On paper, the Washington Nationals were the team to beat in the National League heading into last season. But baseball isn’t played on paper. Instead, it’s played on the diamond, where the Nats were the most disappointing team in the major leagues.
There’s no denying that a rash of injuries to key contributors (Denard Span, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth) played a major role, but the ghastly gestalt in the clubhouse certainly didn’t help things. Gone is Matt Williams, who was named 2014 Manager of the Year as a rookie only to be fired less than a year later. Three-time MOY Dusty Baker replaces Williams, and while the 66-year-old skipper is a noted clubhouse chemist who’s known for conjuring positive vibes to help turn traumatized teams around, the 2016 Nationals could be his toughest test yet.
First and foremost on Baker’s to-do list is getting closer Jonathan Papelbon and reigning MVP Bryce Harper to play nice. Following the "Star-Strangled Canner" -- the surreal September incident in which Papelbon put the squeeze play on Harper’s neck that ultimately led to Williams’ pink slip -- the common thinking in and around D.C. was that Papelbon had seen his last days in a Nats uniform. But despite a busy offseason that saw a drastic bullpen makeover, Papelbon remains. With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Viera, Florida, at the end of the week, things aren’t likely to change. Though all indications from within the organization are that Harper and Papelbon have put the fiasco behind them and are ready to move forward, it should be captivating theater to see how things actually play out.
The position of closer isn’t the only relief role Baker will have to keep a close eye on. Following a brutal late-season meltdown by the bullpen, general manager Mike Rizzo cleaned house, bringing in so many new faces that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see, "Hi, my name is" stickers floating around the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium. Gone are Drew Storen, Casey Janssen, Matt Thornton and Craig Stammen, replaced by Shawn Kelley, Trevor Gott, Oliver Perez and Yusmeiro Petit. That’s a flummoxing amount of flux for any unit, but especially for the pen, a unique baseball breed that spends copious amounts of time in close quarters and can often be the idiosyncratic engine that makes a team tick. Although Baker can call on new pitching coach Mike Maddux, considered one of the best in the biz and an expert on the mental side of the game, to help get everyone on the same page, it won’t be easy.
But wait ... there’s more. With the signing of free-agent second baseman (and former Met) Daniel Murphy and the trade acquisition of outfielder (and former Phillie) Ben Revere, the Washington roster now features three key players who were on division rivals last season (Papelbon is the other). Throw in Werth, who spent four years in Philly immediately prior to coming to D.C., and Perez, who was with the Mets for five seasons, and the result is a whole of lot NL East inbreeding. Mix it altogether with the Harper/Papelbon saga and the hodgepodge pen, and Baker will have his work cut out for him.
Then again, when it’s all said and done, maybe none of it will matter. Maybe Dusty gets the Nationals to play to their potential. Maybe Harper and Papelbon become besties, the bullpen starts having weekly sleepovers at Maddux’s house and Murphy and Revere end up being Nats for life. After all, winning does cure everything, and the Nationals, according to ZiPS projections, are projected for a division-best 89 wins.
On paper, anyway.