Inbox: Who is Nats' 2nd-best hitter?

Beat reporter Bill Ladson fields questions from fans

February 20th, 2016

Without a doubt, Bryce Harper will be the best hitter on the Nationals this year. Who do you see as being the second-best hitter on the team?
-- Kevin L., Baltimore

If he's healthy, Ryan Zimmerman could be that guy. Before he hurt his oblique in September, Zimmerman hit safely in his final 11 games (.435 average, six homers, 18 RBIs and 11 runs scored). He is looking to play in his first full season since 2013. When healthy, Zimmerman can carry the team by himself.
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How does the front office justify bringing back Jonathan Papelbon after what happened last year with Harper? Papelbon has proven time and again that he is not a good teammate, yet he's back for 2016?
-- Jeff R., New Bedford, Mass.

Let's be fair here: Papelbon and Harper made up during the offseason. It would be silly to let Papelbon go. Who would close if he wasn't with the Nationals? It would be hard to find one in the current bullpen. The Nationals had interest in relief ace Aroldis Chapman, but he ended up with the Yankees. I thought the Nationals did the right thing by keeping Papelbon. I would like to know, however, how much he has left in the tank at age 35.

Why did the Nats not re-sign Craig Stammen? Before last year, I thought he did a great job as a middle reliever.
-- John A., Alexandria, Va.

There is no question that Stammen did a great job during his seven years with the Nationals, especially as a long reliever and setup man. But remember that he missed most of last season because of a forearm injury. He was eligible for salary arbitration, and the Nationals would have paid the right-hander a fair amount of money if he stuck around. The Nationals didn't know if Stammen was totally healthy. He is now at camp with the Indians, and I think he will do well in his home state.
Don't you think it's time to improve left field? Jayson Werth is not the player he used to be. He makes a lot of money and doesn't provide much in return.
-- Ron P., Lock Haven, Pa.

One thing I will never do is give up on Werth. I expect him to be a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year in the National League. The reason for his tough season in 2015 was injury, and I believe he will continue to be one of the leaders on the team. I will always give Werth the benefit of the doubt because he helped turn the franchise around on and off the field.
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What are the chances the Nationals make a trade for someone like Carlos Gonzalez to protect Harper in the lineup?
-- Jeff J., Burke, Va.

Right now, I would say the chances of that happening are nil. However, if general manager Mike Rizzo doesn't like what he sees during Spring Training, I could see him trying to make a deal for a slugger. During the offseason, the Nationals had interest in sluggers such as Gonzalez, Yoenis Cespedes and Jason Heyward, but they couldn't get a deal done for any of those players.
A prime component of the Mets' rotation is the ability to throw hard and get a bunch of strikeouts, but how unique is the Nationals' rotation and how could it help them win the NL East next season?
-- Noah S., Frederick, Md.

I'm old school. While compiling strikeouts and having the ability to throw hard is nice, I look at location more than anything else. For example, I want to see Gio Gonzalez throw strikes for seven innings a game and throw fewer pitches than last year. I think the Nationals have a nice rotation to win the NL East and that Tanner Roark will go back to being the pitcher who won 15 games in 2014. Joe Ross will be stronger than he was last year, and the first three pitchers in Washington's rotation are solid. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are lights out, and I think Gonzalez will be better than he was last year.