Washington is entering 2016 blazing hot. They went 18-4 in the spring, with a +81 run differential, they have one of the strongest one-two punches in the National League in the rotation, and reigning NL MVP, Bryce Harper, is picking up right where he left off in 2015.
The Nats started off 2016 on Monday with a 4-3 win in Atlanta in ten innings of play. That one game displayed a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of the team entering 2016. The offense looked good, Bryce Harper hit his fourth career Opening Day home run (in five Opening Days played) and Daniel Murphy dropped his first bomb in a Nats uniform along with the eventual game-winning RBI in the top of the 10th. Max Scherzer delivered a quality start, allowing just 2 runs over 7 innings of work, but the bullpen once again left Washington exposed heading into the late innings.
One of Washington’s biggest concerns in 2015 was injuries, especially heading into the late parts of the season. Third baseman Anthony Rendon, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, and left fielder Jayson Werth, all played in less than 100 games in 2015, which contributed in part to their collapse in the late months of the season. This year, the Nats made it through the offseason and the preseason with little damage. Aaron Barrett is the only player on the DL coming into the season, with elbow issues.
Despite being so healthy coming into the 2016 season, Ben Revere was pulled from the game in the fourth inning. Revere was seen grabbing his side during his at-bat in the third inning. The bright side of that news, is that the backup center fielder, Michael Taylor, has already proven himself to be an asset at the plate in the field. Taylor’s sacrifice fly into center scored Jayson Werth, to tie the game at 3 in the top of the 9th. Revere was not one of the players who was looked at to be a potential injury liability coming into 2016, he is not one of the well-aged veterans of the team, like Zimmerman or Werth, nor does he have an injury-laden past. Revere was placed on the DL Wednesday, with an oblique strain. Matt den Dekker has been called up from Triple-A Syracuse to fill the roster vacancy, and Michael Taylor will presumably be starting in center until his return. Revere claims he felt something after he took his first swing of the game.
Even with the loss of Revere, another thing worth looking at is Washington’s April schedule. Washington only plays two games against projected playoff teams in their opening month, those two games being in St. Louis on the 29th and 30th. The rest of April is full of the should-be bottom three NL East teams, and the Minnesota Twins, who are still getting younger guys acclimated to the MLB. This gives Washington a great advantage to get their foot on the gas early, as they have in years past.
The caveat here is that in recent years the Nationals have been prone to late-season breakdowns. While it is still too early to tell if the team will be healthy, or if the chemistry will remain in the dugout (both catalysts in their 2015 collapse), the Nats should be sitting in a comfortable position atop the NL East by the end of April.