The Nationals' biggest obstacle in the NL East will be the injury bug. They entered last season as the clear favorites to win the division, but they were unable to pull away from the pack until the second half of the year because they had key players missing a lot of games. Ryan Zimmerman only played in 61 games after fracturing his thumb early in the season and then injuring his hamstring later in the year. He was already dealing with a shoulder issue. Bryce Harper missed 62 games when he tore a ligament in his thumb after sliding into a base. Wilson Ramos suffered a broken bone in his left hand on Opening Day. Jayson Werth played with a banged up shoulder, which he recently had surgery on. Dealing with those injuries led to inconsistent play last year, and it could derail any team.
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Matt Williams' late-game pitching decisions
In Matt Williams’ first year as a manager, he led the Nationals to the best record in the NL. But in the most critical moments of the season, his blunders were major reasons why they lost the NLDS. It’s not his fault that his hitters went cold at the plate against the Giants, and it wasn’t his fault that two of his veterans made crucial mental errors at inopportune times. But in two of the three losses, he made terrible late-game pitching decisions. Pulling Jordan Zimmermann, who was working on a shutout, in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs in Game 1, and going with journeyman Matt Thornton and rookie Aaron Barrett instead of All-Star Tyler Clippard in Game 4, blew up in his face. If the Nationals are going to contend for the World Series, Williams cannot be outcoached again.
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Second base is still an issue
The Nationals had to upgrade one position this offseason, but that didn’t really happen. Second base was a weak link last year, when Asdrubal Cabrera and Danny Espinosa manned the position. They let Cabrera walk, and nobody felt comfortable about Espinosa taking over full time. So they traded for Yunel Escobar. Only one problem: he has played 1,016 of his 1,060 games at shortstop, and last season his defensive metrics took a steep fall. The Nats are hoping that was due to injuries. Playing either Escobar or Espinosa may end up being a huge issue. Couple that with trading away first baseman Adam LaRoche, one of the best in the game at that position, and moving former third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to take his place, and that side of the infield could be a defensive problem.
Getty ImagesStephen Dunn
Can the bullpen close games?
A good bullpen can be the difference between winning a playoff series and heading home early in the postseason, and that could be where the Nats will have problems. This unit let them down in the NLDS, and All-Star Tyler Clippard has been traded away. The Nationals signed one of the best relief pitchers on the market in Casey Janssen, but he fell apart in the second half of last season. Matt Thornton, Jerry Blevins, Craig Stammen and Aaron Barrett all return. They will have to step up in Clippard’s absence. Drew Storen will finally take over as the full-time closer, but he had some epic playoff failures in two out of the last three postseasons. The saving grace could be Tanner Roark, who was a solid starter last year, moving out of a crowded starting rotation and into the bullpen.
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The bad boys of baseball may reside in the Nats’ outfield. At the corners are Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth, who have rubbed a number of people the wrong way. Harper has had attitude problems and has been caught up in on- and off-the-field controversies. Last year he was benched after he didn’t run out a grounder to first base, and he clashed with the organization during the offseason over when he will hit arbitration. Werth is rubbing people the wrong way all around town. He recently served five days in jail for reckless driving, and he was dubbed "one of the least likable athletes in the history of Washington, D.C.," by a beat reporter. A bad clubhouse could ruin a great team, so the Nationals front office has its work cut out to keep fragile emotions in check.