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Nats spring training question No. 4: Enough starting pitching?

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Nats spring training question No. 4: Enough starting pitching?

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 second installment examines their starting rotation...

For several years running, the Nationals had been aggressive in upgrading their rotation over the offseason, even when it appeared to need no help and even when a new acquisition would leave a relatively accomplished pitcher - like Ross Detwiler or Tanner Roark - as the odd-man out. This winter, however, the Nationals decided to do nothing to significantly change their starting staff, unless you think highly of a post-Tommy John surgery Bronson Arroyo.

The Nationals have questions in their starting rotation really for the first time in years. If everything goes right, they will be just fine. But one injury could seriously test their depth, especially given the fact we don't know the specifics yet of their workload plan for Lucas Giolito.

Max Scherzer will lead their staff once again, but behind him are Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, two pitchers who had 2015 seasons that were not up to their normal standards. Behind them are Joe Ross - who has only 16 MLB appearances under his belt - and Roark, who had a forgettable 2015 season that saw him struggle with a variety of roles.

If Arroyo pans out, he will provide some veteran depth to that group. But if not, it could be A.J. Cole or Taylor Jordan they turn to as an injury replacement, depending on Giolito's availability.

There is potential for the Nationals' rotation to be very good, perhaps one of the best in the National League. There just appears to be less depth at the position than they have featured in years past.

The counter to that, however, would be the 2012 Nationals, who added Edwin Jackson before that season but were otherwise in worse shape - one could argue - than they are currently. Scherzer is a better No. 1 than Strasburg was, especially if you consider Strasburg was to be shut down in September. If Strasburg performs like he did in his final 10 starts of last season, he is a better No. 2 than Zimmermann. And then Roark, despite his troubles last year, is a more proven commodity than Detwiler was at the No. 5 spot going into that season.

Those Nationals won 98 games to lead the majors and they could have won a lot more if it weren't for injuries. This unit is certainly capable of matching that year's group, barring health. And they have the ultimate wild card in Giolito, who is the top prospect at his position in baseball but is likely to only be available for somewhere around 160-180 innings this year.

There is also the example of the Kansas City Royals, who this past fall won the World Series despite having the 22nd-ranked rotation in terms of starters ERA. Now, the Royals have a much better bullpen, defense and a more versatile lineup than the Nationals.

Winners of two straight AL pennants, the Royals are simply a better team, but they did prove that one can win without putting a ton of resources into a starting rotation, as the Nationals have in recent years. They also proved the New York Mets of all teams can be beaten that way, as well.

The Nationals have a fine rotation as they enter the 2016 rotation, but for the first time in a while it isn't an obvious strength with several questions of depth and inexperience behind their top three.

Nats spring training question No. 5: Who plays shortstop?

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Bryce Harper will compete in Home Run Derby, but only on one condition

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USA Today Sports

Bryce Harper will compete in Home Run Derby, but only on one condition

It’s happening.

When the 2018 All-Star Weekend comes to Washington, D.C. in the middle of July, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper will compete in the 2018 Home Run Derby, but only on one condition: He has to be a member of the 2018 National League All-Star Team.

Though Harper is having a down year, only hitting .213 thus far, he leads the NL in home runs with 19.

In the June 18 update of All-Star game voting, Harper sat second among all outfielders with just north of 1,000,000 votes.

That means he’s not only going to make the All-Star team, but he’ll likely start in the outfield.

Harper, a five-time All-Star, competed in the Home Run Derby once before. He was the runner-up to Yoenis Cespedes in 2013, losing by just one long ball, 9-8.

The 2018 Home Run Derby will take place on July 16 at Nationals Park.

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It's time to start paying attention to Trea Turner's sneaky-great season

It's time to start paying attention to Trea Turner's sneaky-great season

Remember when the Nationals put Trea Turner in centerfield so they could keep Danny Espinosa at shortstop?

Two years later it's Turner who leads all N.L. shortstops in fWAR, as you surely know if you follow the Nationals on literally any social media platform. 

So while Juan Soto and Bryce Harper continue to dominate all of The Takes, it's Turner who's been the Nats' best position player this season. 

We'll start with some basics: 

Did you know that Trea Turner leads all N.L. shortstops in fWAR? He's currently sitting at 2.4 WAR, above the likes of Brandon Crawford, Addison Russell, and Trevor Story, to name a few. (We'll ignore the fact that the top six shortstops in the A.L. all have a better fWAR.) He's a top-10 shortstop in baseball during one of the strongest eras in the position's history.

Even after a dreadfully slow start, Turner's still on pace to have the best season of his career. He posted a WAR of 2.9 last year and -- barring injury -- will realistically eclipse that by the All-Star game. 

At the plate, two stats jump off the page in regards to explaining Turner's stellar season. 

First, Turner is drawing a *bunch* of walks. His current BB% clip (10.6 percent) would be far and away the best of his career and up four percentage points from last year. It's a factor that helps explain - partially, at least - why his on-base percentage has risen and his BABIP has dropped. More walks mean fewer swings, fewer swings mean less contact, less contact means lower BABIP, etc. It's not the whole picture, but it's a big part of it. 

Secondly, Turner is making impressive contact on pitches out of the strike zone. FanGraphs calculates out-of-zone contact using a statistic titled O-Contact, which is a blessing considering some of the titles they choose to give their other stats. 

The average O-Contact across MLB in 2018 is 64.7 percent. Trea Turner's career O-Contact is 62.4 percent (although realistically it's closer to the high-50's - a small-sample-size from his abbreviated first season mucks up the number a bit). 

This season, Turner's posted an O-Contact of 69.3 percent. Not only is that 10 percentage points higher than his O-Contact from last season, but a top-50 clip in all of baseball. He's one spot ahead of Mike Trout!  Put both of these together with some encouraging Statcast numbers (rise in HardHit%, already matched his total 'barrels' from last season) and you can see why Turner's been thriving at the plate. 

Defensively, he's improved across the board as well. His UZR and DRS - considered the two most reliable fielding statistics, if such a thing exists - are both up from last year. He has the 10th-best UZR of all major league shortstops and ranks 1st in DRS. 

Last season, he finished 17th in both UZR and DRS (of all shortstops with at least 800 innings; Turner didn't log enough innings to be considered a qualified fielder). He ended the season with both numbers in the negative. 

You may be skeptical of defensive stats, which is fine. But if nothing else, the fact that Turner is turning literal negative stats into positive ones is encouraging. 

Lastly, Turner continues to be an elite baserunner. At this point in his career, his speed is arguably his best tool:

You'll note that purple dot allllllllllll the way on the right. That's Turner! Now, let's take a look at how his speed compares across all positions:

Essentially, Turner is faster than like, 98 percent of baseball. In fact, by Sprint Speed, he's the 6th-fastest player in the game. He also ranks 2nd across all of baseball in FanGraphs "Baserunning" measurements, only behind fellow teammate and mindbogglingly good baserunner Michael A. Taylor. 

So, Trea Turner an elite baserunner (maybe the best if you combine his raw speed with his baserunning stats), a top-5 shortstop in the field, and an All-Star at the plate. 

Juan Soto's been great and Bryce Harper is still extremely talented, but this year, Trea Turner has been the Nationals' best player. 

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