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.

Red Sox place Chris Sale on 10-day injured list

Chris Sale
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Red Sox left-hander Chris Sale has been placed on the 10-day injured list with left elbow inflammation, the club revealed Saturday. The assignment is retroactive to August 14. In a corresponding roster move, right-handed reliever Ryan Brasier was recalled from Triple-A Pawtucket.

It’s an alarming development for the 30-year-old ace, who has been remarkably injury-free after dealing with a lingering case of shoulder inflammation last summer. While he hasn’t replicated the career-high results he delivered over the last two seasons, he still leads Red Sox pitchers with 3.6 fWAR and will head to the IL with a 6-11 record in 25 starts, a 4.40 ERA, 2.3 BB/9, and league-best 13.3 SO/9 through 147 1/3 innings. A timetable has not been given for his return, nor has the severity of his injury been disclosed. Per Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski, Sale has been experiencing pain in his elbow since Wednesday and will undergo further evaluation in the days to come.

Brasier, 31, was optioned to Triple-A Pawtucket in mid-July after pitching to mixed results in the majors. He currently holds a 4.46 ERA, 2.7 BB/9, and 8.0 SO/9 with the Red Sox, though his results in Triple-A — one run, one walk, and 13 strikeouts over 9 1/3 innings — suggest that he might be capable of even sharper results when he rejoins the big league club.