Everyone knows these Washington Nationals' names; no one knows their games


When the Washington Nationals report to their new spring training home at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, they will unpack, along with their bags, an unusual and worrisome kind of identity crisis. Things won't necessarily turn out badly. Sometimes, many questions end up providing many answers. But there's going to be plenty of head scratching about this team. 

Every club entering spring training asking, "Who?" Who will win the left-field job? Who will be fifth man in the rotation? Interesting but standard questions. The Nats have one, too: Who is our closer? But the Nats also face an almost unheard-of variation on the "Who?" query. They know the names of their most vital players. They just don't know who those guys truly are - as ballplayers.

This applies to at least 10 key Nats. As the most extreme example, who is Bryce Harper, really? Is he the 2015 MVP or the .266 hitter of his other four years? He was worth 9.9 additional wins above a "replacement" player in '15 - almost superman. In his other four years, just 2.9 wins - above-average but mortal. 

This week, agent Scott Boras mentioned, off-handedly, that Harper had a physical issue that affected him last season, though no different from the kind that many players face. That means in three of Harper's four non-MVP years, he has had injuries or aches that significantly damaged his season. So, who is he? 

Ballplayers aren't machines who duplicate identical performance year after year. They vary. They learn or get hurt. They age. But over time, they establish baseball identities - within a range. 

The 2017 Nats, from Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman, to Trea Turner and Daniel Murphy, to Joe Ross and Derek Norris, to new-acquired Adam Eaton as well as anyone in the bullpen, have men with a central element of mystery. That might turn out excellently. In most cases, I'd lean toward expecting good news. But then spring training begins next week, so I might be slightly deranged. 

What's certain is that the finely parsed predictions you'll read of whether the Nats will win 90 games and beat the Mets easily in the N.L. East (FanGraphs), or win just 87 and be nipped by a game by New York (Pecota), are even less meaningful than usual this season.

Is Strasburg, who has had two 15-win seasons and enters his eighth year in the majors, truly worth his long-term $175-million deal? Or is he the guy who ended last season with a scary sore arm and wasn't available against the Dodgers when a trip to the NLCS was decided by molecules in three one-run games out of five? 

The three times the Nats made the playoffs, Strasburg has been shut down, lost in a shaky five-inning start and was hurt last year. Whatever arm, innings and injury management are necessary, the Nats need an intact Strasburg in October. 

Who is Turner? And, most important for the way the Nats have built their whole roster, can he play shortstop at a MLB level? Last year, in less than half a season, he hit .342 with 13 homers, 53 runs and 33 steals. Everyone can multiply by two, then discount by the he-can't-possibly-be-that-good factor of your choice. The answer you get is: If the kid can just handle shortstop, look out.

You'll hear plenty about this, especially Turner's arm strength which looked good in centerfield last year. I'm going to ruin the drama: Turner's speed, and hence range, will more than mitigate any arm issues, if he even has any. 

So the only "Who is Turner?" question will be how many errors he makes. We already know. "Everyone" makes fewer errors in the majors than they do in the minors. Better infields. Better first basemen digging out throws. Ian Desmond was .936 in the minors, .962 in the majors. Andrelton Simmons jumped 16 points; Francisco Lindor, 14 points. Last year, Danny Espinosa fielded .970. No problem.

In 232 games in the minors (plenty), Turner fielded .969. And .973 last year at AAA. He may rise to .980-ish eventually in the majors - the top 10. The Nats have plenty of "identity issues." Turner's defense, once he settles in, isn't one.

Of slightly more concern: Who is Daniel Murphy? He transformed his hitting approach with the Mets in the middle of the 2015 season. The New Murph is the Real Murph. He's not going back. Last year, every ball found every hole, and he hit .347. That normalizes. Another 25 homers in 2017? Probably not.

The Murphy Question is the late-season buttock injury that may need monitoring for the rest of his career. Murphy can't change his hell-for-leather style because without it, he can't be a second baseman. With it, can he stay in the lineup? Or will he, at some point, move to less-demanding first base? 

And "who's on first?" You guessed it: maybe the ultimate mystery man, beloved dedicated Ryan Zimmerman. Is he a washed-up star who'll need to be platooned or benched despite $48 million left on his contract? You want a cold-eyed look? The players he most resembles at the same age are Vernon Wells and Robin Ventura, both in career slides. They hit .218 and .232 with 25 and 24 homers respectively at age 32. In a No. 7 hitter, the Nats would take that and run.

The list of Nats who qualify for description as "Who is Mr. X, really?" is almost preposterously long. It includes projected everyday players such as Norris, who hit an awful .186 with the Padres last year; Jayson Werth, who'll be 38; as well as Joe Ross, a key starter coming off both a two-month shoulder injury and a poor showing in the playoffs.

The closer? Don't ask. Blake Treinen had a fine 2016, but also has only one career save. Shawn Kelley has more Tommy John surgeries (two). It sure is a good thing that advanced metrics have "proved" that relievers are not that important and easily duplicated. Except that this truism may not be true at all. Statman-No.1 Bill James just did a 40-year study and concluded that the most significant factor in building a roster that can win the World Series is - by a wide margin - having a top-10 closer.

James said he was surprised. Not as shocked as the Nats, who probably should have offered a let's-get-'er-done contract to free agent Mark Melancon in November instead of offering even more to Kenley Jansen in December - and still getting rejected. 

Even new center fielder Adam Eaton, acquired for a duke's ransom in pitching prospects, is merely a good player by traditional stats but, measured by advanced metrics, one of the top 30 everyday players in MLB for the last three years. We'll have to see him to know how we feel. But it's fair to ask, "Who is this Spanky?"

Welcome to '17, Nats followers. This is the year when almost every name is known, but we'll have to wait seven weeks to find out who they truly are at this juncture in their careers. Never have so many been so familiar, yet so unknown.


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