Think about a moment that helps sum up the 2015 Nationals season. A team that most experts picked to win the National League East easily in a division with two teams at the beginning of a rebuild, the Marlins and the Mets – who are always waiting for next year. Do you have one in mind?
After acquiring All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon in a late July deal to help bolster the bullpen, the Nationals were finishing out their disappointing season in a game against the Phillies on a Sunday afternoon. TV cameras caught the boisterous closer, who had just blown a save, jawing with NL MVP candidate Bryce Harper, who Papelbon decreed didn’t run out a pop up late in the game. Once the dust settled, the team finished the season with 83 wins – six games worse than their Pythagorean record of 89-73. Matt Williams was relieved of his duties as manager after only two seasons, mostly because it seemed that he had lost control of the clubhouse.
|Wsh||Record||wRC+||SP ERA-||RP ERA-||DRS||UZR||BsR||Pay – $M|
|2013||.531 (12)||94 (17)||96 (8)||95 (18)||-16 (21)||-1 (17)||4 (11)||116 (11)|
|2014||.593 (3)||99 (11)||83 (1)||81 (5)||10 (14)||-6 (20)||15 (2)||149 (8)|
|2015||.512 (13)||96 (14)||94 (8)||88 (11)||-11 (23)||-15 (21)||-2 (22)||166 (5)|
How do they score runs? Can they prevent runs?
We’ve been waiting all these years in Washington. Ever since Bryce Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a sixteen-year-old and labeled The Chosen One. We are living in the beginning of Harper’s peak. He took a full step forward in his age 22 season, leading the National League in runs (118), home runs (42), on base percentage (.460), slugging percentage (.649), and OPS+ (195). He is the National League’s best offensive player right now in a very pitcher-friendly era. If we are talking odds, Harper has got to be a favorite to win his second consecutive MVP award heading into 2016. Adding another year of maturity, along with another year of seasoning, we can expect Harper to keep evolving as a hitter, not see any kind of regression. This breakdown from last season exemplifies how Harper can recognize issues with his swing and then fix it:
The rest of the lineup is where the questions begin. Behind Harper, the next most established hitter is Jason Werth, who will be 37 on May 20th. Werth is only two years removed from a .292/.394/.455 season in 2014 but he has battled several different injuries over his five-year career with the Nationals. Coming off a year in which he played only 88 games, counting on Werth to produce at a decent clip may be wishful thinking. The same kind of thing goes for Ryan Zimmerman, now penciled in at first base. Werth and Zimmerman are players who once could be counted on for 25 HRs, 85 RBIs and an .800 OPS but those days could be gone. Zimmerman is also coming off injuries in 2015, playing only 95 games after missing much of 2014 with various ailments.
One hope for the Nationals is Anthony Rendon returning fully healthy at third base after playing only 80 games in 2015. In 2014, his first full season in the big leagues, Rendon hit 21 home runs and led the league in runs (111), finishing fifth in MVP voting. There is much more hope for a bounceback year for Rendon because of his youth compared to Werth and Zimmerman, but he is still a question mark for a team that hopes to compete for a division title.
The team let shortstop Ian Desmond walk after the 2015 season and will likely have Danny Espinsosa and Stephen Drew split time at short, unless prospect Trea Turner (No. 13 in Baseball Prospectus’s Top 101 list) impresses enough to make the squad out of camp. Both GM Mike Rizzo and manager Dusty Baker have commented how impressed they were with Turner late in spring training, although he should get more seasoning in the minors, having only 733 at bats combined at all levels. Mets’ postseason hero Daniel Murphy signed a three year $37.5 million deal this offseason to play second base. The Nationals are hoping for the consistency Murphy has demonstrated through the years as a career .288 hitter and a guy that can get on base at a .330 clip. They shouldn’t count on a power surge like we saw during the 2015 playoff run when Murphy hit seven home runs before the World Series. The 30 year old veteran has also had his fair share of struggles defensively, as he was 29th among second baseman in defensive runs saved in 2015 and made a big error in Game Four of the World Series.
Center fielder Denard Span is now in San Francisco and the Nationals replaced him with his former Twins teammate Ben Revere. Acquired in an offseason deal that sent reliever Drew Storen to the Blue Jays, the Nationals will be Revere’s third team in less than a year. As a career .295 hitter with a .328 OBP, Revere is a fairly traditional leadoff hitter who doesn’t strike out (but also doesn’t walk). He has the speed to steal bases when needed and can play dependable center field, although his arm is nonexistent. He will play between Werth and Harper, each of whom have superior arm strength. After extensive playing time last year, Michael Taylor will serve as a bench guy and fill in if any of the starters spend any time on the disabled list.
Wilson Ramos will be the everyday catcher and Jose Lobaton will back him up again in 2016. Ramos is your average catcher; a career .258 hitter who will hit mid-teens homers and drive in some runs (career 92 OPS+) but struck out a career high 101 times last season. Also, the game is changing for catchers as they are expected to be able to frame pitches, something Ramos has struggled at through his career. According to StatCorner, in 2015 Ramos was ranked 24th of catchers with 5,000 pitches caught in oStr%, posting only 6.9%. Baseball Prospectus ranked him 15th in Framing Runs.
Obviously, Harper will lead the offense here but the rest of the run production depends on the kind of years Rendon, Werth and Zimmerman can have coming back from injuries. Also, if Murphy and Revere can stay consistent as they have through their career, they will be able to set the table for the rest of the lineup. FanGraphs projects the Nationals to score 4.3 runs per game, fourth behind the Cubs, Rockies and Dodgers
Can the rotation reproduce 2015 success?
Max Scherzer had a phenomenal debut season in Washington; one could argue the Nationals’ ace had a better season in 2015 than his Cy Young campaign in 2013 with the Tigers, when he went 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA, 240 strikeouts and a .970 WHIP. Scherzer’s first year with the Nationals posted career highs in strikeouts (276), innings (228.2), WHIP (0.918) and RA9 (2.91), tying his career low in cFIP (65), and he threw two no-hitters. This year will be his age 31 season and Scherzer has shown no signs of slowing down. Sliding into the number two slot after the loss of Jordan Zimmermann via free agency is Stephen Strasburg. The one-two punch of Scherzer and Strasburg could be dominant as they are two of only four pitchers over the last five seasons to average more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings. Strasburg’s career has come a long way since his electric debut against the Pirates on MLB Network in 2010. The career National has thrown more than 180 innings only twice in his career, so injuries are always a concern. After returning from an oblique injury last season, he had a 1.90 ERA with 92 strikeouts in 66 innings spanning August and September. Batters could only muster a .179/.206/.306 against him in that timeframe. FanGraphs ZIPs projects Strasburg to throw 169 innings in 2016 (PECOTA projects 156), which the Nationals would certainly take out of their number two starter, as those last ten starts in 2015 should give the Nationals hope that a dominant Strasburg is still possible. The Nationals hope for a full season, much like we saw in 2014 (34 starts, 215 IP, 3.14 ERA, 2.91 FIP), from Strasburg as he positions himself to cash in on the free agent market next offseason.
With two potentially dominant starters atop the rotation, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and Joe Ross fill out the rest of the rotation. Gonzalez has been reliable most of his career, although command can sometimes escape him. His spot in the rotation will become more important in the top three, as most other contending National League teams (e.g., Mets, Giants, Dodgers) have three solid spots in their rotations. Roark will get a chance to stay in the rotation for a full season after being shuttled to the bullpen last year (12 starts, 28 relief appearances) given the depth of the rotation, filling in as a starter when Strasburg spent time on the disabled list. Roark started 31 games in 2014, won 15 games and had a 131 ERA+ for a Nationals team that won 96 games and the NL East crown. Giving him a spot in the rotation and consistent starts will probably make him more successful than last year (4.38 ERA, 4.73 FIP, -0.4 WARP).
Veteran starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo was in the mix for a spot on the rotation as spring training began, but last week it was reported that he has a torn rotator cuff, which would end his comeback attempt with the Nationals, though the diagnosis was changed to a much less severe inflamed bursa sac on Friday. Arroyo was competing against Ross and Roark to land one of the final spots in the rotation. Ross finished the 2015 season with a 5-5 record and a 3.64 ERA as a rookie before the team shut him down in September after throwing 150 innings between the minors and majors. As a fifth starter, expectations for Ross will be limited as we cannot expect him to throw more than 180 innings, but if injuries occur at the top of the rotation (and they always do), he may have to take on a bigger role.
That brings us to the young arms the Nationals have in the farm system, mainly Lucas Giolito. The Nationals have other pitching prospects, including Taylor Hill and Taylor Jordan, both of whom should be in AAA Syracuse to start the season, and A.J. Cole, a one-time big prospect who may have been rushed and will also start the season in Syracuse. But the headliner is Giolito. Heading into the 2016 season, he is ranked the No. 5 prospect by Baseball America and No. 3 by MLB.com, Baseball Prospectus and ESPN. He hasn’t thrown a pitch above AA but is expected in the majors at some point this season. He was impressive in his spring debut, facing big league batters for the first time, striking out the side in his first inning. If any of the Nationals’ starters miss significant time, or the Mets are pulling away with the division as early as June, or Ross or Roark can’t get into the rhythm in the rotation, the Nats could made the decision to get Giolito, who turns 22 in July, into the rotation.
Even if the top three spots in the rotation pitch to their potential, the questions at four and five mean this staff is not as deep as it was heading into 2015. Matching the success from last year may be difficult, but the rotation is still in the top half of baseball.
Papelbon really is the closer, still?
Much has been made of the trend in baseball to shorten the game by loading the back end of the bullpen with shut down guys. The Nationals made a number of changes as far as the bullpen is concerned, shipping former closer Storen to Toronto and signing Shawn Kelley, Yusmeiro Petit and Oliver Perez. Petit looks to fit into the middle innings and Kelley is more of a setup man who’s had at least a 30% strikeout rate in each of the last three years. Perez is a veteran lefty, who faced 99 left handed hitters last season and held them .194 batting average, striking out 33 and only serving up only one home run. Add in youngster Trevor Gott as another setup man who was acquired in a trade for Yunel Escobar, last season’s third baseman, and you have a decent bullpen in front of Papelbon.
Yes, I have to believe the team tried to trade the controversial closer after his antics in the dugout with the league MVP, but it isn’t surprising he couldn’t be moved. And that’s going to have to be okay. Once the Nationals made the deal for Papelbon last July, the team had to know it would be close to impossible to get rid of him after his 2016 salary of $11 million became guaranteed, and he has a lengthy no-trade list. Much has been made over the last few years about Papelbon’s downfall, biggest indicator being his drop in strikeout rate – the last season he was over 30% was in 2012, his first season in Philadelphia. That number has declined steadily over the years, dropping to 21.5% last year. However, given his salary and history as a proven closer through the years, the Nationals are in a spot where they have to count on Papelbon at the end of games. They confirmed that decision when they traded Storen.
This bullpen won’t give the Royals or Yankees a run for their money as one of the strongest in the league. But as we all know, bullpens can come together during a season and carry a team or crumble and be a major detriment through the year. I think the 35-year-old Papelbon has one year left being the guy and hopefully the fans can forgive him for the next seven months at least.
What about team chemistry? Dusty Baker to the rescue?
The biggest change for the Nationals comes in the dugout, as Matt Williams was let go at the end of last season. Replacing Williams is veteran manager Dusty Baker, which was controversial because the team did not get its first choice in Bud Black, reportedly for financial reasons. Baker has the reputation of being a players’ manager and has always gotten a lot out of teams he’s managed through the years. Players have always played hard for him; something that cannot be said for Matt Williams. As a manager, he is 167 games over .500, most recently leading the Reds to the playoffs three of his last four years at the helm. Baker has evolved from his days in San Francisco starting in the late ‘90s to today, which is exemplified by his starting pitcher usage in Chicago in the early aughts compared to Cincinnati. Sure, Dusty has the reputation of an old school guy and no one will confuse him with Joe Maddon when it comes to advanced metrics, but every team and coaching staff is using sabermetrics. I have to believe Dusty will still rely on “feel” when filling out a lineup card, but is listening to the analytics guys in the front office.
Prediction and Expectations
Washington is two years removed from 96 wins and a division title. They have the best offensive player in the National League and a strong pitching staff led by a bonafide workhorse at the top. PECOTA likes them, projecting an 87-75 record, tying the Giants for fourth best in the league. The Nats were expected to easily win the division last year and coast to at least 90 wins. Even in the same division as the NL Champs, Washington should compete for a playoff spot with the rest of the division still struggling. I will say 88 wins this year and a wild card spot for the team in our nation’s capitol.
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