Playing Pepper 2015: Washington Nationals

It’s one of the annual traditions here at C70 At The Bat, our trip around the majors in blog form.  Since 2009, I’ve been asking bloggers from other teams about what’s going to happen with their squad in the coming season.  It’s always fun to see what the opposition is thinking and how optimistic some of their most devoted and intelligent fans are.  This year, the Pepper series is brought to you by Out of the Park Baseball 16, coming soon for PC.  Order this outstanding baseball simulation today!

Washington Nationals
96-66, first in the NL East, lost in NLDS

It seems very possible that we’ve saved the best for last.  (Well, almost last–I’ve got a bit of a surprise for tomorrow.)

All the Nationals did to a team that won 96 games was add probably the best pitcher on the market in Max Scherzer.  Two quick outs in three years has gotten the Nationals faithful ready for a bigger helping of October baseball, even though the team’s only been around (in this incarnation, of course, all respect to the Expos) for now 10 years.  The expectations are high but the personnel are there to fill them.

To talk about this impressive technological terror, I’ve got two guys ready to drop knowledge.  Before I introduce them, I want to say that they both (along with others, of course) have been extremely helpful during some recent Baseball Bloggers Alliance issues and they have my gratitude.  Dave writes all manner of Washington sports over at District Sports Page.  You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP and the blog’s Nats coverage @NationalsDSP.  JD writes the statistically-minded Rational Pastime which covers all manner of things with a stat-based focus.  He’s on Twitter @RationalPastime.

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

DSP: Obviously, the big move was signing Max Scherzer. Adding him turns an already very good staff into a dominant one. Past that, the only change was sending Tyler Clippard out for Yunel Escobar, and I’m not a fan of the move. I get that the Nats aren’t going to be able to keep all their free agents (Clippard was one of five, along with Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Denard Span), but Escobar is merely average offensively and was brutal in the field, dealing with chronic back issues. He may even get beat out by NRI Dan Uggla for playing time.

RP: There wasn’€™t much the Nationals needed to do this offseason. They finished last season as the best team in baseball according to my Power Scores, but that didn’€™t stop them from going after Max Scherzer and turning their already dominant rotation into MLB’s best (according to FanGraphs’€™ Depth Charts).

If there was a hole Washington needed to fill, it was at second base with the relocation of Rendon to third and Zimmerman to first. Fortunately, the Nats already had their one-time rookie phenom and former starter Danny Espinosa waiting in the wings. For insurance and salary purposes, the Nats sent reliever and fan favorite Tyler Clippard to Oakland for Yunel Escobar. While Escobar has spent his Major League career at shortstop, it’€™s assumed he take over at 2B if needed.

As a fan, I’€™m sad to see Clippard and former 1B Adam LaRoche head for newer pastures. While I’€™ll miss LaRoche and question the necessity of dealing Clippard for Escobar, the Washington Nationals made no real mistakes this offseason, while augmenting the team by a substantial margin. If there’€™s one message that Rizzo and the Lerners are sending the fanbase in 2015, it’€™s that they want to win right now.

C70: I think we have a good idea the strength of this team. What’s the weakness?

DSP: The Nats only weakness on paper is injuries. It’s entirely possible the start the season with Span (abdominal surgery), Jayson Werth (shoulder), Anthony Rendon (knee) and even possibly Stephen Strasburg (ankle) on the disabled list, making April very tough sledding. Werth’s shoulder surgery was extensive, and it might be the All-Star break before he’s
“Jayson Werth” again. His power’s been on the slide the past several seasons regardless.

RP: It’€™s tough to find weaknesses in a team that I just called the best in baseball. The departure of Clippard might reveal some holes in the Nationals’€™ bullpen, and the injury histories of Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth will continue to be a concern. Both players will need to remain healthy if this team is going to fulfill its heady expectations for the 2015 campaign.

C70: What are your expectations for Bryce Harper this season?

DSP: It’s easy to predict a breakout year for Harper after his post-season series against the Giants. If he can stay healthy and get 600 plate appearances in this season, I think the numbers will take care of themselves.

RP: I’€™m not one for doing player predictions, but his ZiPS slash line of .280/.365/.494 over 121 games seems reasonable to me. For Harper, we know he’€™s going to bring the power, the range and the flash. The only question is whether he can remain healthy. My hope is that he puts in 140-50 games this year, but odds–based on his history and his balls-out style of play–are that he’€™ll see at least one stint on the DL this season.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

DSP: Harper and Rendon are really the only young players that still have “upside” in the lineup, unless you want to count Michael Taylor, who will fill in for Span in center until he returns. I think Blake Treinen, one of the Nats big, young, hard throwing starter-turned-relievers will flourish in a one-inning role, helping to fill in for the departed Clippard. Treinen could have closer’s stuff before it over.

RP: Harper may be the Nats’€™ highest profile young player, but last year was really the year of Anthony Rendon. I believe this is the year that he makes the league stand up and notice how great a talent he is. Will he repeat his 6.5 fWAR 2014? That I don’t know. What I do believe is that Rendon will take another step forward towards becoming the face of the franchise.

C70: What’€™s your projection of the team’€™s record and where will they finish in the division?

DSP: The early-season injuries make it tough to put a finger on a solid projection, as I had this team at 94 wins before the injuries. I’ll still say 92 wins, easy first place in the N.L. East. The Marlins and Mets will be better this season, but the Phillies and Braves will be two of the worst teams in all of baseball, inflating the win totals of the other three teams in the division.

RP: Again, projections aren’€™t my bag, but the best bet is for this team to finish in the 90-100 win range and at the top of the division. Anything less and this season will have been a disappointment.

C70: What do you like best about being a Nationals fan?

DSP: This is a tough question. I’ve been credentialed to cover the team since 2010 and having to suppress any fandom while in the press box or dugout has carried over to my daily life. I’m a fan of the game on the field and the analytics that explain the game off the field. Do I want the Nats to win games? Sure. But I’m much more interested in how that gets done or why it didn’t, and trying to explain it to the folks that read our website. I have little to no interest in regular “fan” stuff like human interest stories, bobbleheads or racing mascots. It’s just not how I’m built.

RP: Full disclosure, I’€™m a born-and-bred fan of the hated New York Yankees. Though I’€™m married to the pinstripes, the Nationals are my long-time mistress and, truthfully, I’ve found myself following the Nats far more closely these last two seasons.

It all started while I was at college in upstate New York. I fell in love with the hapless yet exciting and unrelenting Montreal Expos. Barely two weeks after I relocated to Washington, DC, for graduate school, MLB announced that the Expos would be following right behind me to start the 2005 season as the Nationals. It was kismet. I was there when Livan Hernandez threw out the first pitch in the home opener at RFK Stadium on April 14, 2005 (it was way outside; the Ump graciously called it a strike), and I’€™ve been hooked ever since.

My thanks to Dave and JD for their thoughts on Washington’s squad.  This is going to be a tough team to play against and I have a feeling they’ll be holding a grudge if St. Louis runs into them again in the postseason!

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