2015 Preview: Washington Nationals

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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.

Nationals GM Rizzo won’t reveal length of Martinez’s new contract

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WASHINGTON — Dave Martinez spoke Saturday about managing the Washington Nationals for “many, many years” and over the “long term” and “quite some time,” thanks to his contract extension.

Sharing a table to a socially distanced degree with his manager on a video conference call to announce the new deal – each member of the duo sporting a 2019 World Series ring on his right hand – Nationals GM Mike Rizzo referred to the agreement’s “multiyear” nature, but repeatedly refused to reveal anything more specific in response to reporters’ questions.

“We don’t talk about terms as far as years, length and salaries and that type of thing. We’re comfortable with what we have and the consistency that we’re going to have down the road,” said Rizzo, who recently agreed to a three-year extension of his own. “That’s all we want to say about terms, because it’s private information and we don’t want you guys to know about it.”

When Martinez initially was hired by Rizzo in October 2017 – his first managing job at any level – the Nationals’ news release at the time announced that he was given a three-year contract with an option for a fourth year.

That 2021 option had not yet been picked up.

“The partnership that Davey and I have together, our communication styles are very similar. Our aspirations are similar, and kind of our mindset of how to obtain the goals that we want to obtain are similar. I think it’s a good match,” Rizzo said. “We couldn’t have hit on a more positive and enthusiastic leader in the clubhouse. I think you see it shine through even in the most trying times.”

The Nationals entered Saturday – Martinez’s 56th birthday – with a 23-34 record and in last place in the NL East, which Rizzo called “a disappointing season.” The team’s title defense was slowed by injuries and inconsistency during a 60-game season delayed and shortened by the coronavirus pandemic.

World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg threw just five innings because of a nerve issue in his pitching hand and players such as Starlin Castro, Sean Doolittle, Tanner Rainey, Adam Eaton and Carter Kieboom finished the year on the IL.

“This year, for me, we didn’t get it done. We had a lot of bumps in the road this year. But I really, fully believe, we’ve got the core guys here that we need to win another championship,” Martinez said. “I know Mike, myself, we’re going to spend hours and hours and hours trying to fill the void with guys we think can potentially help us in the future. And we’ll be back on the podium. I’m really confident about that.”

Rizzo was asked Saturday why the team announces contract lengths for players, as is common practice around the major leagues, but wouldn’t do so in this instance for Martinez.

“The reason is we don’t want anybody to know. That’s the reason,” Rizzo said, before asking the reporter: “How much do you make? How many years do you have?”

Moments later, as the back-and-forth continued, Rizzo said: “It’s kind of an individual thing with certain people. I don’t want you to know what I make or how many years I have. Davey doesn’t want you to know. And I think that it’s only fair … when people don’t want certain information out there, that we don’t give it.”

There were some calling for Martinez to lose his job last season when Washington got off to a 19-31 start. But Rizzo stood by his manager, and the team eventually turned things around, going 74-38 the rest of the way to reach the playoffs as an NL wild-card team.

The Nationals then beat the Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals to reach the World Series, where they beat the Houston Astros in Game 7.

Washington joined the 1914 Boston Braves as the only teams in major league history to win a World Series after being 12 games below .500 during a season.

“Everything from Day 1 to where he’s gotten to now, he’s grown so much. He’s really become one of my favorite managers of all,” three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer said after helping Washington win Saturday’s opener of a doubleheader against the New York Mets. “Davey really understands how to manage a clubhouse, manage a team. We saw it in the postseason. He knows how to push the right buttons when everything is on the line.”