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Nationals need several players to bounce back in 2016

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Nationals need several players to bounce back in 2016

Ask any baseball fan and they will tell you the best player on the Nationals is Bryce Harper and their pitcher is Max Scherzer. For the Nationals to bounce back and return to the playoffs this year, those two will likely need to lead the way with strong seasons.

But beyond Harper and Scherzer, who needs to step up this year? Here is a look at four players who could play big roles in determining the Nationals' chances in 2016...

1. Ryan Zimmerman - Zimmerman will be even more important to the Nats this year after the departure of Ian Desmond and Denard Span, and with the uncertainty surrounding Jayson Werth and how much can be expected of him at this point. Zimmerman is coming off two injury-plagued seasons, but still holds the potential to be the Nationals' second-best hitter. He can hit for power and get on base at a high clip. But most importantly, he could be the perfect complement to Harper batting cleanup behind him. 

2. Gio Gonzalez - Gio is extra important to the Nats this season because of Jordan Zimmermann's exit and because of the questions behind him in the Nationals' rotation. Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are a solid combination at the top of the Nats' starting five, but Gio has been trending in the wrong direction with an ERA that has gone up in three consecutive years. Gonzalez' numbers in 2015 were still pretty solid for a lefty mid-rotation starter, but the Nats could use more consistency from him to take the pressure off Tanner Roark and Joe Ross. It is also an important year for Gio personally, as his contract holds a team option after this season.

3. Anthony Rendon - An MVP candidate in 2014, Rendon's 2015 season was a major step backward. He dealt with injuries beginning in spring training and never really found a groove even though he played in half of the Nats' games. Rendon, like Zimmerman, will have more expected of him with Desmond and Span now gone. He has the chance to be one of the best all-around hitters in the National League and could form a dynamic duo with Harper if he hits in front of him. Rendon can both get on base and run the bases well. His health is important to the Nats' lineup, but also in the field where his presence makes their defense noticeably better.

4. Jonathan Papelbon - It's probably fair to say that Jonathan Papelbon's career with the Nationals didn't get off to a good start. Not only did he start a physical fight with Harper on live television, he also didn't pitch well in his brief time as Washington's closer. Papelbon blew two saves in nine opportunities with the Nats and also caused problems off the field. For better or worse, he is a huge part of the Nats' bullpen at the moment. He's the only guy with considerable late inning experience and is clearly their best reliever. If he were to get injured or have a bad season, the Nats' bullpen depth will be tested and right now that does not appear to be a strength.

[RELATED: Biggest questions for the Nationals as they enter 2016]

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Its Day 1 of spring training and Bryce Harper is already done taking questions regarding his future

Its Day 1 of spring training and Bryce Harper is already done taking questions regarding his future

So if you have not heard, Bryce Harper is going to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2018 season.

All off-season talking heads, baseball aficionados, radio hosts, etc. were speculating on where the outfielder’s destination will be next year.

And we are still a year away from it actually happening.

RELATED: VEGAS SETS OVER/UNDERS FOR 2018 MLB SEASON

Reporting to spring training on Monday, Harper did not waste any time telling the media how his press conferences were going to play out this season.

“If guys do [ask], or talk anything about that, I will be walking right out the door.”

Entering his seventh season with the Washington Nationals, the 25-year-old is coming off the second-best season, statistically, of his career. The 2015 NL MVP has hit .285 in his career, with 150 home runs and 421 RBIs. Unquestionably he is the face of the Nationals’ organization, if not, the best player in the team’s history.

If he does end the season without a contract extension, he will join Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, and Barry Bonds as the top sought out free agents in MLB history.

One thing is for certain in terms of Harper’s free agency; Harper has given no inclination on where his landing spot will be.  The top three cities are of course his favorite childhood team, the New York Yankees; joining with one of his closest friends with the Chicago Cubs; or just staying with Washington.

Wherever he does land, it does appear that it will be the largest contract given to a free agent ever.

As for now we just wait and direct any of your calls to his agent Scott Boras.

READ ALSO: NATIONALS FULL SPRING TRAINING SCHEDULE

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Nationals Spring Training Schedule 2018

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USA Today Sports Images

Nationals Spring Training Schedule 2018

Now that pitchers and catchers have reported, the next step in our long journey to Opening Day is the spring training games themselves. Not every game is televised, so get ready to follow along with your favorite beat writer's Twitter account for all your updates.

Even without getting to watch the games, it'll still be exciting to once again check box scores in the morning to see if Bryce Harper homered again, or if Max Scherzer is perfect through 4 innings (spoiler: both of these will happen).

This year's spring training will be especially interesting, considering how many big-name players will be signing contracts in the next few weeks. The Nats are always willing to make a big splash, and even beyond the available free agents, have been linked to impact players like J.T. Realmuto in trade rumors.

Typically, the excitement of adding a new piece to the roster has to be reignited after a long winter off, but this season, those additions will be happening while camp is already underway.

It's going to be a hectic few weeks as teams prepare for their seasons, so bookmark this page to check on the Nationals spring training schedule over the next few weeks as the team finally takes the field in 2018.

Nationals 2018 Spring Training Schedule

Friday, Feb. 23 - Nationals at Astros, 1:05 pm (MLBN)
Saturday, Feb. 24 - Nationals at Marlins, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Feb. 25 - Braves at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Monday, Feb. 26 - Nationals at Braves, 1:05 pm
Tuesday, Feb. 27 - Marlins at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Wednesday, Feb. 28 - Nationals at Marlins, 1:05 pm
Thursday, Mar. 1 (SS) - Nationals at Braves, 1:05 pm
Friday, Mar. 2 (SS) - Nationals at Mets, 1:10 pm
Saturday, Mar. 3 - Nationals at Astros, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 4 (SS) - Tigers at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 4 (SS) - Nationals at Mets, 1:10 pm
Monday, Mar. 5 - Nationals at Cardinals, 1:05 pm
Tuesday, Mar. 6 (SS) - Astros at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Wednesday, Mar. 7 - Nationals at Cardinals, 1:05 pm
Thursday, Mar. 8 - Mets at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Saturday, Mar. 10 - Nationals at Astros, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 11 - Cardinals at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Monday, Mar. 12 - Nationals at Tigers, 1:05 pm (MLBN)
Tuesday, Mar. 13 (SS) - Mets at Nationals, 7:05 pm (MLBN) (MASN)
Thursday, Mar. 15 - Astros at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Friday, Mar. 16 (SS) - Cardinals at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Saturday, Mar. 17 - Mets at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 18 - Nationals at Cardinals, 1:05 pm
Monday, Mar. 19 - Nationals at Marlins, 1:05 pm
Tuesday, Mar. 20 - Marlins at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Wednesday, Mar. 21 - Astros at Nationals, 1:05 pm (ESPN2) (MASN)
Thursday, Mar. 22 - Nationals at Mets, 6:10 pm
Friday, Mar. 23 (SS) - Astros at Nationals, 6:05 pm (MASN)
Friday, Mar. 23 - Nationals at Marlins, 7:05 pm
Saturday, Mar. 24 - Marlins at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 25 - Cardinals at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MLBN)
Tuesday, Mar. 27 (at Nationals Park) - Twins at Nationals, 4:05 pm