2016 State of the Nationals
By Pablo Roa
In honor of President Obama’s State of the Union address tonight, we check in on the State of the Washington Nationals as we get closer to Spring Training.
Later tonight, President Barack Obama will deliver his final State of the Union address to Congress inside the Capitol Building in downtown Washington, D.C. In honor of the address, today we’ll be checking in on what’s been happening just a few blocks away from the Capitol with our State of the Nationals, where we’ll discuss what the team has accomplished so far this offseason and how it looks heading into the 2016 season and beyond.
The Nationals are in a very different position than they were at this point last year. When we wrote about the State of the Nationals last January, the team was in the midst of a surprisingly exciting offseason in which they acquired future shortstop Trea Turner and perennial Cy Young contender Max Scherzer. The Nationals were also coming off their second NL East title in team history, and the expectation was that the team would easily win the division again in 2015 and breeze to the World Series.
Oh, how wrong we were.
Had things gone according to plan in 2015, the roster that general manager Mike Rizzo assembled during the offseason likely was enough to guide the team to a division title and postseason success. But injuries and overwhelming underperformance from most players (among other things) doomed the team in 2015. The Nationals missed the playoffs, and entered the offseason with more uncertainties than they’ve had since the last time they missed the postseason in 2013.
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Not only were the Nationals coming off a disappointing season, but they were also entering an offseason in which Denard Span, Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann would all likely depart via free agency. Yes, the team had pieces in place to replace all three players. But losing three of your most important players — no matter how prepared you are — is a tough pill to swallow for any team.
Fortunately for the Nationals, Rizzo has quietly put together a stellar offseason. He addressed the bullpen — which was the team’s biggest weakness in 2015 — early on by adding Trevor Gott, Shawn Kelley, Yusmeiro Petit and Oliver Perez. He also balanced the Nationals’ right-handed heavy lineup with lefties Daniel Murphy — who replaces Yunel Escobar at second base — and Ben Revere — who replaces Span in center.
With NL MVP Bryce Harper leading the way, with the additions to the lineup and with all of the team’s most important players healthy again, the Nationals’ offense can compete with just about any in the National League. The starting rotation of Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and Joe Ross has what it takes to lead the Nationals to the postseason in 2016.
The bullpen, on the other hand, is still a matter of concern for the team. The Nationals appear to have built a formidable middle of the ‘pen with the additions mentioned above, but the back-end of the bullpen remains a major question mark for the ball club.
After they traded Drew Storen to the Blue Jays in the trade that brought Revere to D.C., the Nationals are now left with Jonathan Papelbon as their only true option for the ninth inning role. Barring a surprise trade before Spring Training, Papelbon will more than likely be the closer on Opening Day.
Papelbon, of course, was suspended at the end of the 2015 season for choking Harper in a heated dugout argument. The Nationals wanted to trade Papelbon this offseason, but given his baggage, his hefty price tag and the fact that he has an extensive no-trade list, dealing the veteran right-hander was all but impossible.
So, the Nationals will likely be forced to stand behind a player who lost the respect of his fans and caused one of the most embarrassing moments in team history. He may very well be booed every time he takes the mound at Nationals Park early in the season, and he may never be a good fit with the Nationals.
But Papelbon has seen great success throughout his career, and despite his reputation, he’s one of the most accomplished closers in the history of the game. If Papelbon can pitch to his ability and stay out of trouble in 2016, he may very well play a key role for the Nationals in 2016. Or, his attitude could create a major problem in the clubhouse that ultimately takes a toll on how the team plays on the field. Who knows. That scenario is less likely, but given Papelbon’s history, it’s certainly a possibility.
Despite the Papelbon issue, the bullpen is far, far better today than it was on the last day of the regular season.
As we get closer to Spring Training, the Nationals are in a good place as a team. They will once again enter the season with sky-high expectations, and the pressure to win will be higher than ever for the front office. This time, however, the Nationals and their fans enter the new year with a more cautious mentality. The team showed in 2015 that it is far from perfect, and until the Nationals once again prove they can win consistently, there are plenty of reasons to be be skeptical about the team in 2016.
That being said, there are also plenty of reasons to feel good about the Nationals right now. They’re young, they have one of the most accomplished managers in baseball, they’re talented, and — if they can stay healthy — they have the potential to be one of the best teams in the game.
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The Nationals are in a good place right now, but ultimately the success of the offseason and the true state of the franchise will be determined by how the team performs in the regular season. Only time will tell if the 2016 Nationals can accomplish what last year’s team failed to do: turn a dominant team on paper into a dominant team on the field.