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Know your enemy: Washington Nationals

The Nats will be mostly the same this year... with one big difference.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — No matter what happens to the Washington Nationals in 2018, one thing can be said with certainty right now: It won’t be Dusty Baker’s fault.

Baker, whose teams have exited the postseason in a winner-take-all game four straight times and in five of his last six tries, was let go as Nationals manager after the Cubs defeated them in the division series last year. Dave Martinez, who was Cubs bench coach under Joe Maddon for the last three seasons, is now Nats manager. He brought Henry Blanco along with him; Blanco will be Washington’s bullpen coach, and two other widely-respected coaches (Kevin Long, hitting, and Derek Lilliquist, pitching) join Martinez’s staff in his first managerial gig.

So the Nationals will be different from previous seasons in coaching and managing, but the players taking the field in 2018 will be largely the same as they were in 2017. Adam Eaton, who tore his ACL in late April 2017 and missed the rest of the season, returns to the Nats outfield.

Other than that it’s the same crew of hitters that produced 819 runs last year, just three fewer than the Cubs. And that’s with Bryce Harper missing more than 50 games with various injuries, including a twisted knee suffered on a rainy night trying to run through first base in a game that probably should have been postponed.

Harper, as you certainly know, is a free agent after this season. I don’t think he needs that to motivate himself to have a good season; Harper seems to be a guy who pushes himself to excellence every time he takes the field. And for his part, Harper says he won’t talk about his upcoming free agency at all this year:

“I will not be discussing anything relative to 2019 at all,” Harper said, wearing a Nats cap backward and reading prepared opening remarks from his phone. “I’m focused on this year. I’m focused on winning and playing hard like every single year. So if you guys have any questions about anything after 2018, you can call [agent] Scott [Boras] and he can answer you guys. ... If you guys do talk anything about that, then I’ll be walking right out the door.”

Well, good for him. That’s as it should be. Sure, we can talk about it and certainly will, but as a player, Harper’s focus is correct.

Ryan Zimmerman had a fine 2017 season after a poor 2016, but he is 33, and one might wonder when his decline years begin. Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon, though, should still be in their prime seasons.

The Nats’ rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez and A.J. Cole is as strong as anyone’s. Sean Doolittle, who stabilized the Washington bullpen after being traded there last summer, returns, as do setup men Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler, both of whom have closing experience.

There really is no reason, barring serious injury issues, that the Nationals won’t win the N.L. East again, and probably easily, as the other teams in the division are in various forms of rebuilds. That could set up another Cubs/Nats playoff series this October. I’d look forward to that, for sure.

The Cubs and Nats will play seven times this year, but won’t meet until August. The Nationals are at Wrigley August 10-11-12, and the Cubs will travel to Washington September 6-7-8-9.