Projected Division Finish
1. Washington Nationals
2. Miami Marlins
3. New York Mets
4. Atlanta Braves
5. Philadelphia Phillies
2014 Finish: 96-66 (First in NL East)
Projected Batting Order
CF Denard Span
3B Anthony Rendon
LF Jayson Werth
RF Bryce Harper
SS Ian Desmond
1B Ryan Zimmerman
C Wilson Ramos
2B Yunel Escobar
Projected Starting Rotation/Closer
RHP Max Scherzer
RHP Stephen Strasburg
RHP Jordan Zimmerman
LHP Gio Gonzalez
RHP Doug Fister
CLOSER Drew Storen
The Washington Nationals are considered the team to beat by many this season. It makes sense when you see a roster chock full of young talent and a deep pitching staff, bolstered by another ace in Max Scherzer. However, they have been favorites before (the last two years) and haven’t dealt with it well. They were also quickly dismissed from the playoffs last year, failing to live up to their regular season success. Two years ago they missed the playoffs entirely, despite being heavily favored. This season, their focus has to be on carrying their success from the regular season into the playoffs. But overlooking the regular season is a sure path to disaster, and perhaps that contributed to the Nationals slow start. However, they are back on track now and are currently in first place in the NL East, right where many thought they’d be.
Last year, the offense for the Nats only hit 250, 9th out of the 15 NL teams. That’s not good at all for a team with championship aspirations. They did rank 4th in runs, 3rd in HR and in the top half of the league in hits. They’d love to improve their ability to put the ball in play and also improve their ability to steal some bases (last in 2014). If that is going to happen, it will be with pretty much the same group adjusting their style of play as they didn’t add any major weapons on the offensive side of the ball this offseason.
The biggest factor in the Nationals improving at the plate is Bryce Harper. He’s been heavily hyped since he was 16. That’s tough. What’s also tough is the fact that he’s been constantly compared to Mike Trout, the best player in baseball. Remember he’s only 22, younger than the youngest rookie in the MLB this year. He was a star when he was young and debuted in the majors when he was young. He always had a massive amount of talent, but it takes more than talent to be a great ballplayer. The fact is, he was always above average, but with maturity and experience, he is growing into a star. There are a lot of anti-Harper guys out there. I’m not actually a huge fan. But it has nothing to do with his skills, which are undeniable. He was just treated like an MVP far before he earned that respect. He also had no business in his first All Star game. That made people believe he was overrated. I think overrated is harsh, considering his age. But overhyped is deserved, even if he’s not to blame. All that being said, he’s got immense talent. If he can stay healthy and continue to make adjustments (which he has done since he debuted), he could finally have that monster season. People have been calling for his MVP season for a while, but I disagreed. I thought this would be the year. And he’s been living up to it so far. Last year he only played in 100 games hitting 273 with 13 HR and 32 RBI. But he was healthy in the playoffs and was a monster. There is concern that injury prone players stay injured, but he’s had a lot of fluky injuries. If fully healthy, I think 300/30 HR and 100 RBI is a legitimate possibility. He’s the hottest hitter in baseball right now and I think he will have a great year.
One of the many hoping Harper has a huge year is center fielder and leadoff man Denard Span. Span hit 302 last year and led the NL with 184 hits. He had a 355 OBP, 31 SB and 94 R playing the role of the perfect leadoff man. I think this guy is incredibly underrated. He’s not as fast or as flashy as others, but he does his job supremely well and has for years with a 287 career AVG and 352 career OBP. He missed the start of the year but has come back and is playing in top form for the Nats. I think he’ll likely turn in another 290-300 season with an exemplary OBP (in the 340+ range), 25+ SB and 90+ R.
Veteran Jayson Werth was also expected to play a large role for the Nationals. In 147 games last year, he hit 292 with 16 HR, 82 RBI, 85 R and 9 SB. His defense is slipping and he is no longer a great stolen base guy. But he picks his spots to run well (going 9 for 10 last year) and moved to left field with Harper playing well enough to take over right. I thought he’d hit 280+ again with 15 HR, 5 SB and 80+ RBI/R. But I was concerned about him staying healthy. And sure enough, a wrist injury has knocked him out and will keep him on the DL until August.
Shortstop Ian Desmond is hoping to continue raking in the middle of this talented lineup. He leads all MLB shortstops in HR and RBI since 2012 and had another great season last year with 24 HR and 91 RBI. He also had 24 SB, his 4th straight year of at least 20 steals. The only think he didn’t do was hit for AVG, though 255 is respectable. His batting AVG has fluctuated over recent years from 269 to 253 then 292, 280 and last year’s 255. I think he’s closer to a 250 hitter than a 290 one, but think 265 is a good estimate with another 20 HR and 80 RBI. The 20 SB seem like a lock as well.
Third baseman Anthony Rendon was supposed to join Desmond on the left side of the diamond, but has yet to make an appearance this year. He’s been coming back from a torn MCL, but in his recovery ended up straining his oblique, which put him behind schedule. They are just starting his new rehab plan and want to be more cautious this time. Rendon, an MVP candidate last year, is a star on both sides of the ball, hitting 287 in 2014 with 21 HR, 83 RBI, 111 R and 17 SB. Missing this time will hurt his counting stats, but the hope is he will still be hot when he returns. I think this layoff may affect him some, even causing a slow start to drop his AVG a bit. Think 270 with 10 HR, 55 RBI, 8 SB and 60 R in his limited season.
Former third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is moving to first base with the departure of Adam LaRoche and emergence of Rendon. Zimmerman dealt with injury last year and only played in 61 games. But he was good in those games hitting 280 with 5 HR and 38 RBI. He was the Nats first big star and is now one of their key veterans. I like him this year and think the move to first could keep him healthy. For a while he was the model of consistency with 20+ HR 6 of 8 seasons and an average of 275+ every year but one. But he has been hurt a lot and is getting older. I’ll put him down for 280 (career AVG 284) with 15 HR and 70 RBI.
Catcher Wilson Ramos has had star potential for a while, but can’t stay healthy. He has only reached 100 games once, playing in 113 in 2011 (he hit 267 with 15 HR that year). He’s been building his way back from that point playing in 25 games in 2012, 78 in 2013 and 88 last year. Hopefully the trend continues because everyone wants to see what he can do in a full season. In his half season in 2014, he hit 267 with 11 HR and 47 RBI. That’s not bad at all. Extrapolated over a full year (88 games is actually a little more than half) he looks like a 20 HR, 90 RBI guy. Now those estimates are always dangerous and most people never seem to be able to live up to them. But it’s a good starting point. If he can stay healthy, I like him to hit 270 with 17 HR and 80 RBI. That’s excellent production from a catcher and someone hitting so low in your lineup. It also points to how talented this team is.
The Nats added Yunel Escobar to play second in the offseason. But with the injury to Rendon, he’s been getting a lot of time at third. Surprisingly, Escobar has been great. Seen to be a supremely talented defender since his arrival in the bigs, Escobar has never caught up at the plate, despite his talent. Additionally, a bad attitude and negative clubhouse presence have hurt him and made people not want to give him a chance. It’s his own fault so I don’t feel bad for him. But his skills are apparent and he is off to a hot start this year. It’s hard to get a feel for what he’ll do. He had a number of promising seasons in Atlanta and Toronto, before fading at the plate in his time with Tampa Bay. He’s never been a good base stealer and doesn’t hit for a ton of power, despite his approach at the plate. His explosion to start this year was truly unexpected and superb. He’s a career 277 hitter, but hasn’t reached that number since 2011. He’s never hit more than 14 HR in a season, only reaching double digits twice. Part of his success this year is that he’s going the other way with the ball and not trying to kill it all the time. I have no idea if this will continue. Also, he’s hitting second now, but when Rendon returns he may fall in the batting order. I would have said 255 with 5 HR. Now I’ll up it to 275 with 10 HR. He could also have 60-70 RBI/R, depending on how long Rendon is out.
The backups on this team include Dan Uggla and Danny Espinosa on the infield and the supremely talented youngster Michael Taylor in the outfield. Taylor is this team’s future center fielder and he is ready to play now. With Werth out, Taylor should get a lot of playing time, which will give the Naitonals a feel for what he can do on an everyday basis. If he hits the way many expect him to, Span could be on a new team next year, despite his excellent production. Espinosa lost his starting job due to his limited bat. And Uggla has been bouncing around since Atlanta cut him, but is playing well off Washington’s bench. He’s still got plenty of power and can work a walk. This is a deep talented team with potential stars in the first 7 spots of the lineup. There is a reason this team is picked by many to win it all this year. They will score a ton of runs assuming average to above average health.
The defense may not be as solid. Zimmerman is a former third baseman at first. We’ve seen others make the switch. But despite the fact that third baseman are more athletic generally, it takes about a year to get used to first and be a productive player there. Zimmerman actually has to learn to be less aggressive and work on taking throws. While I think he can do it, he won’t be a great first baseman this year, despite having better range than other first sackers. Escobar would have been a great second baseman. He’s still a good shortstop. And now he is doing a nice job at third. No matter where he ends up on the diamond, he will be good, with a chance to be great at second, which is what he was originally signed to do. Ian Desmond makes a ton of errors at short. He’s not at all good defensively. And Rendon is excellent, but is out for now. With Escobar covering third, Espinosa is playing some second (fine) and Uggla is getting time as well (bad…but not as bad as people make him out to be). Span is an excellent center fielder and Harper was great in left. Harper is moving to right and has the skills to be average to good there. Werth was terrible in right. Moving to left was supposed to improve the defense and keep him healthy, but that didn’t work out. So now Michael Taylor will play left, which he can easily do as he’s a natural center fielder. Losing Werth hurts, but it makes the outfield defense look great. Wilson Ramos is fine behind the plate and has a good arm to throw out runners. Jose Lobaton is even better defensively as his backup. This isn’t the best defense in the word, but the Nats have options and have spread their defensive liabilities out. While Desmond is at a premier spot, two great defenders flank him. They will make errors, but the defense shouldn’t kill them, especially with this team’s offensive potential.
The Nationals excelled on the mound last year. It was probably the biggest key to their success, considering the injury issues on their offense. This starting staff held onto all of their major pieces and added the biggest free agent pitcher on the market: Max Scherzer. They look ridiculously good. The bullpen has been the weak point of this team for the last few years, but they let Rafael Soriano go and signed former Blue Jays closer Casey Janssen. Janssen will setup and the Nats will turn to former closer Drew Storen to take over the 9th. Losing Tyler Clippard hurts, but the Nats hope their phenomenal starters will keep the bullpen covered. Even with their limited bullpen last year, the Nats had the best ERA, WHIP and fewest walks in the league. With the addition of Scherzer this great pitching staff looks to be even better.
It’s hard to pinpoint an ace on this club. Three of these pitchers have the stuff and makeup to be aces. But I’ll start with the new guy, Max Scherzer. A year after winning the Cy Young Award, Scherzer picked right back up with his dominance going 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA. He’s been a strikeout pitcher his whole career, but started avoiding walks and limiting hits at an incredible rate in 2012. He’s been great ever since then. He threw 220 IP with a 1.18 WHIP and 238 BAA. Those numbers weren’t nearly as strong as his Cy Young year in 2013, but were still above average. And with his strikeout ability (career high 252 last year) he gets out of a lot of trouble on his own. Moving to the NL will only improve his numbers, and he stays on a great team that help him get a lot of wins. I’m thinking 220 IP, 250 Ks, an ERA under 3.25 and 15-20 Wins. This guy could win his second Cy Young on this team facing a division filled with weak offenses.
Jordan Zimmerman was arguably the ace of this staff last year, despite being overshadowed by the highly touted Stephen Strasburg. He went 14-5 last year with a 2.66 ERA. He’s not the strikeout pitcher that Scherzer or Strasburg are (which is likely why he’s less heralded than the others), but he did have a career high 182 last year and his K total has climbed the last 4 years. He had fewer wins last year than in 2013, but his ERA and WHIP improved while his BAA actually climbed a bit. I think he will have another stellar year, especially with the Braves, Mets and Phillies’ offenses looking like they will struggle. Put him down for 15+ Wins, an ERA around 3 and 175+ Ks, having another great year. 200 Ks and a 2.50 ERA are possibilities if all breaks right, as are 20 Wins.
The third member of this three-headed ace triumvirate is Stephen Strasburg, arguably the most heralded player of the trio. Since being picked first overall by the Nationals, he has been under constant scrutiny. He made his debut in 2010, had Tommy John missing most of 2011 and part of 2012 and was back to full strength in 2013. He’s been great, but the hype on him has been so huge that people feel like he hasn’t lived up to it. Last year he went 14-11 with a 3.14 ERA. That’s very good. He threw 215 IP and had 242 Ks, also great. He gives up a few more hits than the greats, but less than the average pitcher and with his stuff he gets out of most of his close spots. But he just hasn’t taken that step to be truly great. I initially put him down for 12+ Wins, an ERA under 3.50 and over 200 IP and 230 Ks. But he got off to a terrible start and has now gone to the DL. So those stat totals will definitely be off, the question is by how much.
Lefty Gio Gonzalez is still around in the back end of the rotation. He hasn’t been as good as he was in 2012, but he’s still a very solid pitcher and great as a number 4 man. Last season he only appeared in 27 games going 10-10 with a 3.57 ERA, his highest since 2009. It was also the first time since 2012 that he failed to reach 190 innings. But his 3.57 ERA was still very competitive and he had more Ks than IP. He still has issues with walks, but he’s gotten a little better. Perhaps he’ll never return to his level of greatness in Oakland or his first year in Washington. But he’s still a great pitcher with phenomenal strikeout stuff. Think double-digit wins and, if healthy, 200 IP and Ks. Add in an ERA under 4 and may have the best 4th starter in baseball.
Doug Fister is their fifth starter, though he’ll probably pitch more than other 5th starters. He provides depth and having him pitch more to give others a rest is a luxury for this year. The 6’8 lefty went 16-6 last year with a sparkling 2.41 ERA. He only made 25 starts, which limited him to 164 IP. He’s a groundball machine with a penchant for avoiding walks. As a guy who pitches to contact, he gives up more hits than others, but gets out of his jams because he has a heavy sinker and guys can’t help but hit it on the ground. Put a good defense behind him, and he should be in good shape. Washington doesn’t have the best defense, but it’s good enough. I’m thinking 12 Wins with an ERA around 3.25. However, those numbers may take a hit with his DL stint.
That’s the starting staff. It’s probably the best and deepest in the majors. Even losing one or two guys to injury isn’t a big deal for Washington because all 5 starters are above average and 3 are very good. With their starting talent and depth, it’s easy to see why they are heavy favorites to win it all.
The bullpen isn’t as strong. Rafael Soriano struggled last year and was let go after his contract ran out. To this point, he has not found another team. Drew Storen took over the closer’s role later in the year and played well going 11 for 14 in Save Opportunities and earning 20 Holds with a 1.12 ERA in 65 games. Storen was great as a setup man and had success closing in the past. I’m thinking he can have around 40 Saves this year with a sub 2 ERA. Both his WHIP and BAA have been stellar in his career and I think that will continue.
Casey Jansenn is set to be the primary set up man. Matt Thornton had the job while he was out. Both are great and Janssen has closing experience. Tanner Roark is a former starter who was moved to the pen after Scherzer’s signing. But with the injuries to Strasburg and Fister, Roark is starting again. So that leaves Storen, Jansenn and Thornton as the sure things in the pen. After them, there are questions. If the Nats get the starting pitching and offense they expect, then they can cover for the bullpen deficiencies. With limited exposure, this team should be fine. But if the starters struggle or get hurt, then this bullpen may have to appear more often in games and that could be the only Achilles heel for this team.
This pitching staff should be great. The starters are the best in baseball and they have some good back of the bullpen arms. They also have depth. While the bullpen isn’t great, that can be said of many teams. I love the outlook for the Nationals pitching this year and think they will be very successful.
Many people think this is the best team in baseball. I’m inclined to agree. They will hit better than most and possibly pitch better than anyone. They also play in a division with two re-building teams and two other teams on the way up, but neither of which is truly great. I think the Nats are due to have a huge year, despite their slow start. For me, this is the best team in baseball.
I picked them to win the division with 98 wins before the season began. I’m sticking with that because I think that is a real possibility, as is a deep postseason run.