Ben Criswell, staff writer
2016, this is the year. Sound familiar?
On paper, the Washington Nationals’ rotation is as good if not better than any other rotation in baseball. On paper, the team’s lineup is as formidable as their competitors. On paper, the Washington Nationals are the best team in baseball. On paper. If only reality was so kind.
The 2015 World Series featured a George Brett go-ahead home run nullified by the excessive use of pine tar, along with Doc Gooden pitching a no-hitter high on cocaine. Oh wait — that was 30 years ago. Instead, the Nationals were left watching Daniel Murphy and the current New York Mets face-off against the Kansas City Royals. The Royals, after a 4-1 World Series win, actually got to party like it was 30 years ago.
At the Nationals’ spring training this past week at Space Coast Stadium, you wouldn’t have been able to tell the Nationals finished seven games back of those New York Mets. Sunburned patrons donning their breezer hats filled the stadium almost to capacity, taking every opportunity to chat up Bryce Harper in right field, or ask Papelbon how many times he’s planning on throwing down with the leagues reigning MVP. Yes, the MVP lives in D.C., but aside from that, 2015 was a year Nationals fans would like to forget.
So here were are — 2016. This is the year for the Nationals. Or is it? Gone are a host of familiar faces such as Ian Desmond, Denard Span and Jordan Zimmermann. Out is 2014 Manager of the Year Matt Williams, and in come Daniel Murphy, Ben Revere and Dusty Baker. For the first time in the Bryce Harper era, the Washington Nationals are not, on paper, the favorites to win the World Series. Instead the Chicago Cubs sit at two-to-one odds to win it all. Seriously, what year is it?
The Nationals’ lineup will essentially look the same as last year. Ben Revere (Denard Span 2.0) will replace Span in center and lead off. Danny Espinosa will likely start the season at shortstop, and Murphy will take over second base. Harper, Werth, Rendon, Zimmerman and Ramos will fill out the rest of the lineup barring any injuries. Cross your fingers, Nats fans.
A player to keep your eye on will be Trea Turner, the 22-year-old shortstop ranked fifth on MLB.com’s list of top shortstop prospects. Turner could start the season in Minor Leagues, but will surely be called up sooner rather than later as he is projected to be the shortstop of the future for the Nats. Not that I’m putting any stock in projections for a D.C. sports team.
It seems the Nationals are poised for another run at the World Series, effectively putting them in year three of their window of opportunity, the third year in a row since their first playoff appearance in 2013. For those of you who may not know, a window in baseball usually lasts between three and eight years. What follows the window can range anywhere from a two to 100 year wasteful abyss, depending on if you play in New York or have gone 108 years since the Cubbies last won it all.
Time is ticking for the Nationals. It seems odd, considering they’re a young team, but Werth and Zimmerman have age on them. On top of that, there is a potential $500 million contract for the rule-hating MVP Bryce Harper from the New York Yankees. The team is good, really good — but they won’t be good for long.
So where are we?
Well, we know the Nationals, on paper, should be good. How good? We don’t know.
We do know Dusty Baker is in his first year and might take some time figuring out all the right buttons to push. We haven’t seen an offense coupled with a pitching staff all come together with this level of talent in years.
The fact that we haven’t seen it all come together, however, should be a sign of optimism. I mean, come on. There’s no way the Nationals play less than 10 games with their starting lineup again, right?
It’s 2016. After a year of hope falling flat, we get another chance. This is the year.