What happens to that team that was considered to be flawless just a year ago? Many times a team stands out as being so superior to the rest in regards to talent. The experts announce that it is "their time." If that team has some injury, clubhouse chemistry or other internal problems that keep them from reaching their expected potential, how does that impact their potential standing for the subsequent season? I mean, it is essentially the same team that had such high expectations a year ago. Maybe it is simply the fact the team did not live up to the hype that leads to many not backing them like they did a season ago.
The 2015 Washington Nationals were coming off a National League East division title, their second in three seasons. With a team already constructed that seemed prepared to take the next step, the Nationals made one of the most aggressive moves in the entire off season, inking Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer to a seven year deal. The Nationals were already known for having one of the best starting rotations, one that featured Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Tanner Roark. In what was considered an overflow of riches, the Nationals would move Roark, a 15 game winner in 2014, to the bullpen to serve as an extra starting pitcher when needed.
We all know what happened during the disappointing Nationals season. It started with under achievement. Then, it became a mission of making up the lost ground in the standings. After that failed, it became a game of who should be blamed. Of course, it started with the media. The media started with their "Nationals are a disappointment" campaign. This smear then made its way into the National clubhouse, where the Nats players started pointing fingers, first at their manager Matt Williams and then eventually at each other. That is what losing clubhouses do. Winning keeps a team unified, losing pulls it apart. Williams paid for the under achievement with his job; out after just two seasons, the first one resulting in an incredible 95 wins. That basically explains how much bad of a season the Nationals had in proportion to what their expectations were.
The Nationals decided to go outside the organization for their next manager. General manager Mike Rizzo wanted to hire somebody who had major league managerial experience. Dusty Baker, the longtime manager of the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds, was chosen over longtime San Diego Padres manager Bud Black. Infielders Ian Desmond (.233 batting average, 19 home runs, 62 runs batted in, .674 on base plus slugging)- free agent with the Texas Rangers, and Yunel Escobar (.314, 9, 56, .790)- trade to the Los Angeles Angels, were swapped out for Daniel Murphy (.281, 14, 73, .770)- free agent from the New York Mets, and Stephen Drew (.201, 17, 44, .652)- free agent from the New York Yankees. Free agents Zimmermann (13 wins, 10 losses, 3.66 earned run average, 164 strikeouts, just under 202 innings pitched) and Fister (5-7, 4.19, 25 games, 15 starts) left as free agents to the Detroit Tigers and Houston Astros, respectively.
Closer, at least until Rizzo ruined the bullpen's chemistry by trading for Jonathan Papelbon, Drew Storen was dealt to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for outfielder Ben Revere (.306, 2, 45, .719, 24 stolen bases), who was added to replace the departed Denard Span (.302, 5, 37, .771, 31 SB). The Storen trade was the start in a renovated bullpen, which includes free agent signings Oliver Perez (2-4, 4.15, 51 Ks, 41 IP), Shawn Kelley (2-2, 2.45, 63 Ks, just over 51 IP) and Yusmeiro Petit (1-1, 3.67, 42 games, 1 start, 76 IP). Right hander Trevor Gott (4-2, 3.02, 48 games pitched, just under 48 IP) came over in the Escobar trade and will replace the injured Aaron Barrett (3-3, 4.60, 35 Ks, just over 29 IP), out recovering from Tommy John surgery. Papelbon (4-3, 2.13, 56 Ks, just over 63 IP) had a solid season for the second division Philadelphia Phillies but was not as dominant with the Nats. He averaged just over 9 strikeouts per nine innings pitched with the Phillies and dropped to just over 6 with the Nationals. 2015 hold overs Blake Treinen (2-5, 3.86, 65, just under 68) and Felipe Rivero (2-1, 2.79, 43, just over 48) will be part of the mix. An interesting pitcher to look at is right hander Rafael Martin, who appeared in just 13 games and pitched to a 5.11 ERA. In just over 12 innings, Martin managed to strike out a fantastic 25 batters, a rate of 18.2 per nine innings pitched. Burke Badenhop and Nick Masset have proven themselves in other teams bullpens but are currently on the outside looking in.
Losing Zimmermann and Fister (though Fister was a disappointment last season) will hurt the Nationals but a case could he made for the starting rotation being a little better going into 2016. Roark (4-7, 4.38, 40 games, 12 starts) was very effective in 2014 as a starting pitcher winning 15 games, pitching to a 2.85 ERA and finishing with a 131 ERA+. Right hander Joe Ross (5-5, 3.64, 69 Ks, just under 77 IP) was brought in during the off season that sent outfielder Steven Souza to the Rays and also awarded the Nationals shortstop Trea Turner. If Ross raises his game, he may be able to easily account for the loss of Zimmermann and Roark should be able to easily replace Fister, who may have plateaued or could be on the decline. Scherzer (14-12, 2.79, 276, just under 229, 4 complete games, 3 shutouts, 2 no hitters) did what he could to back up his contract and the discussion that came with it. With his impending free agency, Stephen Strasburg (11-7, 3.46, 155, just over 127) should perform at a very high level this season, leaving veteran Gio Gonzalez (11-8, 3.79, 169, just under 176) as the number three starter. Petit will serve as a backup in case of an injury with top pitching prospect Lucas Giolito waiting in the wings.
I take a lot of pride in the fact that I have written six full paragraphs about the Washington Nationals without mentioning outfielder Bryce Harper. Harper (.330, 42, 99, 1.109) is coming off a well deserved National League Most Valuable Player award and is excepting his role as the face of the franchise. Corner infielders Ryan Zimmerman (.249, 16, 73, .779) and Anthony Rendon (.264, 5, 25, .707) will be forces in the Nationals lineup if both are healthy, which they were not last season. Murphy and Drew will be up the middle with Turner (.322, 8, 54, .828, 29 SB) waiting in the wings. Turner will likely start the season in AAA, but seems to be major league ready in spite of being selected in the 2014 draft. Veteran Jayson Werth (.221, 12, 42, .685) will start the season in left field with Revere taking the reigns as the everyday center fielder. Last season's center fielder Michael Taylor (.229, 14, 63, .640) has a full season under his belt and is expected to perform better this season. If this is the case, expect the Nationals to play Taylor in center, move Revere to left and use Werth off the bench. The same will be said for when Turner comes up. He will replace Drew making him into a utility player. Catcher Wilson Ramos (.229, 15, 68, .616) will once again be the starting catcher. Hopefully Ramos can finally live up to the hype which touted him as the game's next big time offensive catcher.
The lineup I would start the season with is Revere CF, Murphy 2B, Rendon 3B, Harper RF, Zimmerman 1B, Ramos C, Drew SS, Werth LF. Infielder Danny Espinosa (.240, 13, 37, .719) is the reason Turner will be in AAA, as he can spell at second, short or third base. Left handed Clint Robinson (.272, 10, 34, .782) is one of the more underrated power bench bats in all of baseball. Former Mets outfielder Matt den Dekker and veteran Chris Heisey will be competing for the last bench spot with Heisey having the upper hand being right handed. Jose Lobaton (.199, 3. 20, .573) serves as the backup catcher. 22 year old Pedro Severino could work his way into the mix with Jhonathon Solano serving as another catching option. Veterans Reed Johnson and Brendan Ryan are also trying to win jobs.
All the talk in Washington is about Giolito, the right hander who amassed 131 strikeouts in 117 innings last season. The expectation of the current number three prospect in all of major league baseball is yet another reason the Nationals were okay watching Zimmermann and Fister leave via free agency. Right hander AJ Cole is kind of forgotten about as he was once thought of as a top Nationals prospect. His trade to the Oakland Athletics and subsequent return in another trade has left him unattended to. He still has the talent to be a solid three starter even though his fastball generally rests in the low 90s. Turner should be a very good offensive player right away and also has a little speed in addition to his above average ability as a shortstop.
I was among the many that liked the Washington Nationals to get to, and win, the World Series in 2015. I admit it, though you seemed pretty silly if you picked against it last March. Chances are the Nats could thrive without the huge expectations that burdened them last year. A case can also be made that the pressure is now on the Mets after the latter made it to the World Series last season. Las Vegas has the Nationals at 87 for their over/ under, an expectation that is less than last season. And I believe enough in the composition of this roster and new manager Dusty to think the Nationals can exceed the Vegas prediction. However, I am only taking them at 88-74, second place in the National League East division.