Photos: Courtesy of the Washington Nationals Baseball Club
Photos: Courtesy of the Washington Nationals Baseball Club

DC’s Dugout at Full Strength: The Nats are Back in Action

The Washington Nationals have opened each of their past five baseball seasons brimming with roster talent, and 2017 is no different.

Most of the team’s marquee players – Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, Jayson Werth, Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman – are back in the lineup this season. The Nationals also return with their entire 2016 coaching staff intact. Pre-season prognosticators are predicting that the Nationals will once again be among the best teams in baseball. Speaking to reporters from the team’s new $150 million training facility in West Palm Beach this spring, Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said his team has plenty of promise, but must show consistency to achieve greatness.

“This team has been on an every-other-year program,” Baker told reporters. “The team has done well every other year; we would like to have consecutive years. It’s going to be tougher; the teams are more balanced in our division. We might have one of the toughest divisions in baseball. We have to stay healthy and stay together.”

But the Nationals manager also sounded bullish on his squad’s prospects, saying he believes it has the talent to win the first championship in the team’s 13-year history.

“Sometimes you’re fooling yourself, but I’m not fooling myself this time,” Baker said.

The Nationals’ first official test comes at 1:05 p.m. on April 3 during their home opener against the Miami Marlins. Stephen Strasburg – once the most promising young player in baseball – will be on the mound. Strasburg came out blazing last year with a spectacular 13-0 record, then suffered through injuries for the remainder of the season. The good news for Nats fans is that the oft-injured veteran hurler is fully healthy again in time for his fourth opening day start.

Nationals ace Max Scherzer, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, is nearly recovered from a finger ailment and is expected to start the third game of the season, also in Washington.

The Nationals have won the NL East three of the past five seasons, but they have routinely failed to advance in a playoff series. Players and coaches sounded optimistic through spring training that this will be the year the team drives deeper into the postseason. Harper has frequently stated his desire to win a World Series, and is confident that the 2017 Nats can get it done.

“We’ve got a group of guys who want to win,” Harper said at the outset of spring training.

Harper – already a four-time All-Star at just 24 years old – put up eye-popping numbers in 2015, hitting .330 with 42 home runs and a unanimous selection as league MVP. But the Las Vegas native struggled, at least compared to his own gaudy numbers, through much of 2016, hitting a disappointing .235 after May 1 of last year. Some reports suggested Harper was struggling with a shoulder injury and other ailments. Whatever the reasons for his lackluster campaign last year, Harper says he is healthy and looking to make the most of his final two seasons under contract in Washington. The bearded slugger even hinted at his hopes for a long-term deal with the Nationals.

“Being a Washington National – I love it,” Harper said. “I enjoy playing in the city of DC, and enjoy the organization so much. I’m going to play these next two years out and hopefully win, and do everything we can for the city of DC. Hopefully, we’ll bring a trophy back.”

Washington’s 95-67 record in 2016 was the second-best in the majors, behind only the eventual World Series Champion, the Chicago Cubs. The Nats’ fifth straight winning record in 2016 demonstrates that the team is getting closer to having the consistency that their veteran manager craves.

In the offseason, the Nationals stayed low-key and didn’t make many major moves, although they did trade their top pitching prospect, Lucas Giolito, to the White Sox to usher in the return of veteran Adam Eaton to Washington. The franchise is happy to see speedy center-fielder-turned-shortstop Trea Turner back in the lineup, and is also looking for more big numbers from slugger Daniel Murphy, who led the team in home runs last year with 25. Consistent hitter Anthony Rendon’s return to health is a relief for Nats brass, and the signing of catcher Matt Wieters in the offseason brings stability behind the plate.

Asked if the Nationals have enough firepower to bring a major league championship to the nation’s capital, Baker sounded optimistic in a March interview with the Washington Post. The city of Washington hasn’t won a World Series since 1924. One of the team’s marquee rivals – the Chicago Cubs – won its first championship in more than a century last year.

“We’ll win it here, too,” Baker told the Post. “We’ll end it here for the whole city. That’s my goal. Not just ending it (the championship drought) for the organization, but for the whole city.”

Learn more about the Nats’ 2017 season at www.washington.nationals.mlb.com.