- The Washington Times
Thursday, March 31, 2016

Heading up the steps to the team plane out of Florida, Dusty Baker had one title under his belt already. In his first spring training as the manager of the Washington Nationals, Baker led them to the best record in the Grapefruit League. Washington returns north after a hearty 18-4-3 record, good for an .818 winning percentage.

No streets will be cleared, and no time at the White House reserved for congratulations for the less-than-rousing title of Kings of Spring Training. On Friday, the Nationals will play one of two final exhibition games in Washington. They will fly on Sunday to Atlanta, their new team intact, to settle in for Monday afternoon’s opener against the hapless Braves.

From the start, the Nationals will begin what is expected to be a season of ground-and-pound by the National League’s top teams.

Last year, the NL Central had three teams with 97 or more wins. In 2014, zero NL teams won 97 games. That year, the Nationals had the best record in the league, 96-66, to win the NL East. In 2013, there was one 97-win team. In 2012, two; 2011, one; 2010, one. Three in the same division? Forget it. There weren’t even three across the league those seasons.

A similar formula is expected to emerge this season. In the East, the Nationals and New York Mets are aligned to bludgeon the rest of the division. The Miami Marlins could provide some tussles, but the Philadelphia Phillies and Braves are projected as two of the worst teams in baseball.

It’s the same idea in the NL Central, though the Pittsburgh Pirates, the winners of 97 games last season who were bounced after a one-game playoff series, may take a step back. Regardless, it’s still the ever-steady St. Louis Cardinals, the loaded Chicago Cubs and the Pirates in the Central. The Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds should be drawing checks from other teams thanks to the stat-padding each will provide.

In the NL West, there is a bit more balance. The Arizona Diamondbacks could be slightly improved. Yet, stalwarts the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants are expected to control the division.

The only recent season somewhat comparable to last season’s heavy-handed campaigns by the upper tier of the league is 2004. Five teams won at least 91 games that season. The Giants were among them, though their 91 wins did not place them into the playoffs; the current setup, with a second wild card, would have provided them entrance to the postseason.

Another way to look at look at the reckoning of 2015 is from the bottom up. Six teams lost more than 90 games, topping the five teams that won more than 90.

Projections from the analytics site FanGraphs propose that the bottom six teams during this season will be from the National League. Of the bottom 10, eight will be in the NL. Both the Phillies and Braves are projected to lose at least 90 games. The Mets and Nationals will be sure to send thank-you notes.

The Nationals move toward this lack of parity in the league with small roster decisions remaining. One person from the prospective bench crew and one from the bullpen will likely be shed by Monday following the final two exhibition games on Friday and Saturday against the Minnesota Twins at Nationals Park.

“I think that’s our toughest decisions,” Baker said recently. “Who our bench is going to be and who our last couple of bullpen slots are going to be. It’s tougher now than it usually is because we have better players.”

Baker’s challenge with the final roster moves is who he chooses not to keep on the roster despite a successful spring. On the bench, outfielders Matt den Dekker, Chris Heisey and Reed Johnson join infielder Brendan Ryan as final considerations.

At 28 years old, den Dekker is the youngest of the group. His late-season surge last year surprised, though Baker wasn’t here then, den Dekker bats left-handed — there are already two left-handed bats on the bench — and the fourth outfielder spot seems to be in Michael A. Taylor’s clear possession. Den Dekker also has minor league options. Heisey had a mediocre spring, for what it’s worth, and hasn’t hit better than .237 in the last three seasons. In his corner is the fact he played from for Baker from 2010 through 2013, is right-handed and had success as a pinch-hitter with a .926 career OPS in the role.

Johnson and Ryan appear longshots. Ryan had a spectacular and uncharacteristic spring at the plate, where he hit .379. His bat has never been the reason he is in the major leagues. It’s his glove. Ryan had a run with the Seattle Mariners where many in the league considered him the game’s best defensive shortstop, but the Nationals already have a backup at shortstop in Stephen Drew. Ryan’s ability to play second base and even third base or the outfield could be beneficial. Johnson also had an excellent spring. However, the 39-year-old playing just 17 games last season because of injury needs to be weighed.

In the bullpen, Baker has to conclude if Trevor Gott, acquired in a trade for Yunel Escobar, starts the season in the majors. The Nationals added Matt Belisle to the 40-man roster, complicating Gott’s opportunities to be with the club when the season starts. Blake Treinen and spring training invitee Sean Burnett also have undetermined futures.

Whomever Baker chooses to round out the roster will be part of the haves, set again to hammer the have-nots.

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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