Five Questions for the 2016 Nationals

How will the revamped lineup play?

Judging by how the offense and defense have been tinkered with, it’s clear Rizzo was not happy with what he saw. The team hit for power – but also often looked old and slow, and had the fifth-worst team strikeout rate in the game. Many of the numbers that looked good, looked good largely because Bryce Harper was putting up historically exceptional production.

Adding Revere and Murphy are not sexy, “mega-deal” transactions, but they are types of hitters that Washington simply didn’t have last season.

Neither Revere nor Murphy walk much, a legitimate criticism, but neither strike out often, either. Murphy struck out a mere 38 times in 2015. Revere struck out only nine percent of the time. Neither player has much power, but both excel at putting the barrel on the ball; both have high contact rates in the 90-percent range, and low swinging-strike rates in the four- to five-percent range apiece.

Revere’s breathtaking speed is a critical part of his toolkit; turning infield grounders into singles and stolen bases, and turning singles into doubles, pressuring the opposing pitcher and defense at each step. Murphy isn’t a speed demon, but his ability to lash baseballs across the diamond is both functionally shift-proof and means he can hit anywhere in the lineup, either as a table-setter or as a run-producer.

The Royals beat the Mets with a team onslaught of low-whiff, hard-to-K, contact hitters. And now the Nationals have added two durable, consistent, low-K, high-contact players. In sum, the Nats offense now has more dimension, it can win more ways, than it did at any point in 2015.

The club’s future shortstop or second baseman Trea Turner also has blistering speed and some pop; whether he will be a factor in 2016 is an open question. He’ll certainly be in the infield mix along with Danny Espinosa, Murphy, and Drew. The club also might want him to gain more defensive seasoning at Triple-A – it’s something to watch this spring.

One final offensive question: can Harper repeat his MVP performance? I would never suggest a historically brilliant campaign be any player’s benchmark. That’s terribly unrealistic, and unfair to the player. But there are two indicators that suggest to me that Harper’s 2015 was no mere fluke.

First, his batting average on balls in play is remarkably consistent. For his career, he has a .333 mark. In his injury shortened 2014, Harper posted a .352 mark. In his 9.9 bWAR (9.5 fWAR) 2015, Harper rode a .369 BABIP. This tells me that while he might have gotten some good bounces, his production was not a simply a product of good bounces.

Harper struck out 20 percent of the time. It’s a big number, but not especially worrisome considering that Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout struck out at slightly worse rates.

What’s incredible is Harper’s 19-percent walk rate, against a league average of 7.7 percent – meaning he walked about 2.5 times more than an average NL hitter.  This speaks to his total command of the strike zone and his discipline at the plate, which in turn suggests he is not a one-sided slugger, but a truly brilliant, complete hitter, like his “baseball card” statistics make him out to be.

Could the Nats have benefited from adding Jason Heyward or Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes? Obviously. That assumes, of course, the contracts for those players wouldn’t be bogged down with player-friendly, franchise-hostile opt-out clauses every other year.

With Harper in right field and third in the lineup, and with two new contact-happy, athletic pieces in the mix, the Nationals have clearly upgraded a dangerous offense.

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