Nationals hoping for healthy Rendon in 2016

Nationals hoping for healthy Rendon in 2016

VIERA, Fla. -- It was not too long ago that Anthony Rendon was considered to be the Nationals' best player, coming off his stellar 2014 season. He finished fifth in the voting for the National League Most Valuable Player Award and won the Sliver Slugger Award after hitting .287/.351/.473 with 21 home runs, an NL-leading 111 runs and a 6.5 fWAR.

If the Nationals get that kind of player in 2016, they would boast a pair of hitters in their lineup, alongside Bryce Harper, capable of rivaling any team in the NL. But Rendon spent most of 2015 hampered by injuries that kept him off the field and limited while he was on it.

It began in Spring Training when he sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee while making a diving stop at third base. His recovery stalled when he suffered an oblique injury during rehab. Then, a strained quad sidelined him for another month. Rendon appeared in just 80 games for the Nationals last season, producing a 0.9 fWAR while he shuffled around the infield between second and third base.

So which Rendon are the Nationals getting this year: the one who appeared on the verge of stardom in 2014 or the one hampered by injury troubles dating back to his freshman year at Rice University?

"This guy can hit. He has a beautiful stroke, and he's real quiet about it," manager Dusty Baker said. "Everything he does is not in a hurry, and everything he does, it seems like the game is slow to him. Other guys, it seems like the game is too fast for them, but he has the ability to slow the game down. Whether it's at third base or whether it's at the plate."

The Nationals believe returning Rendon to his natural position at third base will help increase his comfort level this season, in the field and at the plate. Rendon, who compiled 12 defensive runs saved in 2014, should also help improve the Nationals' defense.

The key for Rendon, however, is finding a way to stay on the field. He has suffered a plethora of injuries dating back to his freshman year at Rice: torn ligaments in his right ankle (2009), broken right ankle (2010), strained right shoulder (2011) and fractured left ankle (2012).

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But a healthy Rendon is perhaps the Nationals' most versatile player. Baker has tinkered with a few different lineup combinations this spring and has found Rendon difficult to slot. Baker likes his ability to get on base (.343 career OBP), which makes him a nice fit to hit second in the order. But he also likes the idea of him hitting in the middle of the order.

"I don't know where to place him," Baker said. "He's pretty good anywhere you place him."

But just how good and how healthy Rendon ends up being this season will be crucial for the Nationals.

Jamal Collier is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.