- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 24, 2016


The Washington Nationals won’t have to worry about inflated expectations in 2016. There won’t be pundits lining up to crown them champions this season.

No, the Nationals, for the first time since 2012, find themselves looking up in the National League East thanks to a series of rejections from free agents they sought this winter.

The New York Mets, the defending NL champions, will be crowned the team to beat in the NL East — particularly after their latest off-season victory, beating out the Nationals for the services of outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, the Mets‘ half-season savior.

Looking up may be a better position for the Nationals, who at times seemed a little too comfortable being crowned champs before they took the field.

Let’s see how the Mets handle the “winning off the field” title they have earned this off season. It’s a position that is unfamiliar to them — one that often exposes issues that no one, save for Mets fans, paid much attention to before.

Let’s see how Cespedes, who, after being traded to the Mets at the deadline last season and leading them to the World Series with 17 home runs and 44 RBI in 57 games, does with a three-year, $75 million contract in his pocket.

What do they say — familiarity breeds contempt? You have to wonder why a player as talented as Cespedes is on his fourth team in just two years. He wore out his welcome quickly on one of those teams, the Boston Red Sox. “He marches to his own drum and the coaches all hate him,” the New York Daily News reported a little more than a year ago.

He will be leading the band now in New York. Let’s see how he handles that.

That said, the Nationals appeared to be willing to commit to Cespedes as well, and lost out to the Mets for his services — the story of Washington’s offseason. We know of at least four free agents Washington was willing to pay to play for the Nationals and passed — Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and now Cespedes.

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo did win out on convincing the Mets‘ postseason hero, second baseman Daniel Murphy, to take Washington’s money, and he pulled off a great deal by trading Drew Storen — the Nationals’ postseason nightmare — to the Toronto Blue Jays for leadoff hitter and outfielder Ben Revere. The two deals for left-handed bats who are not prone to striking out would seem to strengthen Washington’s lineup. He also reconstructed the bullpen, though the question of Jonathan Papelbon’s existence on the roster remains a bigger issue than any free agent who passed on the Nationals.

But the narrative for the Nationals going into the 2016 seasons is one of an organization whose star has dimmed.

There’s still a deal out there for the Nationals, though, that will change all that.

They need to get the 2014 version of Anthony Rendon back.

The spin that the Nationals self-destructed last year was based on the warped campaign against manager Matt Williams, who made a number of mistakes but, unlike the number of mistakes that Mets manager Terry Collins makes on a regular basis, became the media’s punching bag. He helped that campaign with a style that earned him little sympathy.

No one wanted to pay attention to the injury losses Washington suffered throughout the season. It fell on deaf ears as people embraced the Mets‘ glorious run and contrasted that with Williams’ “The Caine Mutiny” act one game after another as the season slipped away for the Nationals.

No one cared that Washington’s best offensive player from their NL East title team in 2014 was missing in action for much of last year.

Rendon was an MVP candidate in 2014, with 21 home runs, 83 RBI, 111 runs scored and a .287 batting average. Last season, he missed 82 games with two stints on the disabled list for various injuries and never got untracked.

A healthy Rendon this season, combined with the N MVP, Bryce Harper, would be the best one-two offensive punch in the division — and maybe good enough to challenge the mighty New York Mets.

⦁ Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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