WASHINGTON — Once again, albeit maybe for the last time, the Washington Nationals enter a season counting on Bryce Harper to lead their offense, with Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman and Trea Turner expected to do some heavy lifting, too.
Once again, the Nationals figure they have among the best starting rotations in baseball, led by three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.
And once again, the team in the nation’s capital is not only coming off an NL East title but an opening-round playoff exit. So once again, the Nationals have a new manager, this time rookie Dave Martinez, charged with finally creating some postseason success.
“My message to them is, ‘Hey, when we get there, it’s just: Play one more game. It’ll be Game 163, 164, 165.’ That’s it. We’re good enough to finish this out. They know that,” Martinez said at the start of his first spring training as a skipper after serving as Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s right-hand man.
Martinez, hired to replace Dusty Baker after consecutive one-run Game 5 NL Division Series exits for Washington, had coaches ride into camp on camels to send a signal about getting over the “hump.”
“I told them, from the beginning: I’m not here to change what the culture is,” Martinez said. “I’m just here to kind of help you guys.”
Right from the start, Harper declared that he would not entertain a single question pertaining to anything beyond the upcoming season. That’s because he can become a free agent after 2018 and that topic will be one everyone else will want to discuss for the next several months. Also intriguing: Whether general manager Mike Rizzo will get a new deal; his expires after this season, too.
Harper wants to focus on what he can do to replicate his 2015 unanimous NL MVP performance — and try to get Washington past the NLDS.
“We’re expected to win. That’s how it is,” he said. “We’re expected to win the East. We’re expected to possibly win the pennant. We’re expected to possibly win a World Series.”
Some other things to know about the 2018 Washington Nationals:
BEST CASE: If all goes well, the Washington could win the World Series. That’s been a familiar refrain, but it’s true. With this roster, the Nationals are capable of being the best in the majors. What matters now is whether they can be as good in the playoffs as the regular season. And there are some “ifs” here: If Harper, Rendon, Eaton and Murphy are healthy and producing like the elite hitters they’ve been; if Zimmerman is even a fraction as outstanding as in 2017; if Scherzer and Strasburg do what everyone knows they can; if the bullpen is as good as it was in the second half of last season.
WORST CASE: Given the relative weakness of the NL East, it seems as if the worst Washington could do is finish second, with a shot at a wild-card berth. For that to happen, a lot of stars would have to fail to deliver. Maybe a series of injures becomes an issue, with several top guys missing significant time. This squad has shown in recent years that it can overcome missing even a couple of key players.
RUST CONCERNS: 2B Murphy had offseason knee surgery and is expected to miss the start of the season. LF Eaton missed nearly all of last season with a torn-up knee and didn’t take an at-bat this spring until late in the Grapefruit League. 1B Zimmerman and CF Michael A. Taylor barely had any exhibition at-bats, either. How quickly all those folks turn out to be ready is worth watching.
FIFTH STARTER: After Scherzer and Strasburg, there’s LHP Gio Gonzalez and RHP Tanner Roark, but a big question is who will be the fifth starter. RHPs A.J. Cole, Erick Fedde and recent addition Jeremy Hellickson are in the mix.
AP freelancer Chuck King in West Palm Beach, Florida, contributed to this report.
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