At 4:10pm on Friday in Cincinnati, the Nationals' season starts.
In general, things look pretty familiar for the Nats. The core remains the same, the NL East remains bad, and their ability to win a playoff series remains to be seen. The Nats look like one of the best teams in baseball on paper, but like every team, there are still plenty of questions to be asked. Here are the 10 biggest:
1. Is this the team that wins a playoff series?
The Nats have been handed particularly painful NLDS losses by the Dodgers, Cubs, Giants, and Cardinals over the last half decade. In all four of those years, they were division winners and favored to move on. They've wasted an MVP season from Bryce Harper and two Cy Young seasons from Max Scherzer. DC gets more and more impatient with each early-playoff exit, and this team's window won't be open much longer. Rebuilding is around the corner, so this year means that much more.
2. The Bryce Harper-sized elephant in the room
Little known fact: Bryce Harper is going to be a free agent when the year ends. For years, DC has seen this winter coming. Is he going to the Yankees? He has said in the past how much he loves the pinstripes. The Cubs? He had that weird instagram post with Kris Bryant last summer. The Dodgers? There's no evidence behind LA's case, but it's LA - they don't need any. There are even new whispers of the Phillies having a chance. Things are only going to get worse before they get better, and they might not actually ever get better. Baseball!
3. How good of a manager is Dave Martinez?
The Nationals' history of managing hires is a mixed bag. There's not a name that sticks out as a horrendous choice, but there's also a reason why the likes of Jim Riggleman, Matt Williams, and Dusty Baker aren't around anymore. Martinez comes highly regarded from the Joe Madden coaching tree, but it always seems a little suspicious when a popular managerial name continually loses out jobs. Coming into DC is a baptism by fire of sorts, and you just know there's going to be a Zimmerman-against-the-Giants moment this postseason. How Martinez manages it may go a long way towards answering question #1.
4. Is Anthony Rendon lowkey the best player on the Nats?
Admittedly, this felt too hyperbolic even when I was typing it. It begs the question though: when will Rendon get the attention he deserves? He was a seven-win player last year, hitting .301/.403/.533 with a .937 OPS over 147 games. He brought his K% down five percentage points and posted the highest BB% (13 percent) of his career. He's hit 20 homers in three of his five major league seasons. He's embraced the fly ball craze that's sweeping baseball and adding it to his already absurd ability to make good contact. He'll never get the spotlight on a team with Max Scherzer and Bryce Harper, although it seems like that's the way he prefers it.
5. How good is the Nats bullpen really?
This feels like the first year in a long time that the Nats aren't heading into Day 1 knowing that they need to add a big-time bullpen arm. There are a lot of intriguing names in this year's 'pen: Madson, Kintzler, Doolittle and Solis are just a few examples. For all the intrigue, though, there are equal amounts concern. Doolittle and Madson have extensive injury histories. Solis and Enny Romero have had their issues throwing strikes. Who knows what's going on with Koda Glover. Their bullpen depth is a luxury they haven't been able to afford in years past, but one or two injuries and things start to look real scary again.
6. What can be expected from Trea Turner this year?
On an offense with Harper, Rendon, Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman, it's Turner that's first in the box on game nights. After a "down" year that saw Turner hit .284/.338/.451, the 24-year-old shortstop looks to return to his 2015 form. The Nats have never seen speed on the basepaths quite like Turners, as evident from his 46 steals last year. If the Nats can have a 50-base stealer hitting around .300 at the top of their order, watch out. Look for him to try and improve on some underwhelming defensive numbers from last year as well.
7. Adam Eaton is on the Nats, remember?!
Speaking of leadoff hitters, it'll be Eaton, not Turner, who takes the first AB for the Nats this year. Eaton's season-ending knee surgery in the beginning of last season made him an afterthought for most of the summer, but Eaton has quietly been one of the best players in baseball over the last 4-5 years. He's a lifelong .284/.358/.416 hitter with 15-20 home run potential. Eaton-Turner-Rendon-Harper-Murphy-Zimmerman in some order or another is probably the deepest 1-6 hitters in baseball.
8. Can the backend of the rotation hold their own?
We know what to expect from Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. It's the Gonzalez-Roark-Cole trio that raises some questions. Gonzalez, who owes the Nats nothing, benefited from some career-best luck while putting up surprisingly good numbers last year. He doesn't strike out enough batters to survive with the high walk rate that he posts, and he's slowly turning back into the flyball pitcher that he was Oakland. Roark has been the Nats' secret gem for a handful of years, although he was not-so-secretly very average last year. Roark's best seasons come when he's keeping the ball in the park, so his HR/9 will be worth looking closely at during the first month or two.
9. What role will Victor Robles play this year?
Robles is the most exciting prospect to come through the Nats system since Harper. He impressed during his brief playoff stint last October, but will start the year in the minors. The Nats' outfield is pretty crowded, so there's not a clear opening for Robles until rosters expand in September. Still, the Nats are one serious outfield injury away from giving Robles meaningful PAs at the major league level. He's just 20, so there's no rush to bring him up for good. Still, Robles is a special talent and his #hugwatch will be a highly anticipated event.
10. Will Bryce Harper win the Home Run Derby?
Bold prediction: Harper's going to win the home run derby, announce a team-friendly 10-year contract immediately after, and then run over to the Senate and single-handedly solve the partisan crisis on Capitol Hill. It's his destiny.
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