Despite bumpy '15, they can win NL East this season
By Richard Justice
I still believe in the Washington Nationals. That's not the popular opinion it once was, is it? No big deal there. Sometimes, things take a little longer to click. Ask the Kansas City Royals about that.
They Royals had some bumps in the road on the way to two straight American League championships. They stayed the course, though, believing in both their talent and their plan. They are a good reminder for the Nationals that winning is difficult, that getting the right mix is an inexact science.
And luck is a factor, too. That's the one thing baseball people hate to discuss publicly. The important thing is to have stable and relentless ownership, competent people and a smart plan. The Nats have all three.
So here we go again. On the first day of Spring Training this season, the Nationals will be solid favorites to win the National League East for a fifth straight season -- they did win in 2012 and '14. According to projections done by FanGraphs.com, the Nats will go 88-74 and finish four games in front of the Mets.
However, they're not the hot commodity they once were. The Cubs and Dodgers are projected to be the NL's best teams.
Still, despite all the disappointment of recent seasons, the Nationals are very good and have had a nice, unspectacular offseason. Sometimes, those are the best kind. If they can keep their core guys on the field -- and that's an issue -- they should win the NL East.
Here's what they've got. In reigning NL Most Valuable Player Award winner Bryce Harper, they've got one of the two or three best players on the planet. In Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, they have two of baseball's 10 or 12 best starting pitchers.
And they have one of the most accomplished managers in the game in Dusty Baker. Other than Baker, they had all those pieces last season when they were one of baseball's most disappointing teams -- 83-79 and seven games behind the Mets in the NL East.
That's why health is an issue. Zimmerman and Werth missed a combined 141 games. Center fielder Denard Span, who signed with the Giants this offseason, missed 101 games. Likewise, injuries limited Strasburg to 23 starts.
In assessing what went wrong, general manager Mike Rizzo understood bad luck was part of the equation. That's something he would be reluctant to say publicly because the bottom line is all anyone will remember.
If Werth, Strasburg and Zimmerman spend weeks on the disabled list again, then the Nationals could again have tough sledding. But they're deeper now than they've ever been.
Now about the ninth inning. Yes, Jonathan Papelbon is still the man. If his $11 million salary didn't make him untradable, then his reputation as less than an ideal clubhouse guy did.
One thing that gets overlooked when discussing Papelbon: He's still a very effective closer. In 11 seasons, his ERA is 2.35. Papelbon is 35 now, but showing few signs of fading. In the past four seasons, his 2.38 ERA is only slightly higher than his career average.
Unfortunately, all a lot of people will remember is that Papelbon picked a dugout fight with Harper near the end of the season. Harper and Papelbon spoke by telephone during the offseason, and Rizzo believes the incident will be forgotten.
If it isn't, that's where Baker will have a role. Opening Day will be his 3,177th game as a Major League manager, placing him 17th on the all-time list.
Baker's strength as a manager is his ability to communicate with his players and to get them to work together toward a single goal. If that sounds overstated, you didn't see the frequently dysfunctional Nationals play in 2015.
If Baker has to begin Spring Training by having a heart-to-heart chat with Papelbon and Harper, no manager in the game is better at mending these kinds of fences.
And if Papelbon ends up getting the final out of the 2016 World Series, well, it'll show you how sometimes things work out.
That's what it's about for the Nats in 2016. In the past four seasons, only the Cardinals and Dodgers have won more regular-season games.
But the Cards have played 43 postseason games since the start of 2012, the Dodgers 19. The Giants have won the World Series twice in this stretch, the Red Sox and Royals once each.
The Nationals have won three playoff games and lost six. In two of these past four seasons, they missed the postseason altogether. Maybe that disappointment has better prepared the Nats for 2016, made them more resilient.
At least that's our story, and we're sticking to it.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.