Keys to the Washington Nationals Getting Back on Track to the Playoffs

Karl Buscheck@@KarlBuscheckContributor IIIApril 14, 2016

Keys to the Washington Nationals Getting Back on Track to the Playoffs

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    Bryce Harper is the star of the show in the nation's capital.
    Bryce Harper is the star of the show in the nation's capital.Nick Wass/Associated Press

    As the Washington Nationals learned in painful fashion just a season ago, in the bigs, everything that can go wrong will go wrong.

    While the neighboring New York Mets rose as the power in the the National League East, a flood of injuries combined with underwhelming play by just about everyone not named Bryce Harper ensured that the Nats would be left out of the October conversation.

    After so much went wrong in 2015, Washington will need a lot to go right if the team is going to vault back into the postseason picture in 2016.

    It all starts with the reigning MVP, but the Nats will also need a bounce-back season from another emerging star who was also an MVP factor not that long ago and some steady leadership from the new boss in town, Dusty Baker.

A Healthy and MVPish Season from Anthony Rendon

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    The Nats need Anthony Rendon to become Bryce Harper's go-to sidekick in 2016.
    The Nats need Anthony Rendon to become Bryce Harper's go-to sidekick in 2016.John Raoux/Associated Press

    Knee, oblique and quad injuries conspired to wreck Anthony Rendon's 2015, but it wasn't that long ago that the third baseman was one of the premier young position players in the Senior Circuit.

    General manager Mike Rizzo definitely remembers those days and expects big things from the 25-year-old this year.

    “I’m gonna count on Rendon,” Rizzo told Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post last October. "He’s fifth in the MVP voting in 2014. He’s a great player. He’s a guy you have to count on.”

    That season, Rendon was a true two-way star. According to the calculations of Baseball-Reference.com, the 2011 first-round pick saved the Nats 12 runs at the hot corner and thumped 21 homers while chipping in 39 doubles.

    Set to hit second in the Nationals order—right behind Bryce Harper—Rendon will see plenty of pitches to hit and have plenty of chances to do serious damage at the plate.

Strong Leadership from Dusty Baker

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    Dusty Baker will be tasked with setting the tone of the NL East title hopefuls.
    Dusty Baker will be tasked with setting the tone of the NL East title hopefuls.Nick Wass/Associated Press

    There's no question that the Nats needed a new leader on the bench.

    Just harken back to the end of last season when Jonathan Papelbon attempted to choke out Bryce Harper—the face of the franchise—in the dugout and the since-deposed skipper Matt Williams allowed the volatile closer to climb back on the mound.

    That's not the kind of nonsense that will be happening under the experienced watch of Dusty Baker.

    “I think Dusty is definitely going to be good for us, the way he knows the game, the way he goes about it,” Harper said, per James Wagner and Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post. “He’s been in this game for a long, long time, and it’s just a lot of fun to be able to really learn from somebody who understands the grind of baseball."

    A long time indeed.

    Baker's first go-around in Washington will be his 21st season as a major league manager. And the new boss has a track record of coaxing the most out superstars like Harper—his most famous charge was Barry Bonds.

    In addition to working with Harper, Stephen Strasburg and the rest of the marquee names in D.C., Baker will also have to spend plenty of time and energy on his new bullpen crew.

For Standouts to Emerge in the Pen

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    Felipe Rivero showed significant promise in his debut season in 2015.
    Felipe Rivero showed significant promise in his debut season in 2015.Associated Press

    For manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Mike Maddux, the relief corps is looking like one giant question mark.

    Jonathan Papelbon returns as the ninth-inning stopper, but after that, the group is lacking big names or big-time resumes.

    “We’ve got some live young arms and some good veteran experience,” Assistant GM Bob Boone told Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post. “It is what it is.”

    That's not exactly a ringing endorsement from the exec.

    If the Nats are going to have a strong bullpen in 2016, the club will need some of those live young arms to become the top lieutenants for Papelbon. One guy who fits that bill is the 24-year-old Felipe Rivero. Last season, the lefty spun a 2.79 ERA in 49 games.

    As the Nats seek to find the ideal bullpen combination, Baker certainly won't hesitate to shuffle the deck:

    “It’s a tough life," Baker told Boswell of the late-inning gig. "Don’t unpack your bags if you’re a reliever.”

A Brilliant Contract Season from Stephen Strasburg

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    Stephen Strasburg is going to get paid next winter.
    Stephen Strasburg is going to get paid next winter.John Raoux/Associated Press

    With free agency beckoning at the end of the season, Stephen Strasburg has plenty of motivation to throw darts in 2016.

    There's no debating that 2015 was a bummer of a season for the righty. After all, the 27-year-old made just 23 starts—his lowest total since 2011—due to a crush of injuries.

    But t wasn't all bad for the 2009 No. 1 overall pick.

    As the Hardball Stats Twitter account noted, the starter was nasty in his final 13 outings, going "8-2 with a 1.76 ERA, 0.768 WHIP, 12.07 K/9, & 9.17 K/BB."

    If that guy shows up in 2016, the Nats will have a flat-out filthy one-two punch with Strasburg and Max Scherzer. What's more, Strasburg, who is the undisputed ace of a weak free-agent crop of starters, will be in line to make a mint on the open market.

Yet Another Historic Campaign from Bryce Harper

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    Bryce Harper will be angling for consecutive MVP awards in 2016.
    Bryce Harper will be angling for consecutive MVP awards in 2016.Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Bryce Harper was ridiculously good in 2015.

    The right fielder was the unanimous MVP of the NL, paced the circuit in runs, OPS, OBP and slugging percentage and led the world in WAR, per FanGraphs.

    That epic showing wasn't just the best of 2015, but was one of the more memorable of any player at his age. According to the Ace of MLB Stats Twitter account, Harper became just the fifth player ever under the age of 23 to reach base at least 300 times in a single season.

    Here's a look at the absurdly exclusive club that the Las Vegas native joined:

    • Joe Kelley (1894)
    • Ted Williams (1941)
    • Rickey Henderson (1980)
    • Mike Trout (2013)

    There's no question that topping his 2015 will be a monstrous ask. But considering his youth—Harper doesn't turn 24 until the middle of October—there's plenty of reason to think he hasn't even come close to reaching his peak.

    This season, Harper won't just be out to get the Nats back in the playoffs but to rip the crown off Trout's head as he attempts to secure the title of greatest player on the planet.

    Notes: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and MLB.com.

    If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck.

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