HBT’s 2016 MLB Team Preview: Washington Nationals

Andy Cuello, MLB

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2015 Season: I am going to start off by saying this: I personally do not think the 2015 Nationals were nearly as big a disaster as many other baseball people do. They went 83-79, and based on their +68 run differential actually had an 89 Pythagorean win expectation, so you could argue they were a little bit unlucky.

For reference, the division winning Mets won 90 games, yet had that same 89-win expectancy, so the two teams were much closer statistically than the 7 games suggest. I think the prevailing notion of failure and disappointment from the 2015 squad stems primarily from the fact that they were given unrealistic expectations going into the year. With the signing of Scherzer and others, sensationalistic fanboys thought they were going to go 120-42.

Baseball is a fickle game, and talent does not always win out over the large 162 game sample size like it does in a 82 game NBA or NHL season. I think the Nationals will realize their one year-post hype in 2016, make the playoffs, and make some noise. Here is how I see it:

 

Key Additions: Daniel Murphy, Ben Revere, Oliver Perez

15b6f7254859e2018c0f6a706700a219_tx600I have always thought Murph was overrated in New York. NLCS aside, he is a good but not great spray hitter who gets a lot of doubles as well but he has very limited power and doesn’t walk nearly enough. Hitting .291 when the league average is .254 is great and all, but if you don’t draw walks and all that .291 gets you is a sub .340 OBP then what’s the deal with you? He is also a MASSIVE liability in the field. Having said that, he is without a doubt a top-of-the lineup major league hitter, and if the big boys behind him hit enough he can score over 100 runs.

They got Revere in the Drew Storen trade. The former 1st round pick has become a very good all-around player in that ‘sub-all-star tier’, and in the leadoff spot he is looking to hit .300 and steal 20+ bases for the 4th year in a row for multiple teams. He is a poor man’s Dee Gordon, whom I wrote about in the Marlins preview, and it’s easy to envision a world where Revere and Murphy form a deadly 1-2 at the top of the lineup and Harper drills them in 130+ times.

Ollie Perez has resurrected his career admirably, post his Mets career. He is if nothing else, a long man out of the bullpen who costs absolutely nothing to have around, and he can mop up blowouts and eat innings.

 

 

Key Losses: Drew Storen, Doug Fister, Jordan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Denard Span, Yunel Escobar, Matt Thornton, Craig Stammen.

That is like…an entire team. If you look at those names up there, you will see a very large chunk of the 2011-2014 core of Nats, a collection of men who took this franchise to a place it had not been since moving here from Montreal in 2004. Those players helped make this franchise relevant again.

Storen, as mentioned earlier, was shipped to Toronto in exchange for Revere. He had a 42 save season in 2012, before losing his closers job to a combination of Tyler Clippard and then the ageless Rafael Soriano in the ensuing years. His ungodly 2014 season in a setup role (ERA+ of 336!!!) serves as a reminder of how deadly a reliever can be when he can throw 4 plus pitches like a starter can.

Last year at this time, the Washington Nationals outbid the hometown Tigers and lifted ace Max Scherer from them. This year, the Tigers returned the favor by enticing Jordan Zimmerman away from these Nats with an $110 contract. Zim will be missed for sure, as he has shown over his career that he is either a great number two starter, or a shaky number one. Either way, he is one of the top 20 or so right handed pitchers in the entire game. As much as the Nats have built a recent rep for spending like the Yankees of old, they could have probably given Zimmerman that money and made their rotation even scarier.

Ian Desmond never became the lights out five tool SS superstar that people thought he would be following his All-Star 2012 season, but he is still a very good player who will have a lot to prove in that small ballpark in Texas this year. A big season from him which could make people second guess the Nats decision to move on from him.

Yunel Escobar has had an up and down career overall, but the “ups” lead you to believe that he could be a top 8 shortstop if he just puts it all together and gets his head right. Last year was one of those years as the man hit .314 with a .375 OBP. His immature and boyish attitude (despite the fact that he’s 32 now) has gotten him shipped out of town in Atlanta, Toronto, Tampa and now Washington, but he will be an asset to the Angels, as they look to replace Erick Aybar, who is now in this division on the Braves.

After an utterly BRILLIANT 2014 when he finished 8th in Cy Young Award voting, Doug Fister crashed back down to earth last year, and the Nats let him walk to the Astros where he will look to shore up the back of their rotation. Fister, 32, probably has at least 2-3 more good years left, and if the Nats rotation wasn’t so deep he would be missed almost as much as Zimmerman.

 

nats 2Projected Opening Day Starting Lineup:

Ben Revere CF .306 Avg / 2 HR / 45 RBI / 31 SB
Daniel Murphy 2B .281 Avg / 14 HR / 73 RBI
Anthony Rendon 3B .264 Avg / 5 HR / 25 RBI
Bryce Harper RF .330 Avg / 42 HR / 99 RBI
Jayson Werth LF .221 Avg / 12 HR / 42 RBI
Wilson Ramos C .229 Avg / 15 HR / 68 RBI
Ryan Zimmerman 1B .249 Avg / 16 HR / 73 RBI
Danny Espinoza SS .240 Avg / 13 HR / 47 RBI

 

After striking out with both Jason Heyward and Yoenis Cespedes in free agency, the Nats still have a formidable offense.

A perfect 98 win season for the Nats, as I said earlier, involves Revere and Murph getting on base at a high rate, only to be driven in by a transcendent Harper and the promising Rendon.

Bryce Harper is arguably the best hitter in MLB right now. For the longest time, really since he came up in 2011, I thought he was overrated and could not believe the media attention a career .275 hitter was getting. Last year he proved me wrong, and turned into Ted Williams like we all knew he might, and the rest will be history. Still only 23, there is a chance we have not seen his peak, which is terrifying.

The 6th overall pick of the 2011 draft, Anthony Rendon is probably the second-best hitter on the club even though he only played in 80 games last season. It’s not a good sign Rendon didn’t play in the second half of 2015, and he has shown to be fragile, but he has the potential to be one of MLB’s best third basemen. In 2014, he hit .287 and hit more 20 home runs in his age 23 season, so if he goes 30/100 this year it should not be seen as a huge jump/surprise.

nats 4Expectations should not be high for Zimmerman or Werth though. Both former all-stars in their mid-30’s, one home grown and one bought, these two guys are just not the players they were a couple years ago. Zimmerman is beloved by the Nationals and their fans because he stuck with the team during their lean years in the 2000’s, and because he has put up great numbers for the club over the years. Zimmerman was actually this franchise’s first draft pick since they were the Expos. He is just not good anymore though. They had to move him to 1st to make room for Rendon. He has played in under 100 games in both 2014 and 2015, and his numbers fell drastically last season. Werth finished last year hitting only .221.

He may be cooked at 36, but for whatever it’s worth I do not think the widely-paned mega contract he signed before the 2011 season was that big a disaster. In this day and age, you have to overpay, and out of the 7 years they are going to get from Werth, he has already had 4.5 good ones. That’s not terrible ROI given what some other contracts are about to look like before too long (Pujols, Sandoval, Cano… etc).

 

nats 6Projected Opening Day Rotation:

Max Scherzer RHP 14-12, 2.79 ERA, 276 SO
Gio Gonzalez LHP 11-8, 3.79 ERA, 162 SO
Stephen Strasburg RHP 11-7, .346 ERA, 155 SO
Joe Ross RHP 5-5, 3.64, 69 SO
Tanner Roark RHP 4-7, 4.38 ERA, 138 SO

 

With the loss of Jordan Zimmerman to the Tigers, the Nationals starting rotation doesn’t look as good on paper as it did last season. However, this is by no means a bad rotation. In fact, there is actually a decent amount of upside to their group of starting pitchers, lead by Max Scherzer on the second year of the seven year mega-deal he signed with the team last offseason.

Scherzer was the frontrunner for the NL Cy Young for the first couple of months of the 2015 season. The righty’s production did fall of a little bit in the second half the year, but he still finished the season with an ERA under 3.00 with a strikeout rate of 10.9 per nine innings, which was the second highest of his career. Scherzer should continue with this production in 2016 and he be one of the top starting pitchers in the entire league.

Gio Gonzalez, once a legitimate ace for the Oakland A’s a number of years ago, has suffered like so many former A’s pitchers do when they leave the spacious confines of the old Alameda Country Colosseum. He is still a more than solid 2/3 but the Nats would look better if Zim was still there and Gio was the 3.

StephenStrasburg_2013_0Stephen Strasburg continues to be one of the most intriguing starting pitchers in MLB, as we wait to see when he will consistently dominate opposing lineups. Strasburg still has the powerful stuff that he did in his rookie season, but a combo of walks and injuries have prevented him from being the Roger Clemens clone that so many predicted when he was taken 1st overall. He just has not entered the elite group of starting pitchers. Having said that, he’s still good, as he has finished each of the past four years with a sub-3.50 ERA.

Right-hander Joe Ross, brother of Padres (nominal) ace Tyson Ross, flashed some serious potential during his rookie season. Ross was forced into the starting rotation after injuries and underwhelming performance, and the young hurler did not disappoint. Like his brother, Ross has a fastball that sits in the mid-90’s which he uses to rack up a ton of swing and misses, as he averaged 8.1 K’s per nine innings in 2015. He ended the year with a 3.64 ERA and he should improve as he racks up more starts. The major weakness that Ross has in his game right now is that he walks too many guys. If he can learn how to control his pitches better, Ross should cement himself as a top-of-the-rotation option for the Nats for years to come.

Tanner Roark was a huge surprise in 2014, as the unheralded starter finished the season with a 2.85 ERA, and led the team to an NL East title. Unfortunately for Roark, the Nats saw that season for the fluke that it was and moved him to the ‘pen in 2015 where he didn’t adjust between the ears and his ERA bloated to the mid 4’s. Washington, due to the loss of Zimmerman, all of a sudden has a spot open in the rotation again, so he will be the guy. It’s incredibly rare for a pitcher to post a sub 3 ERA and be demoted to the bullpen…and even rarer for the pitcher to suck in the bullpen only to earn a shot back in the rotation, and yet that is exactly what is happening here to Roark.

 

Projected Bullpen:

Closer: Jonathan Papelbon

Setup: Yusmeiro Petit, Oliver Perez, Shawn Kelly

nats 3The Nationals bullpen was led by the departed Drew Storen for the first half of the season. Then he lost his job when the Nats traded for disgruntled closer Jonathan Papelbon. The fiery right-hander has proven to be an effective relief pitcher throughout his career, but he has also proven that he can be a cancer in the clubhouse as evidenced by his fight with Harper. Washington traded Storen this offseason knowing that the two relief pitchers couldn’t coexist. Papelbon now enters the upcoming season as the club’s undoubted closer. This could be a positive for Papelbon knowing that there is nobody breathing down his neck to close. Only time will tell if he harmed the relationships with his teammates past repair with his antics last season. It should be an interesting situation to watch.

 

2016 X-Factor: Anthony Rendon

St Louis Cardinals v Washington NationalsI have him slated to bat third and Harper fourth, but it should really be the other way around. One of the reasons this team got so good overnight in 2012 was that they had hoarded and cultivated high draft picks (1st overall Strasberg in 2009, 1st overall Harper in 2010, 6th overall Rendon in 2011) who all became impactful players on the same timeframe. Kind of like what you’ve seen in KC with Moustakus, Gordon, Cain, et cetera. Rendon will need to protect harper in the lineup because the older guys like Zimmerman and Werth cannot anymore. I have faith in Revere and Murphy at the top, and obviously Harper, but in order for the Nats to make the playoffs they will need more than 3 players to hit well. It falls on this kid.

 

HBT’s Prediction: This team will be formidable in 2016. They will make the playoffs, either as this division’s winner, or one of the wild card teams. I just think that they are too talented not to, granted that is what people said last year. Look for Harper and Scherzer to compete for MVP and CYA respectively with guys like Stanton and Fernandez within the division. Should be really fun. 93 wins.

 

 

 

Be sure to check out the rest of HBT Sports’ MLB Team Previews here.

Author

Andy Cuello

Andy Cuello, a native of quaint and industrious Larchmont New York, enjoys watching sports, and ordering fried food on Seamless. As a lifelong/tortured Dolphins/Mets/Nets fan, on quiet Murray Hill nights if you listen closely enough, you can hear him ranting about how QBs should not be measured by wins, how Baseball needs a salary cap, and how Tony Romo is a top 10 quarterback of all time. He also enjoys hoppy IPAs, small puppies, and watching his alma mater Boston College foolishly refuse to join the 21st century and eschew academic requirements for football players. Follow him on Twitter @AndySee11

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