Patrick Reddington of Federal Baseball wasn't bold enough to come out and say it in his comprehensive season preview yesterday, but we are: anything but the first World Series championship in franchise history will be considered a disappointment for the Washington Nationals this season.
The Nationals have finished with the best record in the National League in two of the past three seasons, but have just three playoff wins and zero trips to the NLCS to show for it. This offseason, they added the best free agent on the market to a roster already stacked with some of the best young talent in the game. They are Las Vegas' favorite to win the World Series and should run away with the National League East, especially now that the New York Mets lost another top young pitcher to Tommy John surgery.
Sound familiar? There are parallels between this team and the Tigers clubs we saw in 2012 and 2013. The monster rotation is an obvious comparison, especially considering Max Scherzer and Doug Fister are now pitching in D.C. The Nationals' offense doesn't have a Miguel Cabrera, but Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon have the potential to be among the best hitters in the game. The Nats have the depth to withstand an injury or two, as they showed last year when Harper, Fister, and Gio Gonzalez all spent time on the disabled list. They even have their own version of Drew Smyly, as right-hander Tanner Roark will be moved to the bullpen after posting excellent numbers in the rotation last season.
Will the Nationals be able to do what the Tigers have been unable to do during their recent run of dominance? Both Vegas and Harper are confident it will happen, but anything can happen over the course of 162 games.
Manager: Matt Williams (2nd season)
2014 record: 96-66
SB Nation blog: Federal Baseball
The first chink in the Nationals' armor is a significant one, but also shows how deep they potentially are. Starting outfielders Jayson Werth and Denard Span both underwent surgery recently -- Werth in January, Span last week -- and could both spend time on the disabled list at the start of the year. Span will be out for at least a month after undergoing the same core muscle repair surgery that plagued Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander in 2014, which opens the door for consensus top-100 prospect Michael Taylor. With Span in the final year of his contract, consider April a dress rehearsal for Taylor's grand opening in 2016. Werth could make his spring training debut as early as this week, but probably won't be rushed, as the Nats have a solid backup in Nate McLouth waiting in the wings. Tyler Moore has spent most of his brief major league career at first base, but he is having a solid spring in the outfield.
Then there's Bryce Harper. A lightning rod for media attention and controversy whether he warrants it or not, Harper ruffled some feathers when he expressed his excitement about his team's World Series chances after signing Max Scherzer. He has already promised to bring a title to D.C., and appears to finally be health enough to deliver on his vow in 2015. Already a career .272/.351/.465 hitter entering his age 22 season, it's almost scary to think that he could get even better. He showed signs of that progression in an injury-plagued 2014 season, including a solid .765 OPS against left-handed pitchers. Manager Matt Williams has already promised to move Harper up in the order (he hit sixth for most of 2014), and an MVP-caliber season is never out of the question.
The Nationals' infield features a lot of the same faces it had in 2014, but shortstop Ian Desmond is the only player likely to be at the same position he played on Opening Day last year. Desmond cemented his status as one of the elite shortstops in the game, hitting .255/.313/.430 with 26 doubles and 24 home runs, stealing 24 bases in 29 opportunities, and playing league average defense in 154 games. He reportedly turned down a $107 million extension offer from the Nationals last offseason, but could easily top that with another four-win season in 2015. Anthony Rendon was Desmond's double play partner last season, but the 24-year-old has moved back to third base, his natural position. Rendon looked like a natural at second base last year, hitting .287/.351/.473 with 21 home runs and a league-leading 111 runs scored. He was worth 6.6 WAR and finished fifth in the NL MVP voting. A "very mild" left MCL sprain has sidelined him momentarily this spring, but he should be back on the field soon.
Ryan Zimmerman has gutted through minor injuries for a large part of his career, but 2014 was the season it all seemed to come back to bite him. He had separate DL stints for a fractured thumb and a hamstring strain, and his throwing shoulder deteriorated so quickly that the club moved him to left field. Now at first base in place of the departed Adam LaRoche, the Nationals are hopeful that Zimmerman's excellent bat -- he's a career .286/.352/.476 hitter -- can remain in the lineup. Second baseman Yunel Escobar initiated himself into the Nationals' walking wounded club by straining an oblique earlier this spring. He has not returned to action yet, but should still be ready for Opening Day. Escobar has struggled at the plate over the past few years, but above average defense at shortstop made him a valuable commodity in 2012 and 2013. Defensive metrics were not so kind in 2014, and he fell to replacement level. Utility infielder Danny Espinosa has given up on switch-hitting, a sound idea given his significant career platoon splits.
Catcher Wilson Ramos is better friends with the disabled list than anyone on the Nationals' roster. He has spent 268 days on the DL over the past three seasons and has appeared in just 191 games since his standout rookie season in 2011. A consistently productive hitter when healthy, Ramos has 46 home runs and 173 RBI in less than 1300 career plate appearances. He was worth 2.0 WAR in just 88 games last year, a rate the Nats are hoping will project across 120+ games, lest they have to rely on backup Jose Lobaton for another 58 starts in 2015. While Lobaton is an above average defender and pitch framer, his bat is bad enough to drag him back down to replacement level.
We have seen a few incredible pitching rotations in baseball during this latest era of offensive starvation, and while the Nationals' starting five lacks the star power of the Philadelphia Phillies' 2011 rotation or the pure power of the 2013 Tigers, they could be just as good as those elite groups. Max Scherzer needs no introduction to Tigers fans, as he spent the last five years blossoming into one of the best starters in the game in front of our eyes. His gaudy strikeout numbers and declining walk rate are the bread-and-butter of his success, but his impressive durability -- he has made 30 starts in each of the past six seasons -- and improvements against left-handers are underrated characteristics. Scherzer hasn't displaced Stephen Strasburg as the team's Opening Day starter yet, but it's tough to see Matt Williams denying his $210 million man that honor. Strasburg logged his first 200-inning season in 2014 and put up the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career, but some are down on the 26-year-old after he allowed more hits per nine innings than ever before. If that's not a classic example of #firstplaceproblems, I don't know what is.
Part of the reason why people overlooked Strasburg's excellent season was the continued emergence of teammate Jordan Zimmermann. Zimmermann simultaneously posted the highest strikeout rate and lowest walk rate of his career in 2014, and finished the season with a career-best 2.66 ERA, career-best 2.68 FIP, and career-best 5.2 WAR despite falling an out short of the 200-inning barrier. He now has more career All-Star appearances than Strasburg too. Left-hander Gio Gonzalez spent a month on the disabled list last season with shoulder inflammation, but excited Nats fans when he said his arm feels like it did in 2012, when he went 21-8 with a 2.89 ERA. Gonzalez's peripherals from 2014 were just a hair worse than the ones he had in 2012, so he should be a safe bet for another 3-4 WAR in 2015.
Doug Fister gave Tigers fans hope that the decision to trade him might not have been so awful after all when he missed the first six weeks of the 2014 season. Then, he came back, and our worst fears were realized. Fister posted the best record and ERA of his career in 2014, winning 16 games with a 2.41 ERA in 164 innings. He walked just 3.6 percent of batters, the lowest clip of his career, but also saw his strikeout rate dip to a career-worst 14.8 percent. It's tough to say which Fister we will see in 2015 -- his .262 BABIP and 3.93 FIP are indicators of regression -- but that won't stop people from complaining about the lackluster return the Tigers received for him.
The Nationals' bullpen could look radically different from the unit that was arguably the National League's best in 2014. The Nats had a 3.00 team ERA, a league-leading 3.05 FIP, and walked just 2.69 batters per nine innings, the second-best total in the league. Closer Rafael Soriano and setup man Tyler Clippard are both gone, but closer-turned-gas-can-turned-closer Drew Storen is coming off an excellent 2014 season. Storen rebounded from a subpar 2013 season to allow a 1.12 ERA in 56 1/3 innings. His home run and strand rates will probably regress, but his 2.71 FIP from last season isn't a bad floor. Left-hander Matt Thornton pitched 11 1/3 scoreless innings down the stretch for the Nats in 2014, and the club is hoping he can pick up the slack for Jerry Blevins, who struggled with his command en route to a 4.87 ERA last season. Former Blue Jays closer Casey Janssen is also in the fold, along with incumbents Craig Stammen, Aaron Barrett, and Tanner Roark.
Down on the farm
It's pretty amazing, to be honest. Just a few years after graduating some of the top minor league talent in the game to the major leagues, the Nationals are already hovering towards the back end of the top 10 farm systems in baseball. Right-handed pitcher Lucas Giolito is considered by many to be the best pitching prospect in baseball despite only making his Single-A debut last season. He dominated the hitter-friendly Sally League last year, striking out 110 batters in 98 innings while allowing a 2.20 ERA. A.J. Cole doesn't have Giolito's lofty ceiling, but he's much closer to the majors at this point, though there are plenty of guys in his way. Wilmer Difo and Trea Turner -- who is still technically with the San Diego Padres since he cannot be named in the Wil Myers trade yet -- are a pair of interesting middle infield prospects. Michael Taylor is the team's top position player prospect until he graduates off the list this season.
Player to watch: Ryan Zimmerman
If there's one question about this team, it's whether they can repeat last season's offensive performance. Adam LaRoche is gone, and it's tough to imagine Jayson Werth putting up an .849 OPS after having shoulder surgery in January. A healthy season of Bryce Harper should help offset some of that, but Zimmerman will have more say in just how good this lineup is. Still only 30 years old -- he has been around forever, it seems -- Zim has always been a productive hitter in the middle of the Nationals' lineup. That was still the case when he was battling injuries in 2014, but you have to wonder when all of the wear and tear will catch up to him. Playing at first base should help limit further damage, but a dip in offensive production could be problematic for the Nats in 2015.
Despite injury concerns and thinly-veiled questions about whether they will hit -- they will hit -- this is arguably the best team in baseball. The Nationals have more depth than the Los Angeles Dodgers, more pitching than the St. Louis Cardinals, and more of everything else than just about anyone in the American League. We have fallen into the "how soon will they win their division?" trap with the Tigers before, and we could do the same with these Nationals in 2015, especially if the injuries start to pile up. That seems to be the only way this team doesn't return to the playoffs, though, and it's hard to see a team this loaded bowing out in the NLDS for a third consecutive time.