Washington Nationals center fielder Michael Taylor (3) bats during an exhibition baseball game against the New York Yankees at Nationals Park, Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
“This is the year!”
“No way we can lose!”
“Too much pitching….our starting depth is crazy!”
“It’s our time!”
Those are just some of the positive sentiments from Washington Nationals supporters.
“We didn’t need another starter!”
“Too many injuries!”
“We still need some bats to come to play in October!”
“Our manager doesn’t adjust to the moment!”
Those are just some of the negative sentiments from Nationals supporters.
Pessimism aside, the 2015 version of the Nationals appears loaded, as has been the case over the last three seasons. But this year, many analysts believe the squad is the clear-cut favorite to claim a second straight National League East crown and their third in four years. They are also slight favorites to pop the champagne bottles with a World Series win in late October and bring D.C. its first major sports championship since the 1992 Washington NFL franchise won it all.
Washington Nationals center fielder Michael Taylor, left, jogs back to the dugout with right fielder Bryce Harper (34) during an exhibition baseball game against the New York Yankees at Nationals Park, Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
But the cynical Nationals fan can just look back at the heartbreaks of the last two postseasons and realize no team can win a World Series on paper, or in March. Just getting to the postseason is the first step.
Several offseason roster moves were inevitable, such as not re-signing clubhouse leader and first baseman Adam LaRoche or former closer Rafael Soriano. They will be replaced by two team stalwarts who carry huge question marks: converted third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who will learn his new position on the fly; and Drew Storen, a sixth-year pitcher who has shined at times but has also been inconsistent and suffered his fair share of disappointing postseason moments.
Also gone are second baseman Asdubral Cabrera, a midseason pickup who did a yeoman’s job as a trade rental, and fan favorite set-up man Tyler Clippard. Losing Clippard appeared to be a payroll issue. One disadvantage of having young talent play so well is that you can’t afford to pay everyone what they are truly worth—more on that in a moment.
Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo knows that “The Window of Winning” isn’t very big. Rizzo isn’t one to rest on his laurels—he doubled down on what is universally recognized as the main strength of the ball club, the pitching. He made the biggest free agent splash in all of baseball by signing two-time All Star Max Scherzer to a whopping seven-year, $220 million deal, making him another “ace” on a rotation full of aces including Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzales.
Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper, left, celebrates scoring during the first inning of an exhibition baseball game against the New York Yankees at Nationals Park, Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
This rotation could be one for the record books; on paper it is the best rotation in baseball and was considered such even before signing Scherzer. No one in the rotation carried an ERA higher than 3.57, and the staff led the league with a combined 3.03 ERA. Acquiring the top-tier talent of Scherzer could lessen the blow of a weakened bullpen. Adding former Blue Jays closer Casey Janssen will take some pressure off some of the younger arms in the ‘pen—Janssen is expected to be the primary setup man for Storen.
Zimmerman’s move to first base means that breakout star Anthony Rendon can play his natural position of third base full time. Last year, Rendon flew under the radar as an outside MVP candidate; when the season was over, he finished fifth in MVP voting. This season, he will not sneak up on anyone. However, he will start the season on the disabled list, marking a huge blow to the lineup. But he won’t be the only key player starting the season on the DL. Center fielder Denard Span will likely be out until mid-May and left fielder Jayson Werth will miss significant time early on as both recover from offseason surgeries. The revamped bench, along with trusted veterans like shortstop Ian Desmond, must hold down the fort until Span and Werth recover and get into the normal rhythm and grind of the season.
Looking to break out and have healthy campaigns are fourth year stars Bryce Harper and veteran right fielder Wilson Ramos. For the Nats to truly take the next step as a franchise, both players need to have a healthy campaign and bring to the lineup the pop they are capable of. Harper’s postseason performance has fans salivating at what this 22-year-old can accomplish. You read that right, he’s still only 22 and hasn’t faced a pitcher younger than him at any level. Let’s keep it real. He and Rendon were the only Nats in last year’s National League Divisional Series that didn’t look scared of “the moment” or pressed at the plate. He let the game come to him and let his talent shine through. Hopefully for Nats fans, those final four games of last year were the start of a rise to super-stardom.
This season will also most likely be the final campaign as Nats for Desmond, Zimmermann, Fister and possibly Span. Each player will enter free agency in 2016 with no shortage of suitors willing to spend top dollar for their talents. With younger talent waiting in the minors, Washington will probably let those guys go, undoubtedly leaving a void in 2016 that will be hard to replace. It’s one of the curses of being a really good team.
Washington Nationals second baseman Dan Uggla (26) bats during an exhibition baseball game against the New York Yankees at Nationals Park, Saturday, April 4, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
The Nationals must lean on their All-World starting rotation while they recover from the injury bug. Fans shouldn’t be alarmed if their team doesn’t have the record you would expect from a juggernaut. Last season’s Manager of the Year, Matt Williams, has his work cut out for him in season two. He must improve his flexibility as a manager, a fault which may have cost his team big time in his first postseason at the helm. Perhaps he has learned from his past mistakes, and understands that that winning baseball at the pro level is a marathon process and not a sprint.
Either way, Nats fans should expect the team to put together an outstanding season, win another NL East title, and enter the playoffs as the favorites to bring a World Series title to D.C.