The Nationals offense looks serious.
It says a lot about this Nationals club that even with an explosive playmaker like Ben Revere on the 15-day disabled list, the offense still looks like a major strength.
Bryce Harper is the headliner, for obvious reasons, and he’s simply picked up right where he left off. Forget the slash lines and counting stats (he’s posting a .385/.556/1.000, for whatever it’s worth.) The most impressive and meaningful number from these first handful of games is this: he’s drawn five walks against no strikeouts. His command of the strike zone and his plate discipline remain un-Earthly.
Unlike ’15, it’s clear that in ’16, it won’t just be Harper. Anthony Rendon and Daniel Murphy are also off to hot starts. Murphy in particular has been a machine; his three year, $37.5 million deal already looks like a steal for the Nats. He draws walks (five of them); he drives in runs (five RBIs in four games) – in sum, he’s been everything the Nationals had hoped they were getting. No, he won’t slug .923 forever, or even for another week. But he adds a level of consistency that the Nats desperately needed in 2015.
One thing to keep an eye on is how pull-pronounced Murphy becomes. Prior to last year, he sprayed the ball remarkably evenly around the field. But he started pulling the ball more in 2015, he saw a spike in his power numbers. Through a handful of plate appearances in 2016 that trend continues. (He’s pulled 55.6% of his hits thus far, and is hitting the cover off the ball.)
Rendon and Zimmerman are also off to good, warm starts. In Sunday’s win over Atlanta, Rendon flashed the hit-machine ability that makes him so valuable in front of Harper. Zimmerman will need regular days off as he tames his plantar fasciitis, but he’s coming off a red-hot spring and in limited action has shown his plate discipline and contact-making skills are as sharp as ever. He just needs to stay healthy.
In sum, the Nats look to have two righties and two lefties who are both high-contact, low-strikeout hitters with moderate or exceptional power in the middle of the lineup.
Sans Revere, the situation in the Washington outfield looks pretty scary.
Werth finally notched his first RBI in Sunday’s 4-2 win over the Marlins, but prior to that run-scoring bloop, he’d been 0-for-everything. He’s 37 and his defensive play in left field isn’t pretty. But he’s known to be a slow starter and even in his hitless streak he was still stringing together long, combative, difficult at-bats, a trait that might play better in the lead-off spot, but really has value anywhere in a lineup. Is this age catching up to him? Or is it just another slow start?
Taylor is even more of an enigma. He finished Spring Training hitting nearly .500, and yet only got his first hit twelve at-bats into the season.
Hitting him leadoff does not seem to be doing him any favors; his approach is not geared toward patient contact. But manager Dusty Baker loves his combination of speed and power and so looks to be entrenched as the lead-off hitter until Revere returns. But his speed only matters if he puts the ball in play and his power seems sporadic because it is paired with perilously high whiff rates.
The Nationals really need one of these two to get going in Revere’s absence.
The starting pitching is good – and healthy.
Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross have all come out of the gates looking strong. Scherzer gave up two homers in his first start but struck out seven; Strasburg gave up three walks but K’d four in six innings. Ross’ first start – 7 1P, 1 ER, 5 H, 5 K – against a good-hitting Miami club was a great sign for the 22-year-old. Roark’s turn against Miami was tough, but it came under such brutal weather conditions that it’s hard to read much into it. In sum, Nationals starting pitching has been about as good as it realistically could be one week into a season.
Watching Jonathan Papelbon‘s velocity.
It’s not terribly surprising that an aging pitcher sees his velocities drop, and it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s finished as an effective or even brilliant reliever. He still induces a ton of ground balls; he leaves runners stranded at fantastic rates; and there’s still a good difference between his fastball and off-speed velocities. But it’s clear that Papelbon’s mistakes are going to be decidedly more hittable, as Christian Yelich showed on Sunday.
Should Papelbon really struggle, the Nationals have options.
Blake Treinen, 27, looked outstanding all spring and continues to look like an ace. His mid-90s sinker has steadily wiped out righties, but he’s found a way to get lefties – with a changeup. Combined with the fact that he’s clearly getting more comfortable in late-inning roles and the Nats have an obvious candidate to close, should it become necessary. The 24-year-old Felipe Rivero could also be a factor, as he has flashed tremendous stuff.
The infield defense is improved.
Wilson Ramos was the second best “defensive runs saved” catcher in the game last season, behind only Buster Posey. There’s no question he can call a good game – he’s called two no-hitters! – and he is fantastic at shutting down baserunners. Will he hit? Can he do a better job of handling throws from the outfield? These are open questions but his offseason LASIK surgery certainly should help all facets of his game.
At shortstop, Danny Espinosa flashes the range and powerful throwing arm that made him the obvious choice to start at the position. His hitting remains all-or-nothing, with too much nothing, too often, but his glove skills anchor a premium defensive position that was a major weakness for the club last year.