Count me among the fooled last year. I was one of many who thought the Washington Nationals were going to be the best team in baseball in 2015 after adding Max Scherzer to an already loaded starting rotation. I mean, how could a team with Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister in the rotation and a very good lineup led by Bryce Harper not make the playoffs?
Despite a very good season from Scherzer and a monster MVP campaign from Harper, the Nats finished just 83-79 an second in the NL East, seven games behind the Mets. The team won 13 fewer games than in 2014, which was the second-largest drop among National League teams (behind the Brewers at 14).
Every time I see the Nationals fall short of expectations, I go back to the 2012 season when the team stupidly, in my opinion, shut down Strasburg in September instead of just cutting back his innings and keeping him available for the playoffs like the Mets did with Matt Harvey in 2015. I believe those '12 Nationals win the World Series with Strasburg in there but instead they choked away Game 5 of the NLDS to St. Louis and have a single playoff win since then.
As he should have been, Manager Matt Williams was fired following last season's disappointment. He appeared to have lost the clubhouse when Jonathan Papelbon choked Harper in the dugout in the final week. Somehow Papelbon is still on the team. There was talk the Nats were maybe looking again to hire Cal Ripken Jr. as their manager, but the failures of Williams in his first managing job led Washington to experienced Dusty Baker. Great regular-season manager but doesn't have a good playoff track record. Baker has managed 1,671 games over 20 seasons without having won a World Series title, which puts him second only to Gene Mauch. Originally the club was to hire Bud Black, but that fell apart over contract negotiations in an embarrassing episode.
Washington opens the season April 4 at Atlanta.
Nationals 2016 Projected Lineup
Washington lost some good players off last year's lineup: shortstop Ian Desmond (although he disappointed in 2015), infielder Yunel Escobar, and center fielder and leadoff hitter Denard Span, who had trouble staying healthy last year.
One offseason addition was center fielder Ben Revere, acquired from Toronto for reliever Drew Storen -- I guarantee you that the Nats would have preferred to trade Papelbon, but there were no takers for his big contract. Revere is coming off a career-best season at the plate in which he batted .306 with a .719 OPS and 31 steals for the Phillies, where he started last season, and Blue Jays. Revere will lead off. He will be followed by third baseman Anthony Rendon, who was limited to 80 games last year and hit .264 with five homers and 25 RBIs.
Then comes the right fielder Harper, who was a Triple Crown candidate in 2015 in hitting .330 (second in NL) with 42 homers (tied for first in NL) and 99 RBIs. He led the majors in on-base percentage at .460 as he drew a whopping 124 walks as well as leading in slugging percentage at .649. Harper became the youngest unanimous MVP in MLB history. Only seven previous players, most of them Hall of Famers, produced a season with numbers that matched Harper's batting average, home runs, OBP and slugging mark. He might be the first $500 million player when he's a free agent after the 2018 season.
Injury-prone first baseman Ryan Zimmerman (.249, 16 HRs, 73 RBIs) and injury-prone and declining left fielder Jayson Werth (.221, 12 HRs, 42 RBIs) immediately follow Harper. Then comes the second new every-day addition: second baseman Daniel Murphy, formerly of the Mets. He hit .281 with 14 HRs and 73 RBIs during the regular season and then turned into Babe Ruth in the NL playoffs with a homer in a record six straight playoff games.
Shortstop Danny Espinosa (.240, 13 HRs, 37 RBIs) and catcher Wilson Ramos (.229, 15 HRs, 68 RBIs) close out the lineup. Espinosa is only keeping the seat warm for top shortstop prospect Trea Turner. Stephen Drew could also factor in a short or second base if Murphy gets hurt.
The Nationals were 10th in the majors in runs last season, but not much here scares anyone outside of Harper. He might get walked 150 times this year.
Nationals 2016 Projected Rotation & Closer
The rotation said goodbye to Zimmermann and Fister in free agency. Fister struggled and was injured some last year, but Zimmermann was again quite good with 13 wins and a 3.66 ERA. The Nats added Bronson Arroyo in free agency, but he's now dealing with a partially torn rotator cuff. That's actually good news as the team thought it was fully torn. So he should only miss 4-6 weeks. Arroyo really was signed more as insurance than anything.
Scherzer was mostly dominant in his return to the National League in 2015. He had two no-hitters, concluding his season with one and striking out 17 Mets. Scherzer was the first pitcher since Nolan Ryan in 1973 to throw two no-hitters in the same regular season and the fifth to do it in major-league history. His other one in June against Pittsburgh was a perfect game until he plunked the 27th batter. Scherzer finished 14-12 with a 2.79 ERA, fanning 276 (second in NL).
Strasburg (11-11, 3.46) still hasn't really lived up to expectations and made only 23 starts last year due to injury, but he was really overpowering after returning from it with a 1.73 ERA in his final 13 starts. Strasburg is the marquee free agent next winter, and he's going to test the market. Some team will give him $30 million a year, and it's not going to be Washington.
Gonzalez (11-8, 3.79), the lone lefty in the rotation, Tanner Roark (4-7, 4.38) and Joe Ross (5-5, 3.64) round out the rotation. Papelbon (24 saves, 2.13 ERA) closes things out. Keep in mind that the No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball is considered to be Washington's Lucas Giolito, so he could be a factor at some point this season.
Nationals Futures Odds & 2015 Trends
At BetOnline , Washington is +1400 to win the World Series, +700 for the NL pennant, +115 in the NL East (second behind the Mets) and has an "over/under" wins total of 88.5, with the over a -120 favorite. Harper is +1000 to lead the majors in homers and the +200 favorite to repeat as NL MVP. Rendon is +5000 for MVP. Scherzer is +1000 for Cy Young, with Strasburg at +1400 and Gonzalez +10000. That the NL Cy Young winner comes from Washington is +550.
Nationals 2016 Predictions
FanGraphs projects Washington to finish 88-74 and second in the NL East, one game behind the Mets. When considering wins totals for NL East teams, keep in mind that Atlanta and Philadelphia both project to be really terrible, so the division teams can maybe get 30 combined wins against those two. I originally had the Mets finishing second this year to the Nationals in the division, but that was before New York was able to re-sign Yoenis Cespedes. So I'd probably peg Washington a very close second with the knowledge that the Nats will go spend money at the deadline if need be and New York probably won't. I'll go over that wins total. I don't think Harper repeats as MVP but I'm throwing a few dollars on Scherzer for Cy Young.
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Read more articles by Alan Matthews
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