After a winter of retooling, goodbyes, and hellos…the Nationals are back and ready to rebound from a disappointing 2015.  Many (myself included) have them winning the NL East…and there are more than a few cases for confidence and concern.  This team might not make the playoffs, but they’ll certainly give DC an interesting ride through the spring and summer months.

Causes for Confidence– Bryce Harper is the reigning NL MVP and is only 23 years old.  He drove in nearly 100 runs last year despite having a constantly eroding lineup around him.  Max Scherzer tossed two no-hitters and brought the ace mentality to the pitching staff.  The other contributors in the lineup (Anthony Rendon) and rotation (Stephen Strasburg) are among the best in the game when healthy.  And Dusty Baker is running this team.  Nothing like having a proven skipper being in charge…and in his three previous stops Baker’s teams have improved by an average of 20 wins.  Granted, signing Barry Bonds as a free agent may have been a factor in the 1993 Giant success–but still…

Causes for Concern– left field is a potential minefield with Jayson Werth coming off of a less-than productive season while still not completely comfortable in the other corner position (between the angle of balls hit to how they’re hit).  While Gio Gonzalez’ 2012 season is the outlier of his career, does the lefthander’s ERA continue to slide upward (3.36 to 3.57 to 3.79 the last 3 years)?  Will oft-injured players like Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman be healthy?  And then there’s the bullpen:  is Jonathan Papelbon a fuse waiting to go off?  Just as important will the middle relievers consistently provide the bridge from the rotation to the ninth?

Last Month’s Heroes– during the season we’ll have weekly heroes (and humbled), but a tip of the cap to the Monster of March:  Michael A. Taylor.  The 25-year old hit .453 with 5 homers and 16 RBI in Spring Training.  Yes, those numbers mean nothing Monday afternoon…but it has to be encouraging for there to be an option if something goes wrong in the outfield.  Tanner Roark had a solid spring as well, going 2-0 with an ERA of 2.00 over 5 games (4 starts) while striking out 17 over 18 innings.  If Roark can man the #4 spot in the rotation with play like that, 2016 could be somewhat sweet.

Last Month’s Humbled– with the caveat that it was only March (and early April):  Danny Espinosa took a while to find his bat in Florida…the shortstop hitting .139 with 4 walks and 11 strikeouts.  He’s hitting 8th so they don’t need monster production, but he’ll need to repeat last year’s early success to keep management from even thinking about calling up Trea Turner.  Gio Gonzalez allowed a team-high 12 walks over 19 innings while Joe Ross posted a 6.75 ERA in Spring Training.

Game to watch– the first week, aren’t they all?  I’m looking forward to Thursday, April 7th.  Stephen Strasburg perhaps in his final season with the Nats gets the ball for the home opener.  We get the Racing of the Presidents (although I’ve been told that Coolidge does not choose to run in 2016) returning…and hopefully some good seventh inning stretch music (Saturday’s exhibition played “It’s not Unusual” by Tom Jones, a definite upgrade over “Friends in Low Places” while not coming close to “Take On Me”).

Game to Miss–  Sunday April 10th.  Joe Ross makes his first start of 2016 against Miami while the Masters final round percolates on CBS.  I know it’s just a 1:35 start but the Marlins pitch the forgettable Jarred Cosart.  Laundry and spring cleaning need to get done as well…and one has to take the lining out of one’s jackets for the spring season.  Let’s ease into this 162 game marathon…shall we?   

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