Tag: Gio Gonzalez

Max Scherzer

2015 Preview: Washington Nationals


Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2015 season. Next up: The Washington Nationals.

The Big Question: Will the Nationals finally live up to expectations after falling short of them in each of the last three seasons?

In 2012, the Nationals took the NL East from the Phillies, winning 98 games and reaching the post-season for the first time since moving to the nation’s capital and for the first time in franchise history since 1981, when the then-Expos lost the NLCS to the Dodgers. In 2013, they were many experts’ pre-season picks to win the World Series but slumped throughout most of the season and only finished at 86 wins thanks to a late-season surge. And in 2014, they reclaimed the NL East but still fell short of expectations when they lost the NLDS to the Wild Card-winning Giants in four games.

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo made a big splash into the free agent market during the off-season, signing starter Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract. Scherzer bolsters what was already a threatening rotation which includes Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, and Gio Gonzalez. Scherzer, the 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner, again led the AL in wins with 18 while compiling a 3.15 ERA with a 252/63 K/BB ratio. Zimmermann finished last season with a 2.66 ERA and a 182/29 K/BB ratio in 199 2/3 innings, and ended the regular season on a high note with a no-hitter at home against the Marlins. Strasburg finished at 3.14 with a 242/43 K/BB ratio in 215 innings; Fister, 2.41 and 98/24 in 164; and Gonzalez 3.57 and 162/56 in 158 2/3. You won’t find a better one-through-five in baseball, and god help you if you have to face Scherzer/Zimmermann/Strasburg in a short playoff series.

As strong as the pitching is, the offense is nothing to sneeze at, either. The only players to take at least 240 trips to the plate and post a below-average adjusted OPS (also known as OPS+) last season were Danny Espinosa (74) and Wilson Ramos (91). Going into 2015, they’ll have four players who could each get into double-digits in steals in Anthony Rendon, Denard Span, Ian Desmond, and Jayson Werth. They could have as many as five hitters slug 20-plus home runs in Rendon and Desmond – who both accomplished the feat last season – along with Werth, Bryce Harper, and a healthy Ryan Zimmerman.

The Nationals’ biggest weakness appears to be their bullpen. Drew Storen returns as the closer after taking over for Rafael Soriano late in the season. Storen finished the 2014 campaign with a 1.12 ERA and a 46/11 K/BB ratio in 56 1/3 innings. He has a spotty track record and relievers in general are a fickle bunch, but there’s good reason to believe his performance was more real than illusory.

There won’t be any excuses for the Nationals if they don’t live up to expectations in 2015. And they’re expected to not just reach the post-season, but win the World Series. Zimmermann, Fister, Desmond, and Span can each potentially become free agents after the season. The Nationals will have a lot of tough decisions to make, and they’ll only be tougher if they can’t accomplish all of their 2015 goals.

What else is going on?

  • The Nationals acquired Yunel Escobar from the Athletics in exchange for reliever Tyler Clippard in January. Escobar, a shortstop by trade, will slide over to second base and form a double-play combo with Desmond. Escobar, 32, has posted a sub-.700 OPS in each of the last three seasons. If there is a weak link in the Nationals’ lineup, Escobar is it.
  • Casey Janssen, the former closer for the Blue Jays, will set up behind Storen. He’ll receive $5 million from the Nationals in total: $3.5 million in 2015 and $1.5 million as part of a buyout for the 2016 season along with a $7 million mutual option. Janssen, 33, made his regular season debut in May due to back problems and finished the season with his worst ERA (3.94) since 2009. Though his control was still pristine, his ability to miss bats took a nosedive. If he can’t rediscover that ability, the Nationals could have problems bridging the gap to Storen.
  • Harper expects to step up in 2015. The first overall pick in the 2010 draft, Harper has been productive but has had trouble staying on the field – he racked up fewer than 500 plate appearances in each of the last two seasons – and hasn’t quite been as productive as his skill set would indicate. He’s only 22 years old and the sky is still the limit. A jump from All-Star to MVP candidate would go a long way towards the Nationals living up to expectations.
  • Zimmerman is moving across the diamond from third base to first base. Though the move will help him defensively, he will have to hit to provide value at the position. In 2014, the average third baseman posted a .714 OPS; the average first baseman was found at .745.

Prediction: The Nationals win the NL East running away with 97 wins.

Gio Gonzalez feels good “right meow”

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 12.12.12 PM

Spring training is the best. Take this interview of Nats starter Gio Gonzalez in which he uses the word “meow” instead of now multiple times, clearly egged on to do so by Max Scherzer, who was counting each time Gonzalez said “meow.”

Pranks and things can be fun, but absurdist humor is something I can really get behind.

Bryce Harper: “Where’s my ring?”

bryce harper getty

Most people are high on the Nationals this season, but outfielder Bryce Harper might be the highest of all. Mark Zuckerman of CSNWashington.com spoke with Harper on Wednesday …

The biggest money quote in a string of them came when Harper was asked for his reaction to the Nationals’ surprise signing of Max Scherzer, a $210 million addition to what already was lauded as baseball’s best rotation.

“To be able to have a guy like Scherzer come in? I just started laughing,” Harper said. “I was like, ‘Where’s my ring?’ You know what I mean? It’s stupid. It’s absolutely stupid how good our staff is.

He’s right — between Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and Doug Fister the starting rotation is indeed stupid-good — but that kind of confidence won’t sit well with everybody.

Washington has been considered something of a juggernaut three years running, yet the franchise has not captured a World Series championship in its 46-year existence (dating back to the Montreal Expos days).

Jordan Zimmermann won’t discuss extension once the season starts

Jordan Zimmermann

Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann is entering what could be his final season in Washington. Both sides have expressed interest in discussing an extension, but the right-hander wants the situation resolved by the start of the regular season, per CSN Washington’s Mark Zuckerman.

Zimmermann, 28, will earn $16.5 million in 2015, the second year of a two-year, $24 million deal signed in January 2014 to cover his third and fourth years of arbitration eligibility. He put up the best numbers of his young career last season, finishing with a 2.66 ERA and a 182/29 K/BB ratio in 199 2/3 innings. He capped off the regular season with a no-hitter against the Marlins on September 28.

The Nationals also stand to lose Doug Fister to free agency, and will have to deal with Stephen Strasburg’s third and final year of arbitration eligibility going into the 2016 season. Gio Gonzalez can become a free agent after the 2016 season if the Nationals choose not to pick up his $12 million option for ’17. They’ll have to make some tough decisions about their pitching staff soon — Zimmermann is just the tip of the iceberg.

Now with Max Scherzer, Nationals’ rotation could be historically elite

Max Scherzer

The Nationals have signed right-hander Max Scherzer to a seven-year deal worth more than $180 million, which now gives them a rotation that could be historically great. Even before the addition of Scherzer, it was already going to be tough to deal with, just as it was last season. Now with Scherzer in the fold, Tanner Roark, who had a 2.85 ERA in 31 starts this past season, likely moves to the bullpen until (if) the Nationals trade one of their starters.

Here’s a look at how each pitcher has performed over the past three seasons:

Tanner Roark 22 11 36 252.1 17.8% 5.0% 43.1% 6.4% 2.57
Jordan Zimmermann 45 22 96 608.2 20.1% 4.5% 43.9% 8.3% 2.96
Stephen Strasburg 37 26 92 557.1 28.0% 6.5% 47.3% 12.0% 3.10
Doug Fister 40 25 83 534.1 17.8% 4.7% 51.7% 10.1% 3.22
Max Scherzer 55 15 97 622.1 28.6% 7.1% 36.5% 8.7% 3.24
Gio Gonzalez 42 26 91 553.2 24.5% 9.1% 45.7% 7.5% 3.25

(Data courtesy FanGraphs)

With Zimmermann set to hit free agency after the season, he appears to be the most likely to be traded. Fister could also be moved, but as he is about three years older than Zimmermann, he wouldn’t bring a comparable return in a trade. Strasburg is reportedly available in a trade, but the Nationals have him under team control through 2016.

Since 1969 — when the pitcher’s mound was lowered — only 23 pitching staffs have finished a season with a combined ERA below 3.00, per Baseball Reference. If you exclude the strike-shortened season of 1981, that number falls to 21. The 1972 Orioles, with the four-headed beast of Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson, and Dave McNally have the record for the lowest aggregate ERA for a pitching staff at 2.58. That same year, the Athletics set the second-best rotation ERA at 2.64 behind Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman, Blue Moon Odom, Vida Blue, and Dave Hamilton.

The most recent threat to the title for best rotation occurred in 2011 with the Phillies (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels), but their aggregate 2.86 ERA ranks 10th. Adjusted for park factors and league strength, however, they do move up a few notches. The 1992 Braves are the only other rotation on the list since 1990.

The Nationals last year led the league in rotation ERA at 3.04 ahead of the Dodgers’ 3.20 mark. Take out Roark, who was a prime regression candidate (his 2.85 ERA beat his xFIP by nearly a full run), with Scherzer, and you have a rotation that could challenge the Phillies as the best modern starting rotation. If the Nationals decide to keep Zimmermann, Fister, and Strasburg, and they enjoy good fortune — both in terms of on-the-field results and pitcher health — they could climb the ranks as one of the best starting rotations in the era of the lowered mound.