BASEBALL 2016: Nationals chasing NL East title, playoff spot

Bryce Harper remembers how the New York Mets passed the Washington Nationals in swift fashion last season. That makes the Mets the favorite to win the National League East.

''The team to beat are the Mets, and that's what it is right now,'' Harper said. ''They kicked the crap out of our division last year and hopefully we're going to come in this year and do what we can to knock them off or anybody else off in all of baseball.''

The defending National League champions are the target, but the Nationals beating themselves is a bigger concern. After blowing a 4 1/2 game lead to the Mets last season and missing the playoffs, Washington hired Dusty Baker as manager and made other tweaks to try to ensure history doesn't repeat itself.

Baker, 66, has been in almost every scenario and said he knows as a former position player ''how to run this race'' of a 162-game season.

''One thing I learned from reading Phil Jackson's stuff is that every race is different every year and then you've got to kind of plot your course,'' Baker said. ''How many times you plan something? I'm a planner. I can plan anything. Only thing, I learn to re-plan.''

The plan is for Harper, the reigning MVP, to headline a lineup that includes ex-Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy and for Max Scherzer to be the ace of the rotation. On paper the Nationals look as good as the Mets in the NL East race.

Peaking too early or running out of gas has been an issue for the Nationals, as have first-round playoff exits in 2012 and 2014. Just don't look for players to think that far ahead yet.

''The most important thing is getting to the dance,'' reliever Matt Belisle said. ''Once you're there, anything can happen. The grind to get there should never be taken for granted. Yes this team can do it and should do it, but we've got to take care of that first.''

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Some things to watch with the Nationals this season:

MAX POWER: Scherzer threw two no-hitters last season and is back as the Nationals' Opening Day starter. His ERA and opponents' batting average ballooned after the All-Star break last season, but Scherzer insists he didn't get tired. His second-half pitching will be under the microscope yet again.

ODD MAN OUTFIELD: Harper has an everyday job in the outfield and could even improve on his MVP performance. And then there's newly-acquired Ben Revere, veteran Jayson Werth and young Michael A. Taylor, who tore up the Grapefruit League. Taylor's emergence and Werth's status make it a difficult decision for Baker.

BEYOND PAPELBON: Jonathan Papelbon returns as the Nationals' closer after his altercation with Harper in the dugout in September led to a suspension. With Drew Storen gone, the reconstructed bullpen includes righties Matt Belisle, Shawn Kelley and Yusmeiro Petit and lefties Oliver Perez and Felipe Rivero. It's the team's biggest question mark.

HEALTH CHECK: Baker said his No. 1 priority was players staying healthy, especially after the Nationals developed something of a reputation as an injury-prone bunch. First baseman Ryan Zimmerman, limited to 156 games combined over the past two seasons, is at the top of that list.

STRASBURG WATCH: With free agency looming, Stephen Strasburg could be pitching his final season for Washington. Strasburg intends on allowing agent Scott Boras to handle any negotiations while he focuses on his job, but his every start could affect his value either to the Nationals or on the open market.

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