We continue the 2015 Team Previews today with baseball’s mightiest team on paper for the upcoming year, the Washington Nationals. We love watching Washington because of all the young talent they’ve drafted and developed into Major League players. The nucleus is ripe, and there are a few new faces that dot a star-studded roster.
Last year’s postseason was a tough pill to swallow if you were pulling for the Nationals to finally get to the World Series. They ended the regular season peaking at the right time, they had their guys at full-health; the stars seemed aligned. And then a lesser team in the Giants promptly dismissed the Nationals in four games. In some ways, maybe it was the best thing that could have happened other than getting to the Fall Classic. They probably don’t go out and sign Max Scherzer if they win it all. Matt Williams needed humbled. Bryce Harper showed just enough dominance that he could be a major force in 2015. They’re arguably a better team today than they were ever in 2014.
This might not be the National’s last chance to win the whole thing, but they’ll arguably never have a better chance. This kind of has to be the year if this group is going to get it done. They’re truly at their peak, in our opinion. The Braves are weak, and the Marlins don’t have the firepower to pull this off quite yet. They should dominate their division and just maybe, they’ll show the world why they’re 7/2 Vegas odds to win the NL Pennant in the upcoming season. Vegas loves these Nats. It’s for good reason.
Projected Starting Lineup:
It certainly seems like the lineup will be centered around Bryce Harper – who is entering his age 22 season. Matt Williams finally appears to have the confidence to stop hitting this guy sixth and seventh in the lineup; if Spring Training games are any indicator.
Harper doesn’t have to have an MVP type season for the Nationals to have success. He just needs to stay healthy and be the player he appears to be shaping into over a full season in the middle of the order.
Harper comes off a .273 season with 13 HR and 32 RBI. His .768 OPS saw him dip under .800 for the first time as a big leaguer. Simply posting career bests in average, runs, hits, home runs, RBI, and OPS would make everyone happy and be considered a very successful season for Harper. He wouldn’t need to be superhuman to get MVP votes, because the Nationals are going to be very good and he’s going to pull some votes naturally because writers are going to want to vote for him. He could become a 22-year old Most Valuable Player fairly easily to be honest.
You have to love Denard Span and Anthony Rendon hitting 1-2 in the Nationals lineup. Span is a veteran hitter who hit .302 last season with 31 stolen bases. Rendon did a little bit of everything last year, hitting .287, scoring 111 runs, stealing 17 and hitting 21 home runs while getting on base at a .351 clip. He slides to second base to allow Ryan Zimmerman to stop throwing balls into the stands with his move to first base.
Jayson Werth is a great guy to hit third; you see him fouling off so many pitches, working walks through tough at-bats, showing satisfactory power, getting on base at near a .400 clip and hitting near .300 last season. He’s really become a respected big league veteran hitter. He’ll play left field which should be less wear and tear on him and Bryce Harper moves to right which should be exciting to see.
Ryan Zimmerman hit .280 last season in 61 games and in closely watching him; he seems that his gears need oiled often like the Tin Man more by the day. He seems stiff and rigid in the box and looks to be in a lot of pain. He’s gutting it out and seems to be aging quickly. We’re at a crossroads with Zimmerman, Nats fans. This is his age 30 season and a move to first might prove to be something that extends his career. The Nationals experimented with him in the outfield last year after no longer being able to hide his deficiencies at third base. At this point he’s a marginal offensive player and the Nationals would be better served to hit Ian Desmond fifth in the lineup in our opinion.
Desmond is one of the best everyday pro’s in all of baseball. He quietly hit 24 home runs to go with 24 steals last season at a position in which offense has never been more thin. He has an underrated glove and rocket arm. He led the Nationals with 154 games played, posting a bWAR of 3.7, following up seasons of 4.0 and 3.9 in 2014 and 2013. He’s truly the glue that holds the clubhouse together. His value goes far beyond the box score. Every winning team has a character like Desmond on it who is adored in the clubhouse and plays his ass off between the white lines every night no matter the score. He doesn’t make a lot of noise in the media, which is nice.
There were fewer guys in the big leagues we had more excitement about than Wilson Ramos back in 2011. Time and injuries are catching up to ‘The Buffalo’ quickly. It seems every season includes a lengthy disabled list stint. If he stays healthy – something we would bet against – he’s got an excellent shot to be the NL’s next All-Star catcher. He shows excellent power and drives the gaps often, but his plate discipline eroded some last season and he had only a .299 on base percentage.
Yunel Escobar will hold the seat warm at second base as long as possible. He’s not exactly helpless with the bat but it’s not an overreaction to say that Escobar is an average offensive player at this point and an average glove. Danny Espinosa will probably get some at-bats here and there.
Projected Pitching Rotation:
This is the best rotation I ever remember in the National League dating back to the early to mid 90’s Atlanta Braves. Adding Max Scherzer in the off-season makes these guys seem unstoppable. When you can run out five arms like the ones listed to start the season in the rotation, you’re simply not going to have many stretches where you lose two or three games in a row.
You could make the case that three to four of these guys could be Cy Young contenders.
It’s not without it’s questions. Stephen Strasburg has to take the next step and be in Cy Young contention for these guys. He has to show he’s the ace. He has pretty good numbers, but there were far too many starts that were inconsistent inning to inning for Strasburg yet again in 2014. He allowed 23 home runs to lead the staff. That’s puzzling.
Gio Gonzalez also seemed pretty human in 2014, while not bad. He allowed just 10 homers – the fewest of any of the Nationals starting pitchers. He still strikes out more than nine per nine innings pitched; but he was nowhere near the dominant Gio of 2012.
Scherzer and Zimmerman you really don’t have to wonder much about. They’ll do what they do – a couple of bulls that rise to the occasion in the big moment.
Doug Fister was phenomenal pitching to contact last season, going 16-6 and posting a 2.41 ERA. He threw a no-hitter on the season’s final day.
The Nats have Tanner Roark as an insurance policy if one of these guys go down. Roark is a solid but not spectacular option who would crack most big league rotations without any problem and probably be a three or a four elsewhere. That speaks volumes to the type of juggernaut starting rotation the Nats boast in 2015.
Drew Storen is at the back of the bullpen, reclaiming his old role from aging Rafael Soriano before the 2014 regular season wrapped up. Storen proved he still has the stuff, posting a 1.12 ERA and 11 saves in 65 appearances.
The Nationals have some helpful pieces in the pen as well – Matt Thornton, Jerry Blevins, Craig Stammen, Ross Detwiler and Casey Janssen are going to be some of the names who make this one of the better groups around all of baseball.
Projected Record and Finish:
101-61, First place in the National League East
There isn’t much mystery; this team will win the National League East and probably roll towards 100+ wins. All of which means nothing if they can’t start winning postseason series and get to the final series in October. They made the big moves to win it all, not set the pace from April to September.
Matt Williams made a countless amount of huge mistakes in 2014, which is to be expected from any rookie manager. We think he’s just a marginal guy who thinks he’s great. He’s managing a team with so much talent, it’s no mystery why the Nationals will have the success they will and they have in the past; it’s because of the guys on the roster and not a manager squeezing more out of less. They probably beat the Giants in that NLDS series last year with a great manager. Instead, it was Williams’ decision to place a shaky Aaron Barrett in a high-leverage situation on the road, with his wild pitch becoming the final nail in the coffin for Washington.
If Williams learns from his ways and the Nationals get good graces in the health department, you’re going to see this team make a deep October run and just maybe bring home their first World Series title in franchise history. We would love to see it.