Playing Pepper 2016: Washington Nationals

It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning.  For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper!  We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat.  This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal.  It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.

Washington Nationals
83-79, second in the NL East
Last year’s Pepper

Life is what happens when you are making other plans.  Nowhere in baseball (save maybe San Diego) was that more true than in Washington, where the Nationals planned to be spending September being the talk of baseball and playing deep into October.  They were the talk of baseball, all right, but for a misfire of a season, player on player violence, and a manager that looked out of touch and over his head.

Shaking off what happened in 2015 won’t be easy, but we’ve lined up three bloggers today to see if it’s possible.  Matt Eisner writes for Matt’s Bats and is a youngster in the blogging game.  We saw Matt back in 2014 and he’s been blogging for around 3 1/2 years, so I think the “11-year-old” in the tagline might be out of date, but I still have articles of clothing older than him. (Pardon me while I sigh loudly.)  You’ll find him on Twitter @MattsBats.  Next up is our good friend (I almost said old, but after talking about Matt’s age, I figured I better not) Dave Nichols.  Dave’s now writing at Federal Baseball, his third site in the seven straight years he’s been kind enough to join us.  His Twitter handle is DaveNicholsDSP.  Finally, we’ve got JD Mathewson from Rational Pastime.  We’ve been lucky to have JD for three straight years now and he’s on Twitter @RationalPastime.

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

MB: I think they could have done better. Missing out on Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Yoenis Cespedes, and many other big names, and players like Brandon Phillips choosing not to agree to a trade to Washington, wasn’t very good to our reputation. I think they should have tried to improve the back end of their bullpen by trading for Aroldis Chapman. If anything, they weakened it by trading away Drew Storen. But I do like the signing of Daniel Murphy a lot. They are still a good team and hopefully play better than last year.

FB: I’m fairly meh on the Nats offseason. I really thought they needed to find a veteran starter to replace Jordan Zimmermann, but it looks like they’ll roll with Tanner Roark and Joe Ross until Lucas Giolito comes up, my bet is in June. They brought in a couple of needed arms in the pen, Shawn Kelley in particular on a 3-year deal. The deal that sent Drew Storen for Ben Revere is curious, to me. Revere certainly has better average/OBP than Michael Taylor, but is nowhere near the defensive player in center. Regardless, Taylor should get plenty of playing time against LHP and filling in for Jayson Werth if (when) he hits the DL again. Daniel Murphy is a butcher at second, but will give the Nats more contact at the plate.

RP: The Nats had one of the most disappointing offseasons in the Rizzo era. They bungled the deal to sign Bud Black as manager, and struck out on a big free agent deal with Yoenis Cespedes. Reportedly, this was due to financial considerations related to their inability to get out of their onerous television deal with MASN. Personally, I would have been happy if they had made just one move: ridding themselves of Jonathan Papelbon. Admittedly, this is a more personal than rational preference, but I know a lot of Nationals fans would be happier without Papelbon on this team. Finally, the Nats’ defense has taken a turn for the worst, and will be below average on opening day.

C70: The Nats went from one former player (Matt Williams) to another (Dusty Baker) in the dugout. What are going to be the most obvious changes, do you think?

MB: The change is having a veteran manger in the dugout. Dusty has 20 years experience managing and Matt Williams was a rookie. Dusty hopefully will manage the bullpen better than Matt Williams did, because people have questioned his moves. For example, Williams pulled Jordan Zimmermann in Game 2 of the 2014 NLDS after 8 2/3 innings of shutout baseball only to go on to lose 2-1 in 18 innings. Players also complained that Matt Williams would warm up someone up and not bring him in to the game. The players complained it wore out their arms.

Also, he will hopefully have better “people” skills than Williams as the manager. I did not like how Williams handled the incident when Jonathan Papelbon choked Bryce Harper. I don’t think Baker would bring Papelbon back into the game after doing something like that.

FB: Hopefully, Dusty will be more in tune with his players, something that the tone-deaf and Marine-rigid Williams was not. On the field, expect the Nats to play more “old-school ball” — stealing, hit-and-run, bunting. Dusty likes to manage. The biggest change could be with the pitchers, where Mike Maddux replaces Steve McCatty. Maddux is a hands-on guy and has had success building staffs everywhere he’s been.

RP: I’m not one to put too much emphasis on the role of the manager in baseball. Matt Williams claimed to be “old school” and Dusty Baker without question is. The clubhouse will be looser, but who knows if that leads to better on field performance. I guess we’ll see if the old claim about Baker wearing out young pitchers’ arms holds firm.

C70: Right now, Stephen Strasburg is set to become a free agent at the end of the year. With him being a Scott Boras client, it would seem unlikely that he’ll come to terms without testing the waters. Will the Nats make a big push to retain him, one way or another?

MB: The Nats’ fan base sure wishes so, but I don’t think that they will. I think they will try to save up to resign Bryce Harper, who may get a $400-500 million contract. They have really expanded their payroll, including last year’s $210 million Max Scherzer contract.

FB: I think the Nats will make enough of an effort to sign Strasburg to be able to say they made an effort, but there’s no way Boras won’t take Strasburg (or Bryce Harper in three years) to free agency.

RP: There’s a lot that can come to pass between opening day and free agency. For instance, will the Nats finally revise their MASN deal? Will the Lerners see fit to dig deep like they did with Jayson Werth and Max Scherzer? If the answer to both questions is “yes,” then I expect them to make a big push for Strasburg, but those are big ifs. Another wildcard is Mike Rizzo, whose team option matures on June 15. With so much fog in the forecast, it’s hard to say what the Nats will do. I’d like to seem them make a push, but I expect they’ll make him a respectable but lowball offer.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

MB: Danny Espinosa. At a starting role, he will have more opportunity to play. He’s as good defensively as Andrelton Simmons and can hit from both sides of the plate. I know he can live up to those expectations.

FB: The Nats don’t really have many youngsters you’d expect to be taking a leap in performance. Two hitters to watch are the previously mentioned Taylor and shortstop Trea Turner, who I expect to be up with the big club in June with Giolito. If Taylor can cut down on his K-rate and draw a few more walks, he can be a 20-20 guy. As for Turner, 70/80 speed and running instincts, good on-base skills, gamer. Should be able to stick defensively at short.

RP: Wilson Ramos had a down year at the plate in 2015, and Gio Gonzalez underperformed based on his career stats as well. Expect both of them to bounce back this season.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

MB: 90-72, 1st place in the NL East- It’ll be a battle with the Mets again, but we’ll finish on top.

FB: The Nats and Mets are the cream of the division, and it’s not even close. They’ll both get a bump in their respective records from getting to beat up on the Marlins, Phillies and Braves this year. The Phils and Braves will be just awful. I’ll say Nats first with 93 wins, Mets with 90.

RP: My own simulation has the Nats winning 90 games, finishing four games behind the Mets in the NL East but good enough to clinch the first wild card spot.

C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?

MB: The New York Mets. The new rivalry in DC is against the Mets. It used to be the Braves and the Phillies. They’re both good teams, and like last year, I think each series will be like it’s a life or death situation.

FB: On a purely personal level, I always enjoy when the Nats beat the Phillies, as my mom’s family is from South Jersey and we used to have battles over sports all the time. I also have several very close friends who are Mets fans, so those games are always contentious as well. I think if you ask most Nats fans, the Mets and Phillies are 1a and 1b for top rival. Plus, the incident when then-team president Stan Kasten invited Philly fans down to Nats Park for opening day still sticks in the craw of a lot of Nats fans.

RP: The Mets snuck up from behind and got us good last season. Getting revenge on our rivals in Flushing would be sweet.

I appreciate Matt, Dave, and JD for giving us some knowledge about the Nats.  Perhaps this year, when the expectations are a little less, will be the year they finally break through!

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