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Nationals' white-hot spring could mean big things for 2016

How good have the Washington Nationals been this spring? So good that they can beat Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard with their bullpen.

On Wednesday in Port St. Lucie, it was supposed to be Harvey vs. Max Scherzer in Washington’s Grapefruit League finale. But after consecutive rainouts, manager Dusty Baker decided that his relievers needed work. So he kept Scherzer at team headquarters in Viera for a simulated game, and instead trotted a bunch of relievers out there to do battle with Harvey and Syndergaard.

The result? Another Nats win.

With the 12-1 victory over New York -- in which Harvey and Syndergaard allowed five runs in five innings, while a parade of nine Washington relievers shut down the Mets’ A-lineup -- Washington closes spring training with an 18-4 record. That’s a winning percentage of .818, best in the bigs. Their run differential finishes at a gaudy plus-81. That’s 24 more runs than the next-closest team, Arizona, despite the fact the Diamondbacks played six more games. In other words, the Nationals haven’t just been beating the opposition, they’ve been slaughtering them.

Big deal, you’re thinking, it’s spring training. And everybody knows that spring training results don’t matter.

Or do they?

In the past 20 years, only once has a team finished spring training with a winning percentage of .800 or better. That team? The 1997 Miami Marlins, who went 26-5 in Grapefruit League action (.839), then proceeded to win 92 regular-season games, plus another 11 in the postseason, including four in the World Series.

Coincidence? Maybe, but tell me you’re not intrigued.

Since 2003 -- sorry, but that’s as far back as ESPN’s spring training run differential stats go -- there have been five teams that finished spring training with at least a plus-70 run differential. Leading the way are the 2009 Los Angeles Angels, who outscored exhibition opponents by 87 runs, then went on to win 97 games and advance to the American League Championship Series. The team that beat them? That’d be the New York Yankees, who had a plus-74 run differential that spring, then won 103 regular-season games and the World Series. In the interest of full disclosure, none of the other three clubs that surpassed plus-70 in the spring made the playoffs (2013 Kansas City Royals, 2012 Toronto Blue Jays, 2003 Royals), but since that doesn’t really help my argument, I’m exercising my writerly right to not focus on that. (For what it’s worth, those five plus-70 teams did average 88 wins.)

Then there’s this: Of the 40 teams that have made the World Series over the past two decades, only 30 percent of them had losing records in spring training that year, and those same 40 teams had a combined winning percentage of .536 in exhibition play during their World Series seasons. Also, since 2003, of the 26 clubs that have made the Fall Classic, 69 percent had positive run differentials during the preseason.

All of this is a really dorky way of saying that, by and large, the teams that tend to perform well during spring training tend to be the teams that perform well when it really counts, and vice versa. And the teams that tend to perform really really well in spring training -- teams like the ’97 Marlins -- perform really, really well when it counts.

So where do the 2016 Nationals fit? Well, we didn’t need spring training to know that Dusty Baker’s club is supposed to be good. After winning 96 games in 2014, they were expected to be World Series contenders last year but underachieved, thanks in no small part to key players getting injured (Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth). This year, according to FanGraphs, the Nats are projected to win 88 games, one fewer than the Mets and good enough to secure the top National League wild-card spot. The top of the rotation, led by Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, is as good as any in baseball. An offense that features reigning MVP Bryce Harper and scored the third-most runs in the NL each of the past two seasons should be even better with the addition of contact freaks Daniel Murphy and Ben Revere. Then there’s Baker, who has improved the previous three teams he has taken over by an average of 18 wins in his first season. Yes, the revamped bullpen has question marks, as does the back end of the rotation, but that shouldn’t be enough to keep Washington from going blow for blow with the Mets for divisional glory.

Given all that, and given how dominant the Nats have been in Florida, the obvious takeaway is that, assuming they can stay reasonably healthy, the 2016 Washington Nationals have the look of a very dangerous team. But don’t take my word for it.

“We’re good,” Harper said. “We’re going into games and doing things we need to do. Shoot, I feel like we’ve been scoring 10 runs a game. If you look at our lineup, we’re very deep. Everybody is contributing. So if we can stay healthy, we’ll have a great team. Hopefully we can keep rolling in the season and do what we need to do.”

As for Baker, although he doesn't place a lot of weight on spring training results as a whole, he is a believer in the significance of the past week or so, when the lineups start looking a lot more like regular-season lineups. "It means more to me about the last seven or eight games," the Nats skipper said.

In case you're wondering, Washington has lost just once in its past eight games. During those eight games, the Nationals outscored their opponents by a combined score of 62-19. Perhaps even more importantly, they're heading north, with nary an injury to speak of.

Said Baker: "My main thing is, I want them healthy, and I want them feeling good about themselves."

And if the Nationals don't end up parlaying those good vibes into regular-season results? Then forget everything I said about the importance of spring training.