The Washington Nationals were one of the biggest disappointments in baseball this past season. Sure, a host of injuries to key players contributed, but so did being a flawed team. One of the most glaring deficiencies was at the manager position. The Nats have already resolved that issue by canning Matt Williams and replacing him with Dusty Baker. But there's still plenty of winter work left to do. Here are 10 things to be on the lookout for:
1. Once the Dusty Has Settled -- During a 35-minute introductory news conference at Nationals Park last week, it became crystal clear that the laid-back and charismatic Baker will run things much differently than his robotic predecessor. Whether that will translate to wins remains to be seen, but if history is any indicator, it should. At his three previous managerial stops, Baker's teams had an average improvement of 18 wins in the first year under his watch.
2. Coaching Questions -- When Matt Williams was dismissed in October, his entire coaching staff got pink slipped too. So far, the only positions that have been filled are pitching coach (Mike Maddux) and first base coach (Davey Lopes). Everything else is still open. With 20 years managing experience and another 19 as a player, the 66-year old Baker has plenty of connections from which to choose. One acquaintance who's apparently not in play (at least not yet) is Barry Bonds. When asked last week about the possibility of the former slugger -- who played for Baker in San Francisco -- becoming the Nats' next hitting coach, GM Mike Rizzo said Bonds had not been discussed as a candidate.
3. Parting With Papelbon -- At the end of last season, following a dugout incident in which closer Jonathan Papelbon choked Washington's franchise player, Bryce Harper, it seemed as if there was no way that Papelbon could possibly be back in a Nats uniform next season. But at his news conference, Baker -- who fancies himself a uniter of people and who famously overcame an ugly 2002 brawl between Bonds and Jeff Kent to lead the Giants to the World Series that same year -- gave no indication that Papelbon is on his way out. That said, it wouldn't be a shock to see the six-time All-Star dealt at some point during the offseason.
4. Relief Reconstruction -- Certain numbers would suggest that the Nationals' bullpen did a decent job, as the team finished sixth in the National League in relief ERA. Other numbers? Not so much. Washington's 23 blown saves were third-most in the National League. From Aug. 1 on, when the team really started to nosedive, Nats relievers blew 11 saves, tied for worst in the NL. Drew Storen, who was demoted from closer to setup man and then broke his thumb when he slammed his locker in frustration, is likely done in DC. Ditto for Casey Jannsen, whose option did not get picked up. With Papelbon possibly on his way out too, a bullpen makeover will undoubtedly be at the top of Rizzo's winter to-do list.
5. Stammen Stepping Back In -- From 2012 to 2014, Craig Stammen pitched more innings than any reliever in baseball. Then, in April 2015, a torn right forearm flexor ended his season -- and created a gaping void in the middle of the Nats' bullpen. Having a healthy Stammen back would be a great start to rebuilding the bullpen. The plan was for him to start throwing again this month back in his native Ohio. How he progresses this winter will be crucial to the club's plans for next spring.
6. Hole at the 1-Hole -- True leadoff hitters like Denard Span are a dying breed. With Span injured for much of 2015, the Nats struggled to find a suitable replacement at the top of the order. Michael Taylor's power and propensity to whiff make him better suited for lower in the order. Jayson Werth filled in admirably, but he too belongs somewhere else. Speedy infielder Trea Turner might be the best in-house option, but that's a lot to ask of a rookie who has just 40 big-league at bats. Dexter Fowler, Gerardo Parra, and Span top the list of leadoff free agents, but signing any one of them would cause a logjam in an outfield that already features Harper, Werth, and Taylor. One way or another, Washington needs to find a leadoff hitter.
7. Zeroing in on Zim's Health -- For the second straight year, Ryan Zimmerman played in fewer than 100 games. This time around, the culprits were plantar fasciitis and a strained oblique. Because he already has 11 big-league seasons under his belt, it's easy to forget that the slugging first baseman is just 31 years old. The Nationals need his body to hold up accordingly. A longer than expected offseason (the upside of mediocrity) should help Zimmerman get whole.
8. Roark's Role -- In his first full season as a starter in 2014, Tanner Roark was outstanding, going 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP that ranked eighth in the NL. But following the free-agent signing of Max Scherzer last offseason, Roark was the odd man out. He struggled as a reliever, then when injuries forced him into a starting role, he struggled there too. With Doug Fister a free agent and 2012 first-rounder Lucas Giolito not quite ready, the Nats need another arm to round out their starting five. If the Nats don't land one on the open market, returning Roark to the rotation could be plan B.
9. Spending Spike -- Prior to 2013, Washington's payroll had never ranked higher than 20th. Over the last three seasons, their average payroll is $140 million, the eighth highest in baseball. Last year, they ranked third at $175 mil and gave Max Scherzer $210 million over seven years. In short, the Nats have become spenders. With a strong free-agent class and numerous holes to spackle (shortstop, rotation, bullpen, leadoff), another splashy winter would hardly come as a surprise.
10. Maddux and Mad Max -- As baseball players go, they don't come much more cerebral and analytical than Max Scherzer. As coaches go, they don't come much more psychologically bent than Mike Maddux. Following a disappointing second half of 2015 in which Scherzer led the National League in home runs allowed (17) and posted a 3.72 ERA, it'll be interesting to see what, if anything, Maddux does to help Washington's ace return to form.