This week we are counting down the biggest questions for the Nationals as they begin their 2016 spring training in Viera, Florida with their first official workout on Saturday. The third installment examines the lower expectations preceding them...
Bryce Harper hasn't held his first spring training media availability yet and neither has Dusty Baker. There is still time for a 'Where's my ring?' or 'World Series or bust' declaration. But as of now, the expectations for the Nationals entering this season are arguably as low as they have been since this time in 2012.
There are several reasons for that. For one, the Nationals were a massive disappointment last year with an 83-79 record. Then, they followed that up with a relatively quiet offseason, despite their unsuccessful pursuit of several top free agents.
Sure, they added some nice players and improved in some areas, but they also let a lot go via free agency. Their starting rotation, for example, does not appear to be nearly as good on paper with Jordan Zimmermann having left for the Detroit Tigers.
There is also a much different dynamic in the NL East division than there has been in recent years. The New York Mets are back and fresh off a World Series appearance. They retained Yoenis Cespedes and have what most would call the best rotation in baseball, a young starting five that has the chance to be even better this season. They may not be a perfect team, but their model appears sustainable with a trio of elite starting pitchers.
Because of those reasons, most outlets around the country are picking the Mets to repeat as division champions. That's a marked change from the last three years when the Nats were on the short-list of World Series favorites.
Again, a lot can change between now and Opening Day. The Nationals could pull off a game-changing trade for Jonathan Lucroy or acquire a clear upgrade at starting pitcher. But as of now, they will enter the 2016 season expected by most to finish in second place and be more likely to compete for the NL Wild Card.
Could that be a good thing for the Nationals, to not have everyone predict them to win it all? Lower expectations are easier to exceed, and it's not like the Nationals aren't talented enough to challenge the Mets. They could conceivably enter this season in New York's shadow and end up proving the prognosticators wrong by supplanting them. As the Nats have shown several times before, preseason predictions are often wrong.
It will be interesting to watch this spring how the Nationals manage the expectations currently bestowed on them. Do they continue to keep a lower profile, or will a flashy soundbite end up defining them like it has in years past?
Harper was asked on the night he won the MVP award in November about the Mets and the NL East and he seemed to enjoy the fact the Nats are being overlooked.
"I hope everybody in the book dismisses us, because that means we’re going to go out there and do everything we can to prove people wrong," he said.
We'll see if he and his teammates still feel the same.