Instead of revamping their roster after yet another early playoff exit, the Washington Nationals head to spring training next week counting on a bounceback year from Bryce Harper and a full season from Stephen Strasburg.
The team’s significant offseason changes were limited to adding outfielder Adam Eaton — at the cost of two top pitching prospects — and catcher Derek Norris.
“We’ve got a good team that won 95 games last year. I think we’re a better team this year, that will go into this season better than we did last year. So we feel that we’re a confident group with a good team, a deep roster,” general manager Mike Rizzo said.
“And we plan on having a really successful year this season,” he declared. “Our goal is to defend the National League East title, go to the playoffs — and then our ultimate goal always is to win the World Series.”
Going to need to win a playoff series first, though.
With three division titles in five years, but also three opening-series postseason losses, Washington still has 2015 NL MVP Harper (who slumped significantly last year) and 2016 NL MVP runner-up Daniel Murphy in the heart of the lineup, and 2016 NL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer at the top of the rotation along with Strasburg, who began last season 13-0 before getting shut down with an elbow injury.
“We did pretty good to win as many games as we did with guys having down years,” manager Dusty Baker said. “‘Harp’ will rebound. He’s young enough where I’m not real worried about ‘Harp.’ Soon, the pride factor will come into it. He don’t like seeing those down years on his bubble gum card.”
Some of other things to know about the Nationals before players begin reporting to camp Tuesday:
NEW LOOK: The most glaring hole is at closer, where Mark Melancon left as a free agent and no obvious replacement was added, so spring training could wind up being an open competition for that role. Eaton appears to be an upgrade, and his addition lets NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Trea Turner move to shortstop, his natural position. Ramos’ slugging is gone; can Norris rebound after hitting .186 — yes, you read that right — last season?
ROOKIES TO WATCH: He’s no longer a rookie, but Turner is still only 23, and he’ll essentially be a rookie at shortstop — while trying to again be one of Washington’s most dynamic offensive players. RHP Trevor Gott, who’s 24, is another youngster; technically not a first-year player, either (48 games in 2015 with the Angels, and nine last season with the Nationals), he has a lively arm and could be a key part of the bullpen. One future prospect to keep an eye out for: OF Victor Robles, a 19-year-old minor leaguer considered a possible future star.
THEY’RE SET: The middle infield (with Murphy and Turner) should be a real strength, and when 3B Anthony Rendon is factored in, that trio could account for three of the top five slots in the batting order.
THEY’RE NOT: The bullpen is a real question mark, with no experienced closer. As of now, the hope is that someone such as Shawn Kelley or Blake Treinen can prove worthy. “Everybody wants to go out and get somebody,” Baker said, “and sometimes it’s right under your nose and you don’t even know it or see it.”
ON DECK: One big change this spring: After a dozen years isolated in Viera, Florida, the Nationals move into a brand new facility in West Palm Beach that they’ll share with the Houston Astros.
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