Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg will forever be linked as consecutive No. 1 overall draft picks who were supposed to become the superstars that would lead the Washington Nationals to a World Series championship.
Well, the club in the nation's capital is still waiting to win one postseason series with that pair.
If Washington is going to avoid its recent pattern of missing the playoffs a year after making them, the defending NL East champs could use big contributions from Harper and Strasburg in 2017. The slugging right fielder is coming off a real step back from his MVP performance of two years ago; the power pitcher missed the end of last season because of a right elbow problem.
“It's, `What have you done for me lately?' Everybody knows that,” Harper said.
He was speaking about himself -- going from batting .330 with 42 homers and 99 RBIs in 2015, to .243, 24 and 86 a year ago -- but he could have been speaking about his entire team. Three division titles in the past five years is an accomplishment, to be sure, but the failure each time to get beyond the NL Division Series is what plenty of folks remember.
With Dusty Baker entering his second season as Washington's manager, and standouts such as Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, MVP runner-up Daniel Murphy and Rookie of the Year runner-up Trea Turner on the roster, the expectations -- internal and external -- are high, once again, for the Nationals.
“It's good, long, steady capable lineup. ... We've improved ourselves and upgraded,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We're going to be a more efficient team, a more dangerous team and a team that's going to be harder to prepare for and pitch to.”
Here are some things to know about the 2017 Washington Nationals:
NEW LOOK: The biggest changes are up the middle. Washington traded away a package that included its top two pitching prospects to acquire CF Adam Eaton, a move that allows Turner to shift back to his natural position of shortstop (the incumbent there, Danny Espinosa, was traded away). And C Matt Wieters was a late free-agent signing. The biggest loss? Without a doubt, closer Mark Melancon, who left as a free agent and wasn't really replaced.
YOUNGSTERS TO WATCH: RHP Koda Glover was still in the mix, late in spring training, for a shot at the closing job. He's only 23, with 19 2/3 innings of major league experience and zero saves, but appears to have the stuff and the demeanor. Another player to keep an eye on: RHP Erik Fedde, 24, will start the season in the minors but could get a chance when Washington needs a starter. A 2014 first-rounder, Fedde allowed zero earned runs in five of six spring training outings.
TIME TO CLOSE: Baker doesn't like the idea of a closer-by-committee, so someone will get the job outright, but the Nationals were unable to get an established, experienced closer this offseason. Candidates include RHPs Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen and Glover. “Somebody always emerges,” Baker said.
BAKER'S FUTURE: Baker is not shy about expressing himself, whether in regards to his hope to be in the Hall of Fame one day or his desire to get a contract extension. “It's not going to be a distraction. Dusty Baker's got a reputation and an aura that precedes any length of contracts,” Rizzo said. “He's our manager. He's a great manager. One of the best in the game. And with his energy and the way he's feeling, he's capable of managing well beyond this season.”