Washington Nationals: Around the clubhouse; Hope Springs Eternal

When pitchers and catchers reported to the new Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, we were 123 days removed from the stinging loss of Game 5 and the third time the Nats failed to advance in postseason play. My twitter feed was filled with excitement from fans, the players, and the team. Why? Because, just like the infuriatingly Noah Syndergaard-centric MLB ad states, and TalkNats reminds us every year in Spring Training: hope springs eternal. Spring Training marks a fresh start. The slate is wiped clean, and last season’s lows are in the past.

I believe that Ryan Zimmerman will fix whatever is wrong. I admit that I struggle to separate my personal feelings from baseball reality when it comes to Zim. However, I am realistic enough to understand that something has got to change. The last three seasons have shown a significant drop in WAR for the Nats face-of-the-franchise player (0.4 in 2014, 0.7 in 2015, and -1.1 in 2016, a sharp decline from his 3.7 in 2013). I give him slight passes in 2014 and 2015 because of injury. He only played in 61 games in 2014, and he dealt with plantar fasciitis during much of his 95 games in 2015. I can tell y’all from experience that plantar fasciitis is legit, and I’m not sure how he lasted as long as he did before being put on the DL. 2016, however… I struggle to find an excuse, as much as I would like to give one on his behalf. We’ve all seen the numbers that show Zim hits the ball harder than almost anyone in the NL, however he has an incredibly low launch angle and a lot of those hard hit balls go right to a defensive player which has that sense of predictability where we have all seen it before. Clearly, some kind of adjustment needs to be made. This isn’t lost on Zim as he told Jonathan Warner of WTOP this weekend:

“This game is all about adjustments. If you don’t adjust, someone is going to take your job in this sport. I’ve been around [the league] so long that people know me so well and know the way I hit.”

GM Mike Rizzo and manager Dusty Baker have both spoken very highly of Zim despite his recent struggles, and they both believe Zim can come back from his current slump. Dusty stated on Friday that Zim is his “pick to click” this season. Setting realistic expectations are key. Zim likely isn’t going to have a career year, but I have faith that he has worked on making adjustments this off-season, and I’m hopeful we’ll see evidence of that at the plate.

I believe Bryce Harper will look more like his 2015 self than his 2016 self and prove that 2016 was the outlier. Why Harper had such a drop-off following his MVP season is a mystery to everyone….but Harper:

“Yeah, I know exactly why. But that’s last year. . . . I stayed in the line-up every day and tried to help this team win.”

The pressure is really on Harper to prove that 2016 is the exception to the rule, not 2015, especially with all the talk of a $400 million plus free agency contract. Harper changed up his workout regimen this off-season with Philippi Sports Institute and his Tuesday yoga sessions, and we will see if Harper is more zen-like and relaxed as he finished his yoga sessions in savasana. Luckily, Harper embraces and controls the pressure. Harper continued:

“I like that feeling of ‘What have you done for me lately?’ It’s always been that way my whole life.”

Well, to be brutally honest, Harper, you haven’t done a lot for me lately. But, as you said, that’s last year. As we move towards a new season, I believe you’ll come out firing on all cylinders and will return to the MVP conversation.

I believe Dusty Baker and Mike Maddux will find a solution for our missing closer. This is the question I have seen more than anything from fans. Flashy closers seem all the rage right now, but you don’t have to have a huge name that throws 100+ mph to get the job done. The Nats have several guys in their ‘pen right now that are candidates to be the guy when the game is on the line in the 9th. Dusty recently talked about Blake Treinen, Shawn Kelley, Joe Nathan, and Koda Glover as potential closers. He noted that Treinen recently overcame his struggles with getting lefties out, however, he has concerns about pushing him too quickly and potentially destroying his confidence.

Glover has rocketed through the Nats minor league system after being drafted in the 8th round in 2015, however he got hit around a lot at the end of last season, and he suffered a torn labrum in his hip that he possibly kept from the team for a while. Dusty and Co. are going to have to keep eyes on him for both confidence and re-injury. Kelley has had two Tommy-John surgeries, so there is a lot of concern about pushing him too far and him landing on the DL because of it. “He seems the likely candidate, but we’ve got to see can his arm sustain or else we’ll be looking for somebody else and be without him too. That’s the thing you don’t want.” Dusty knows Nathan from his days with the SF Giants, and Nathan has an extensive resumé as a closer, and Dusty is eager to see what he brings to the table. Ultimately, Dusty Baker will pick one guy to move forward with, stating he absolutely does not plan on a closer by committee situation. Dusty wants the guys to have an idea of what’s going to happen and what their roles are whenever the phone in the bullpen rings.

“Somebody always emerges [in the bullpen]. I believe that, that somebody will come forward. They will separate themselves from the pack.”

I believe that, too, Dusty.

As fans, we always have to have hope and believe in something larger in scope. Hope that Ryan Zimmerman will make the needed adjustments and will show more than a glimmer of his old self. Hope that Bryce Harper will be back to his 2015 MVP form. Hope that someone will rise up and be the anchor that the back-end of our bullpen needs. Hope that this year will finally be our year for our Washington Nationals. Hope. Belief.

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