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2017 Preview: Washington Nationals

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Washington Nationals.

The measure of a successful season varies from team to team. Some prefer to set the bar low. Perhaps they’re in rebuilding mode, content with a few veteran additions to balance out a new influx of young talent. Others raise the bar to a modest level, hoping to secure a division lead or, barring that, a Wild Card berth.

Still others set their sights on the loftiest of goals: a World Series championship. They’ve been around the proverbial postseason block, they know how to dominate in regular season play. Only a championship title eludes them now, and failing that, anything else feels like settling.

Enter the 2017 Washington Nationals, a team that boasts former MVP Bryce Harper, future MVP Trea Turner, the one-two punch of Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, the 3-4-5 punch of Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross, the 2016 NL East division title, the 2014 NL East division title, the 2012 NL East division title, and three failed attempts to reach beyond the first rung of the playoffs. Should the Nationals once again find themselves unable to make a bid for the World Series, it would be a stretch to call their 2017 season a disappointment, but it’s clear that the stakes have been raised this year.

Every hero has his Achilles heel, and the Nationals’ weakness appears to be the health (or lack thereof) of its starting rotation. Stephen Strasburg worked his way back from a worrisome flexor mass strain in his right elbow this winter, evading a second round of Tommy John surgery but giving the team some pause as he prepared to improve on his 3.60 ERA and 3.9 fWAR from 2016. Max Scherzer sustained a stress fracture in his knuckle, though he’s been cleared to start the team’s third game of the season after successfully pitching through several outings in camp.

It may be a stretch to expect Strasburg to remain healthy for an entire year, something he hasn’t done since 2014, but barring catastrophe, the Nationals’ rotation looks sturdy, if not dominant. The same can be said for the bullpen, though the club lost a big contributor when Mark Melancon reached free agency — and a shiny new deal with the league-rival San Francisco Giants.

No one approaching Melancon’s superstar status remains on Washington’s roster, though 23-year-old hurler Koda Glover has attracted some looks in spring training. With days to go before the Nationals make their regular season debut, club manager Dusty Baker has remained mum on the subject. Veteran right-hander Shawn Kelley is the supposed frontrunner for the position, though his age and declining health put a limit on his availability. The opposite is true for fellow right-hander Blake Treinen, whose stuff is too good to be wasted in a ninth-inning slot, while Glover’s inexperience in the big leagues makes him more of a question mark than a sure thing.

Also troubling is the decline of star slugger Bryce Harper, whose .243/.373/.441 batting line and 3.5 fWAR in 2016 were hardly reminiscent of the league-leading totals that netted Harper his first MVP award in 2015. Anytime a good player shows wear and tear, it’s cause for some concern, but when it happens to one of the best hitters in the league, it tends to generate panic. Thankfully, not everything went downhill for Harper last season. He generated a career-high 21 stolen bases and muscled 24 home runs, second only to Daniel Murphy’s 25 homers. (In case you forgot, that’s one home run for each year that Bryce Harper has been alive, which makes the threat of imminent decline seem almost laughable at this point in his career.)

Life would be easier if Harper returned to his 42-homer, 9.5 fWAR ways, but the Nationals aren’t exactly hurting for lack of offense these days. Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon comprise a fearsome lineup, complemented by the offseason additions of center fielder Adam Eaton and catcher Matt Wieters. The Nationals secured the return of Adam Eaton for a package of pitching prospects, including top-rated right-hander Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning. Despite the appeal of Eaton’s 6.0 fWAR 2016 season and the added benefit of shifting Trea Turner back to short, it’s a move that only makes sense when the stakes involve a championship run.

Short of a viable closer and Bryce Harper’s MVP-caliber production levels, the Nationals figure to be sitting pretty atop the NL East in 2017. Their top prospect gamble should pay off, at least in the short term, and assuming they maintain a healthy pitching staff, nothing appears to be blocking their path to a long and storied playoff battle… except, maybe, the defending World Series champs themselves.

Prediction: 1st in NL East.

Yankees GM Brian Cashman not considering demoting struggling Greg Bird

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Yankees first baseman Greg Bird gave his team tons of confidence to hand him the everyday job at first base to start the 2017 regular season, batting .451/.556/1.098 with eight home runs in 51 spring at-bats. But he’s followed that up by hitting .107/.254/.214 through the first month of the regular season.

GM Brian Cashman doesn’t have any intent to demote Bird back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch reports. Cashman said, “It’s not even an option for me in my mind right now, at all.”

Bird didn’t start Sunday’s game against the Orioles, a 7-4 loss in 11 innings. Lefty Wade Miley started for the Orioles, prompting manager Joe Girardi to put Chris Carter into the lineup at first base. If Bird isn’t able to figure things out, Carter might have an increased role on the team.

Chris Archer threw behind Jose Bautista

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Rays starter Chris Archer threw his first pitch to Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista behind the slugger’s back with one out in the first inning of Sunday afternoon’s game in Toronto. Bautista and Archer then had a staredown. Home plate umpire Jim Wolf issued warnings to both teams. Bautista ultimately flied out to right field and he appeared to have a quick word with Archer on his way back to the dugout.

Archer could have been exacting revenge — euphemistically known as “protecting his teammate” — because Jays reliever Joe Biagini hit Rays outfielder Steven Souza in the seventh inning of Saturday’s game. Souza was forced to leave the game and underwent an X-ray, which came back negative. He was held out of Sunday’s lineup. Biagini’s pitch did not appear to be intentional.

The Jays won Sunday’s contest 3-1 with no further incident. The two clubs meet again in Tampa for a three-game series starting on May 5, so we’ll see if Sunday was the last of the bad blood between them.