the Nats be able to pull one of those off if needed this summer?

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