Before looking ahead to 2017, looking back on an eventful 2016

First of all, a public service announcement: I’m heading out of town (actually, out of the country) for the next week. Byron Kerr and Pete Kerzel will have you covered, though, so be sure to keep checking the site for any Nationals news over the holidays.

Since you won’t be hearing from me again until 2017, this seems like an appropriate time to take a step back and view 2016 in its entirety.

This was an eventful year, to say the least. (And we’re only talking about baseball here, let alone everything else that happened around the world.)

It’s easy to forget now just how much uncertainty there was about the Nationals heading into the year. Dusty Baker had only recently been hired as manager, only after contract negotiations with Bud Black broke down. The 2015 season had ended in utter disappointment, and the biggest topic at this point was how Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon could co-exist.

The Nationals had lost Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Denard Span and Doug Fister to free agency, and there were real questions how they were going to adequately fill all those holes. Wilson Ramos and Anthony Rendon were coming off disappointing seasons. Daniel Murphy, the team’s Plan C at second base, was looked at as a complementary piece.

Dusty-Baker-celebrate-NL-East-sidebar.jpgNow consider how all of that played out.

Harper and Papelbon made nice, though Papelbon’s bigger problem was the fact he was no longer an effective big league reliever, leading to the relinquishing of his closer’s role in late July and his release a few weeks after that.

The Nationals made up for the losses of Zimmermann and Fister by getting excellent work from Tanner Roark and Joe Ross (until he was injured in midsummer and couldn’t return until late September). They had more trouble replacing Desmond and Span, though the eventual arrival of Trea Turner helped a lot. So did a breakthough All-Star performance from Ramos and a return to peak form from Rendon.

Murphy, instead of being Plan C, turned into Plan A+, putting together a dominant season that earned him second place to Kris Bryant in National League MVP voting.

Baker was everything the Nats needed him to be and finished third in Manager of the Year voting. Turner was absolutely electric and might have won Rookie of the Year had he spent the full season in the majors. And Max Scherzer, despite a couple of hiccups along the way, was brilliant overall and in the process earned the second Cy Young Award of his career, the first-ever won by a Washington pitcher.

Put that all together and you get a 95-win season and the Nationals’ third division title in five years. Not bad.

Though still not as great as most would have liked. With yet another first-round exit in the postseason, the Nats once again fell short of a realistic goal to play deep into October, and that has left a bitter taste in everybody’s mouths.

Which is how it should be. Simply winning the division should not be good enough anymore for this team or its fans. The Nationals should be expected to do better than that, and - as of yet - they have not been better than that.

As 2016 prepares to give way to 2017, are the Nationals in better shape to get over that hump? It’s still debatable. There’s plenty of reason for optimism in the coming year. Harper has to be better than he was this season. Turner will be in the big leagues the entire season. The rotation should continue to be among the best in baseball. The bullpen should continue to be good ... though everyone’s fears would be eased more than a bit if they could identify a closer.

There are significant questions. How will the Nats make up for the loss of Ramos to free agency? What can reasonably be expected of Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth at this point? What are the odds Stephen Strasburg will both pitch well and stay healthy the entire year?

But these remain the kind of questions fans of nearly any other team in the sport would love to have to themselves. The Nationals remain a very good team and remain well-positioned to make a run at getting over that elusive October hump.

Sometimes it’s important to step back, forget about the small nuisances and appreciate the bigger picture. The Nationals have posted a winning record in each of the last five seasons, something only the Cardinals, Dodgers and Yankees can also claim. They’ve won 95 or more games three times in that span, something no other club has done. (The Cubs and Cardinals are the only other franchises to do it twice.)

So things are pretty good around here. For the Nationals. And for yours truly.

One year ago, I was unemployed, unsure if I’d get a chance to cover this team for a 12th consecutive season. I’m forever thankful that opportunity did come, and that so many of you found me here and became regular readers of this blog.

Now I’m ready for season No. 13 of Nationals baseball, as I’m sure many of you are. The good news: Pitchers and catchers report to the new spring training complex in West Palm Beach, Fla., in approximately seven weeks.

There will be plenty more to report, analyze and discuss between now and then. But first, it’s time for a short break for this writer. I wish everyone out there a happy and healthy holiday season, and I look forward to picking up the conversation in 2017!

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