Re-tooled Nats Having Productive Spring

With the obvious caveat that “it’s only Spring Training,” Washington has looked awfully promising in their first twenty games of the Dusty Baker Era. The offense is shaping up to be dangerous. The pitching has been overpowering and, maybe most importantly, nobody’s seriously hurt.

We’ve learned that the 2016 Nats are going to run. Between Ben Revere, Anthony Rendon, Bryce HarperMichael Taylor and even Jayson Werth, the club has the speed, technical skill and the inclination (thanks to the ultra-aggressive Davey Lopes) to steal bases. We know Baker prizes contact and putting the ball in play, which gels with the acquisitions of two low-strikeout players in Revere and Daniel Murphy. We know the elite starting pitching is still elite, and that the bullpen remains a work-in-progress.

Here are three other big questions that Washington will have to consider going forward.

Who’s the starting shortstop?

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Heading into 2016, Danny Espinosa was effectively handed the starting job. He was among the best defensive infielders in the game last year and is a natural shortstop, boasting good range and an extremely strong, accurate arm. His offense was always going to be a trade-off against his defense, and at a premium defensive position, that’s a reasonable decision.

But Espinosa has 10 strikeouts to 1 walk and 3 hits thus far, and his fielding has looked rocky at times. Even by the minimal Spring Training standards, Espinosa’s production has simply been brutal. Of course, the other options – Trea Turner, Stephen Drew and Brendan Ryan – all have pluses and minuses of their own.

Turner is the obvious shortstop of the future. His explosive, game-changing speed makes every at-bat competitive; he’s fast enough that even routine choppers are close plays. Walks, singles and errors can quickly become doubles. On defense, he doesn’t have Espinosa’s arm and hasn’t yet flashed a penchant for spectacular plays. That said, Turner has tremendous range and continues to improve as he plays.

It seems unlikely that Baker would put a largely untested rookie at a premium defensive position on a championship-grade team. There’s also service-time issues to consider; the Nationals gain an entire year of team control if Turner spends a few weeks of the season in the minor leagues. There are too many reasons to hold Turner back than there are to start him, and I’d bet on him starting 2016 at AAA – but he’s basically ready to take the reins and it would not be a surprise if he were playing in the big leagues by mid-season, especially if Espinosa continues to fail to hit with any regularity .

That leaves Stephen Drew and Brendan Ryan. Both have had excellent springs – playing good defense and hitting well. Ryan is probably not in the mix for a starting job, and he may not make the team at all, as he is battling more experienced and better pinch hitters for the final roster spot. Drew, on the other hand, is more intriguing. He’s posted a whopping .934 OPS this spring and while that number is certainly a “Spring Training” number, it is matched with an extremely strong BB-to-K ratio; he’s tallied four walks against three strikeouts.

I would never expect Drew to suddenly rediscover his All-Star offensive form – but could he be good enough to platoon with Espinosa, with Drew facing lefties and Espinosa facing righties? Absolutely – and until Turner is ready to take things over full time, this is probably the best offensive and defensive option for the Nats.

Roark and Treinen look good.

Frankly, all the Nationals starting pitchers have looked strong. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg – the two big guns – put up back-to-back 9 strikeout outings. Gio has had some rocky moments but tinkering with his delivery seems to have done him good. Joe Ross seems poised to pick up right where he left off last year, as a 22-year-old with mound presence and stuff well beyond his years.

It is Roark and Treinen, though, who really needed to show stuff this spring, and have they ever.

Roark has truly settled back into himself – not trying to overpower people, but rather controlling and locating his low-90s fastball down. That, in turn, has led him to nine innings of nine-strikeout, two-walk ball. He’s scattered hits here and there, but in general he’s looked a lot more like the outstanding 2014 Roark than the confused, jumbled 2015 version. Keeping Roark on track will give the Nationals starting pitching quality and depth that few teams can match.

Treinen is another player the Nationals need. He was converted into a reliever in 2015 and the results were mixed: righties found him all-but unhittable, but lefties almost couldn’t miss. This spring we’ve seen a different pitcher – a guy who’s got a handle on his changeup, who’s wiping out lefties and righties consistantly (9.0 IP, 0.625 WHIP, 9.0 K, 1 BB)

The Nationals bullpen is still a question mark but it’s an interesting mix with a lot of raw talent. The club has promising, hard-throwing youngsters in Trevor Gott and Felipe Rivero. Veteran Sean Burnett has pitched well this spring and his arm has held up. Shawn Kelley and Jonathan Papelbon will anchor the back end of the bullpen. And then there’s the wild card in Treinen, who has always had fantastic velocity, and fantastic rates of ground ball production, but now seems to have found another gear with his stuff and command.

MAT’s bat and the outfield jam.

The book on 25-year-old Michael Taylor is that he has an elite combination of speed and power at the plate and on the bases, and he’s an elite defender in the outfield in terms of range and arm strength, but he strikes out way, way too much (about 30% for his career.)

It’s still true that Taylor is prone to the K (he’s been rung up nine times against only two walks) but otherwise, he has absolutely lit up Spring Training, to the ludicrous tune of a .485/.514/.848 slash line, while going 3-for-3 in the stolen base department. Taylor will probably always be burdened with hefty strikeout totals but he is clearly capable of being a dangerous run-producer anyway.

This gives Baker an interesting problem in that he now has four starting-grade, perhaps star-grade, outfielders. We can safely assume Bryce Harper is set (and Harper, by the way, is slashing a mere .321/.424/.571 this spring.) But Ben Revere, Werth and Taylor could be a fascinating rotation in center and left respectively. Revere is probably a better fit in left because his of his weak throwing arm – but that’s Werth’s natural position at this point in his career.

Should Taylor start ahead of the 37-year-old Werth? Werth is coming off one of the worst years of his career, but writing him off as dead would be a mistake. He battled injuries all year, but when he finally got up to speed, he hit.

The truth is that there will be plenty of plate appearances to go around; Werth will need regular days off and Taylor has simply earned the right this spring to see what he can do. Werth might start the year as the first-string left fielder, with Taylor as a utility outfielder and late-inning defensive sub. But it would not be surprising if Taylor simply won a starting job outright.

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