The 6 biggest questions facing the 2017 Nationals

FILE - In this March 23, 2016, file photo, the team logo on the playing field is reflected in the sunglasses of Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker as he talks with players during batting practice before a spring training baseball game against the New York Yankees in Viera, Fla. Baker said his No. 1 priority was players staying healthy, especially after the Nationals developed something of a reputation as an injury-prone bunch. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)
WASHINGTON — Pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in Arizona and Florida this week, signaling that we at least can reasonably speak and write about baseball in earnest again, even if it will be a while before any actual games are played.

The Washington Nationals, the defending NL East champions, appear well-positioned for another postseason run and have among the most stable of big league rosters, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still questions as they land at their new spring training home in Palm Beach. Here’s a look at the issues that promise to have the greatest effect on the upcoming season. And be sure to check back later this week as we’ll have live coverage from the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches beginning Thursday.

(AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper flips his bat after hitting an infield pop fly during the fourth inning of Game 1 of a baseball National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, at Nationals Park, Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Which Bryce Harper will we get?

Despite the insistence he was healthy during the season, it’s become clear that Bryce Harper was not functioning at 100 percent last year. His agent, Scott Boras, has alluded to the fact twice, first at the Winter Meetings, then again just last week. Watching Harper, especially his discomfort against left-handed pitching, made it seem obvious. Just look at the drop-off in his numbers against lefties from 2015 to 2016:

2015: .318/.434/.552, 32 BB, 34 K

2016: .226/.326/.438, 23 BB, 47 K

We know Harper is capable of producing at least a 10 WAR season when healthy, as that’s exactly what he did in 2015. Such a return to form would be an enormous boon and is the biggest single space for improvement between last year’s club and this year’s. But even if Harper splits the difference on his last two years, his line would look something like this: .287/.417/.962, 33 HR, 31 2B. Even that much improvement will help cover for a decent amount of potential regression elsewhere.

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

FILE - In this Oct. 11, 2016, file photo, Washington Nationals' Daniel Murphy watches his two-run single during the seventh inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of National League Division Series, in Los Angeles. Murphy, Kris Bryant and Corey Seager are up for the National League Most Valuable Player award.(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
How much of last year’s success can Daniel Murphy recapture?

It’s hard to overstate just how surprising Daniel Murphy’s 2016 season was. At age 31, he set career highs in doubles, home runs, RBI, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, shattering his old marks in several categories. If Murphy returns to his career norms (even including last year’s numbers) in 2017, he’ll see hit batting average drop 50 points, his home runs cut in half and his slugging percentage fall 138 points. All of this is to say that it’s probably not reasonable to expect a player who had only broken 2 WAR once in his career to post another 4.6 WAR campaign.

Murphy has also battled nagging injuries over the past three seasons, not surpassing 143 games since 2013. That didn’t affect his overall numbers last year, but we saw Jayson Werth, another oft-dinged up National, drop off dramatically in his age 32 season before rebounding. Regardless of who you are (other than perhaps Barry Bonds), age catches up eventually. Considering the nature of Murphy’s outlier-type year last year, a measurable drop-off seems more likely than not.

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg delivers a pitch during a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Thursday, July 21, 2016, in Washington. The Dodgers won 6-3. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Will starting rotation depth be tested?

Washington’s would-be Opening Day starting rotation is arguably the best in the majors, with reigning Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer followed by Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross. If all five are healthy for the bulk of the season, they should carry this team to another postseason appearance. But starting rotations never stay entirely intact.

The biggest question mark is the health of Stephen Strasburg, who was shut down at the end of last year, just a few months after signing a massive, seven-year extension. Already a veteran of Tommy John surgery, Strasburg’s right arm represents the club’s most high-risk, high-reward investment. Strasburg has only eclipsed the 200-inning mark once, but the year he did he led the National League in strikeouts.

The health concern is magnified this season following the offseason acquisition of Adam Eaton, which cost Washington its erstwhile numbers six and seven starters, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez. If/when another arm is pressed into action, it will likely fall to A.J. Cole or an untested minor leaguer waiting in the wings, possibly Austin Voth or Erik Fedde. Veteran Jeremy Guthrie is also a non-roster invitee in camp, providing potential insurance.

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Washington Nationals catcher Pedro Severino throws to first during a baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016, in Washington. The Nationals won 4-2. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Is this the solution at catcher?

Wilson Ramos had a career year behind the plate before his freak, season-ending injury cut his season short. As a result, the Nationals received the highest wins above average (2.0) at the catching position of any team in baseball. Given the team’s efforts to replace Ramos, that seems highly doubtful to happen again.

Jose Lobaton filled in admirably, but is a well below-average big league hitter with a career OPS+ of just 75. The Nats reacquired former prospect Derek Norris, who has hit 14 home runs each of the past two years in San Diego, but also batted just .186 with a .255 on-base percentage last season.

They are each keeping the seat warm for 23-year-old Pedro Severino, who shined to the tune of a .321/.441/.1.048 slash line in 16 games last year. But Severino’s minor league numbers suggest he is nowhere near that strong at the plate — he’s never batted above .250 for a season or slugged double digit home runs; his career minor league OBP is .294. If Severino needs more seasoning and neither Lobaton nor Norris have a breakout year, might the team make a play to add a veteran signal caller for a playoff push?

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Washington Nationals relief pitcher Blake Treinen (45) celebrates with catcher Jose Lobaton (59) after the Nationals defeated the Minnesota Twins 8-4 in a baseball game Friday, April 22, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
How good is the bullpen?

Losing a closer like Mark Melancon does damage in more than just the obvious ways. Not only does his 1.82 ERA in 30 appearances go away, but every remaining player’s role inches up in importance. Effectively, you aren’t replacing Melancon with Shawn Kelley or Blake Treinen (or whoever else wins the closer role) — you’re replacing him with the last man in the bullpen, in terms of overall numbers.

You’re also hoping that a number of players who posted career years can repeat them. Treinen’s 2.28 ERA was the lowest in his three-year career, despite a 3.62 FIP that was his highest. Kelley, who will be 33 years old in April, is coming off career bests in ERA+, WHIP, strikeout rate and K/BB rate. Barring a late offseason move, Washington will be relying on those arms and young contributors such as Koda Glover, Trevor Gott and perhaps Austin Adams, who have a combined 73.1 innings of Major League experience between them. Perhaps a veteran such as Matt Albers (coming off a down year) or Tim Collins (who missed the last two seasons following Tommy John surgery) could sneak into the mix.

The Nationals quietly had the second-best bullpen ERA in the majors last year (3.37), but seem to be relying on a lot to go right to repeat that performance.

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Mike Rizzo
Will there be financial flexibility at the deadline?

Multiple reports have surfaced over the past couple weeks that the Nationals are near the far reaches of their payroll limits. Whether or not that is a result of overruns from the hurried, last-minute construction of their new Spring Training complex is unclear, but it doesn’t seem to bode well for the front office’s ability to add potential payroll at the trade deadline, something that has hampered the team for years.

As we’ve seen in the past, the club’s rigid financial approach has kept it from landing potentially crucial additions in July. It’s why they’ve settled for options such as Melancon and Jonathan Papelbon while the Chicago Cubs upgraded to Aroldis Chapman last year, or the Kansas City Royals to Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto in 2015.

Signing Stephen Drew and Adam Lind have helped to shore up a weak bench, but a major injury would still create room for a big upgrade. The market for closers promises to be lively come mid-season, with targets such as Alex Colome and David Robertson (names the Nats have already been linked to in trade rumors) likely to be playing for non-competitive clubs, as well as potentially the likes of Huston Street or Glen Perkins. Will ownership give the thumbs up to take on payroll where it hasn’t in the past to get the piece that might help push the Nats over the top?

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

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FILE - In this March 23, 2016, file photo, the team logo on the playing field is reflected in the sunglasses of Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker as he talks with players during batting practice before a spring training baseball game against the New York Yankees in Viera, Fla. Baker said his No. 1 priority was players staying healthy, especially after the Nationals developed something of a reputation as an injury-prone bunch. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)
Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper flips his bat after hitting an infield pop fly during the fourth inning of Game 1 of a baseball National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, at Nationals Park, Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
FILE - In this Oct. 11, 2016, file photo, Washington Nationals' Daniel Murphy watches his two-run single during the seventh inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of National League Division Series, in Los Angeles. Murphy, Kris Bryant and Corey Seager are up for the National League Most Valuable Player award.(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg delivers a pitch during a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Thursday, July 21, 2016, in Washington. The Dodgers won 6-3. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Washington Nationals catcher Pedro Severino throws to first during a baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016, in Washington. The Nationals won 4-2. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Washington Nationals relief pitcher Blake Treinen (45) celebrates with catcher Jose Lobaton (59) after the Nationals defeated the Minnesota Twins 8-4 in a baseball game Friday, April 22, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Mike Rizzo

The Nationals are in good shape entering 2017, but they still have questions to answer if they hope to repeat as division champs and win their first playoff series in franchise history.


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