In 2016, the Nationals need the real Anthony Rendon back
Injuries sapped Anthony Rendon's production in 2015. If the Nats are to rebound in 2016, then they'll need Rendon to be in top form.
It’s never any one thing. This is baseball, after all. A team will rise or fall because of a number of factors, some of which may not make sense in isolation. In 2015, for instance, the Cardinals won 100 games despite getting a total of four starts from their ace. The Rangers claimed the AL West flag despite getting a total of 10 starts combined from Yu Darvish and Derek Holland. On the other end of the continuum, the Nationals mounted a case for the most disappointing team in recent history despite some historical bestowals from Bryce Harper.
Let’s home in on that lattermost example for a moment. Harper, the NL MVP, was singularly brilliant in 2015. However, factor in pitchers' hitting stats and Nationals position players not named Bryce Harper last season combined for a WAR of 5.7. Harper's WAR? It was 9.9. Yes, Harper was almost twice as valuable as the remainder of the 2015 Nationals when it comes to value on the field, at the plate, and on the bases. And Harper, of course, concentrated his immense value into a single roster spot.
Suffice it to say, Harper’s supporting cast must share more of the load if the Nats are going to scrub away memories of 2015 this season. On that front, the best hope for susbtantial improvement may rest with Anthony Rendon.
Rendon, the sixth-overall pick of the 2011 draft, remains a highly regarded talent. That was especially the case after his breakout 2014 campaign, in which he batted .287/.351/.473 (125 OPS+) with 21 homers and 39 doubles in 153 games. As well, Rendon provided excellent value with the glove and also contributed positively on the bases. For his efforts, he deservedly finished fifth in the NL MVP balloting and won a Silver Slugger.
Needless to say, expectations were high for Rendon -- just as they were high for the Nationals as a team -- coming into 2015. However, Rendon sprained his left knee late in spring training and opened the season on the disabled list. Thanks in part to a strained oblique he suffered while rehabbing his knee, he didn't make his season debut until June 4. Less than a month later, Rendon and his .375 OBP hit the DL once again, this time with a quad strain. He'd miss another month. In the end, Rendon wound up batting .264/.344/.363 (91 OPS+) in just 80 games played. A steep drop-off, in terms of both rate-based production and volume, is what that is.
Even when Rendon was healthy enough to play, though, those injuries very likely exacted a toll. That's especially the case with injuries that cost a player the start of the season, as those kinds of maladies in essence put a player behind his peers when it comes to reaching peak performance at the proper time. Beyond that, injuries of this nature -- to the lower half and the core -- can compromise performance even after the player is healthy enough to be rostered. That was very likely the case with Rendon in 2015.
As well, Rendon last season spent the majority of his defensive innings -- 71.3 percent of his defensive innings, to be exact -- at second base. That's not the natural position for Rendon, who spent his college years, minor-league years and early parts of his big-league career primarily at third base. He'll return to that position in 2016, barring the unexpected. As Patrick Reddington of Federal Baseball recently noted, Rendon very much prefers this arrangement.
So better health, a normal spring preparation curve, and a return to his natural position all appear to be in play. Hope for a rebound flows from all of that in tandem with Rendon's strong pre-2015 track record. On that front, the Sportsline Fantasy projections tab Rendon for a 2016 line of .265/.339/.406 with 14 homers and 34 doubles in 596 at-bats. That's increased production on a rate basis and significantly improved durability. And if Rendon is indeed mostly healthy in 2016, then I'll take the over on that power projection.
Health, though, is the thing. Rendon has struggled to stay healthy dating back at least to his days at Rice University (and in the minors, an ankle injury cost him the vast majority of 2012). In some ways, his breakout season of 2014 was an outlier in terms of his durability. However, even an outlier is a demonstrated capability on some level.
Yes, a number of things need to happen for the Nats to surmount the Mets in 2016. Harper needs to produce at a high level once again. Shortstop needs to stabilize post-Ian Desmond. Jayson Werth needs to dig himself out of deep decline. Stephen Strasburg, in the absence of Jordan Zimmermann, probably needs to get to 200 innings for just the second time in his career. I could go on, which, as noted, would be the case for any team. With the Nats in 2016, though, a great deal may hinge on whether Rendon can return to form in his age-26 season.
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