The Washington Nationals won 96 games last season, which surprised nobody. They won a franchise-record 98 games in 2012, only to drop to 86 wins in 2013. To be a favorite in the NL East, the Nationals could have just stood pat. But similar to LA, the Nationals are tired of the Giants and Cardinals winning the NL Pennant every year (and the Phillies the two years before that). The Nationals have been an up-and-coming team for the past three seasons. It is time for the team to rise up and reach these expectations.
The Nationals have been blessed with the strongest pitching staff maybe in all of baseball before this offseason. With Jordan Zimmermann (14-5, 2.66, 32 starts), Stephen Strasburg (14-11, 3.14, 34 starts), Doug Fister (16-6, 2.41, 25 starts), Gio Gonzalez (10-10, 3.57, 27 starts) and Tanner Roark (15-10, 2.85, 31 starts), the starting staff was as deep as any except maybe the Detroit Tigers’ group of Max Scherzer, David Price, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello. Obviously, the Nationals added Scherzer (18-5, 3.15, 252 Ks in just over 220 IP) and the Tigers also dealt Porcello, which gives the Nationals the best starting rotation in all of MLB without a doubt. Roark looks to be headed to the bullpen, in spite of his solid season.
The Nationals let 1B Adam LaRoche (.259, 26, 92) leave as a free agent, signing with the Chicago White Sox. That allows for standout infielder Anthony Rendon (.287, 21, 83, 111 RS) to play every day at 3B and longtime 3B Ryan Zimmerman (.280, 5, 38, 61 games) moves over to 1B. Yunel Escobar (.258, 7, 39) comes over from Oakland in the trade for RHP Tyler Clippard (7-4, 2.18, 75 games). And while the Nationals lost OF Steven Souza in a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, they picked up 2014 first-round draft pick Trea Turner in the same deal from San Diego. They also signed free agent RHP Casey Janssen (3-3, 3.94, 25 saves) from the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Nationals will be looking for the breakout season we have all been waiting for out of OF Bryce Harper (.273, 13, 32). At age 22, the hope is that he will be healthy this year and we can really see how big of a power hitter he can be. Jayson Werth (.292, 16, 82) had arthroscopic surgery on his right AC joint in January and is unlikely to be ready for the start of the season. However, he is attending spring training workouts and it is not ruled out that he will play in a game before the end of March. If that is the case, he may miss considerably less time than was initially anticipated. CF Denard Span (.302, 5, 37, 31 SB) had muscle surgery that may keep him out of the lineup opening day. The Nationals will be expecting a little more out of backup OFs Tyler Moore, Michael Taylor and Nate McLouth. Odds are that two of them will be in the starting lineup opening day April 6th.
SS Ian Desmond (.255, 24, 91) was dangled during the offseason when the Nationals could not reach agreement on a contract extension. He will be a free agent after this season and chances are, he will not be back. Turner is obviously at least a couple years away but it looks like they have their answer in Escobar. He is signed through 2016 and will likely be the starting SS for the Nats if Desmond leaves as a free agent. Veterans Danny Espinosa (.219, 8, 27) and Kevin Frandsen (.259, 1, 17) provide some depth for this season. Catcher Wilson Ramos (.267, 11, 47) played his first full season healthy in 2014 and he will be spotted by LH Jose Lobaton (.234, 2, 12). It does sound a little weird, but there is a legitimate chance that 2B Dan Uggla makes this team. Uggla has gotten a good look and offensively he has shown that he may have something left. For the Nationals, it is a risk/reward thing that works in their favor. A productive Uggla lengthens the lineup and can put Escobar in a utility role.
The intention of the Nationals deep starting rotation is to alleviate the need to go deep into their own bullpen. If there is one spot on this team that is not particularly deep, it is the bullpen. Last year’s closer Rafael Soriano (4-1, 3.19, 32 saves) is still a free agent, with Drew Storen (2-1, 1.12, 11 saves, 65 games) the ninth-inning man to start this season. Janssen comes over from Toronto and will be an important factor, but RHP Aaron Barrett 3-0, 2.66, 50 games) is likely to be the eighth-inning man. What interests me the most about the Nationals bullpen is the thought that Roark can do more than just be a long reliever/spot starter. I’m thinking Wade Davis Tampa Bay Rays 2012 effectiveness. If Roark pitches that effectively as a late inning reliever, there is no money or player(s) that can buy that type of production. LHPs Jerry Blevins (2-3, 4.87, 64 games) and Matt Thornton (1-3, 1.75, 64 games) will provide assistance from the left side with RHP Craig Stammen (4-5, 3.84, 49 games) another option to help Janssen and Barrett. RHP Heath Bell (1-1, 7.17, 13 games), a guest on the Passed Ball Show, is in camp hoping to make an impact. LHP Xavier Cedeno is trying to challenge both Thornton and Blevins.
The Nationals top prospect in June will likely be Turner, when he is officially traded to the Nationals completing the Wil Myers trade. LHP Lucas Giolito (10-2, 2.20, 110 Ks in 98 IP) is the Nationals top pitching prospect, though he just finished pitching in the South Atlantic League. RHP A.J. Cole should be up this year for spot starts and double headers and again in September. As for now, he will be starting the season in the minors. We may see what Taylor can do early on enough as he has a chance to crack the opening day lineup (Span/Werth). If both are not ready to go, do not forget about Moore, who though his prospect status is no longer being discussed, can hit 20-25 HR in a full season of action.
I have no doubt that the Nationals have the best team in the NL East, NL and entire Major Leagues. Perhaps we can disagree with their win total. Las Vegas has the Nationals at 92 1/2 for their O/U and though I have the over, I have the Nationals finishing at 95-67. If you have followed my previews, you will see that because of the parity in the sport- both leagues- the top win totals will be less than they have been in years. The Nationals, according to my predictions, are only one of two teams to win 90 games or more in 2015.