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Washington Nationals 2018 Season Preview: 10 biggest questions

Washington Nationals 2018 Season Preview: 10 biggest questions

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. 

RELATED: NATIONALS SEASON PREDICTIONS

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A quick recap of Tuesday's MLB All-Star Game, including how your Nats did

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USA TODAY Sports

A quick recap of Tuesday's MLB All-Star Game, including how your Nats did

Tuesday evening's All-Star game was fairly uneventful until its later innings. The American League triumphed over the National League, 8 - 6, for their sixth straight All-Star game victory.

Despite fears of potential rain and inclement weather delaying the game, there were no unexpected stops in play. 

The AL started very strong offensively, with runs from Aaron Judge and Mike Trout in the top of the second and third innings, respectively. Jean Segura's three-run homer in the top of the eighth made victory look inevitable for the AL by the fifth. 

Max Scherzer, unsurprisingly, was well received among fans at Nationals Park. The Nats starter pitched the first two innings, giving up four hits. One was Judge's second-inning homer, but Scherzer remained unfazed and lighthearted. Four strikeouts made his performance commendable.

Bryce Harper did not get on as well, striking out in both of his at-bats. After Harper's Home Run Derby win last night, there was chatter of him going for the MVP title as well. 

It didn't work out, but given Harper's consistent presence at the All-Star game, there's always another chance.

Elsewhere in the dugout for the NL, who rallied back from the three-run deficit, the kids were all right. Willson Contreras of the Cubs had a solo homer at the bottom of the third, the Rockies' Trevor Story had one in the seventh, and Christian Yelich added another in the eighth. A two-run homer by Scooter Gennett in the bottom of the ninth brought the game back to a 5-5 tie.

Jesus Aguilar struck out for the NL, and extra innings began.

In the top of the tenth, Alex Bregman and George Springer, both of the Astros, hit home runs almost immediately off of Dodgers pitcher Ross Stipling. Stop us if you've heard that one before.

With no outs, Michael Brantley took a sacrifice flyout to right field, and Jean Segura got in one more run to put the score at 8-5.

Though Joey Votto (Reds) hit one last home run in the bottom of the tenth, the NL couldn't quite make up the deficit.

After a late night, the American League will be going home happy.

MORE ALL-STAR GAME NEWS:

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2018 MLB All-Star Game Live Blog

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USA TODAY Sports

2018 MLB All-Star Game Live Blog

This is the year's most ambitious crossover event in baseball. Dozens of MLB standouts from dozens of teams ally along either the National or American league. The two teams play against each other in a lighthearted frankensquad matchup. It's a welcome change of pace, considering how stressed we are about the Nationals' win percentage.

At the moment, we're keeping our eyes to the sky to monitor incoming rain. Aside from the threat of rain delay, we're excited to see how things unfold.

TOP 10 - Yikes, uh, so that's two solo home runs, and still no outs?

BOT 9 - A lot of people have either Bad Bunny or Post Malone as their walk up music. Also, uh, Scooter did a two-run homer, so now we're going to extra innings.

TOP 9 - Nothing is happening. Yawn.

BOT 8 - Yelich homers! We love one Brewer! It's 5-3 AL.

TOP 8 - Segura hits a three-run homer. Cruz adds it to his Instagram story. The AL is up 5-2. Yikes.

TOP 8 - Blackmon is very charming when mic'd up. He's talking about how lonely the outfield is. In other adjacent boredom news, Mike Trout follows over 145 weather related accounts on twitter. Yes, we went through his 2,400 user long following list to check.

BOT 7 - Bottoms tend to be the most exciting. Arenado knows this. So he tied it with a solo homer.

TOP 7 - Please, we are all so tired, and this pace is so slow. Votto has a nice tag, Yelich loses a ball in the lights but still makes the out. 

BOT 6 - Everybody Hates The National League. Votto, Yelich, and Blackmon all come up short.

INT 6 - Everyone on the internet and the broadcast loses their minds over Manny Machado.

TOP 6 - Nelson Cruz goes up against pitcher Jeremy Jeffress to start the inning. We take a brief pause for another selfie. Isn't it kind of a bad idea to have your phone in your pocket when you're at bat? Anyway. Bregman hits a double, but is immediately outshined as we go to Manny Machado for an interview about how it feels to wear an Orioles uniform for (maybe) the last time. Limor pinch hits for Machado, and doesn't quite get it out of the park. Oh well.

BOT 5 - Contreras gets a hit off Jose Berrios and promptly gets tagged first. Javier Baez looks amazing at the plate, but flies out. Arenado walks. Trout-man catches Molina's almost-homer. NL, do better please.

TOP 5 - Aaron Nola strikes out Brandon Crawford fairly easily and Mookie Betts not so easily. Mike Trout, who looks like he would post pictures with trout and other fish on Instagram, pops up and across the first base line. Sorry AL.

BOT 4 - Bryce Harper faces Blake Snell and strikes out for the second time tonight. Maybe he thought tonight was a Strikeout Derby?

TOP 4 - Machado pops up to the third baseman in what may be his final at-bat wearing an Orioles uniform.

TOP 4 - Matt Kemp deftly avoids tampering charges when the FOX broadcast crew asks him about his selfie with Machado.

BOT 2 - Manny begins acquainting himself with his LA teammates.

BOT 2 - Chris Sale only stuck around for one inning, apparently. It's Luis Severino time in D.C. He allows a double from Matt Kemp to start but then strikes out Bryce Harper. 

TOP 2 - Aaron Judge takes Scherzer deep. 1-0 AL. Sigh.

BOT 1 - AL Starter Chris Sale responds with a scoreless frame of his own. We're on our way to that 3-2 thriller after all!!! 

TOP 1 - Scherzer strikes out Mookie Betts and Jose Altuve before walking Mike Trout (can't blame him) and allowing a hit to J.D. Martinez. No damage done though, and it's 0-0. 

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