Although they were bounced from the playoffs early, the Nats were one of the best teams in the league last season, putting out the league’s best pitching staff and fielding a top-10 offense.
After losing in the NLDS round for the second time in three seasons, the Nats didn’t improve their offense but doubled down on their ridiculously good pitching staff, bringing in Tigers ace Max Scherzer on a massive deal. While the peripheral moves are fairly minor, and they did lose good contributors like Adam LaRoche, Rafael Soriano, and Tyler Clippard, the Nats are actually better entering this season than last year.
At this point, it’s not a question of if the Nats are good. They’re great. The only question is whether they can stay healthy.
Batting Average: 12th
After playing third and outfield in limited time last season, Zimmerman is set to start at first base this season. Though he managed to play just 61 games last season, his numbers were stellar as he hit five home runs, drove in 38, scored 26, and added 19 doubles in just 240 plate appearances.
A healthy Zimmerman is plenty capable of 25+ home runs, 80+ RBI, 30 2B, and 80+ R with a solid batting average. The move to first should help him stay healthy and keep his diminishing glove from hurting the Nats at third.
Moore is a solid backup who gives the Nats some pop off the bench but not much else.
Frandsen can play all over the infield and outfield and has a solid glove but leaves a lot to be desired at the plate.
2B: Yunel Esobar, Dan Uggla
Escobar was a strong hitter early in his career but at this point he’s a mid-200s batter who can drive in 40-50 runs and add 20+ doubles. His glove used to be quite strong but his -1.6 dWAR in 2014 suggests he’s regressing in that department as well. He’s also dealing with an oblique strain but for the most part has been able to stay healthy enough to play 130+ games every season in his career.
Once a three-time All-Star, Uggla is just trying to stay in the league after two miserable seasons in Atlanta. In 2013, Uggla batted a mere .179 but did add 22 home runs, though that only amounted to 55 RBI. Last season he played just 52 games between the Braves and Giants, batting a pathetic .149 with 2 HR, 10 RBI, and 14 R. With plenty of depth in the infield, Uggla needs the Nats a lot more than they need him.
3B: Anthony Rendon, Ian Stewart
After a strong rookie season in 2013, Rendon put the league on notice last year. At 24, the former top-20 prospect batted .287 with 21 HR, 83 RBI, 39 2B, 17 SB, and an NL-best 111 runs. Not only does he do everything well at the plate, he’s also got a phenomenal glove and gives the Nats a huge defensive boost over an aging Ryan Zimmerman. Expect to see Rendon in All-Star games and on MVP ballots for years to come.
Like Uggla, Stewart is just trying to stay in the league after managing to play in just 127 games since 2011 and batting .182 with 30 RBI over that stretch. He’s got a decent glove but he’s another guy who needs the Nats more than they need him.
Desmond has been one of the best hitting shortstops in the league for the last three seasons, hitting 20+ home runs in each of them. Last season he batted .255 with 24 HR, a career-high 91 RBI, 24 SB, 73 R, and 26 2B. We’d like to see his approach improve after he struck out a career-worst 183 times last season but between his perennial 25-25 potential and a solid glove, he’s one of the game’s best shortstops.
Far from the 21 home run hitter we saw just three seasons ago, Espinosa has regressed into a below average hitter who mostly makes up for his .219 batting average and .634 OPS with a serviceable glove. He’s got a bit of pop and speed but seldom displays his abilities these days.
Ramos could be one of the best hitting catchers in the league but he just can’t stay healthy. He’s never played in more than 113 games in a season and was limited to 88 last year. He still did his damage, batting .267 with 11 HR, 47 RBI, 31 R, and 12 2B but the Nats are dying to see a full season out of the former top-60 prospect.
Lobaton is a solid veteran backup who has a good glove but isn’t liable to do any damage at the plate.
Bryce Harper is another guy who can’t seem to stay healthy and was limited to 100 games last season. He batted his usual .273 but saw his other numbers slide as he hit just 13 home runs and drove in just 32 runs, stealing a mere two bases. A healthy Harper is still more than capable of hitting 20+ home runs but is he capable of staying healthy?
Denard Span had to undergo surgery on his core muscle, his second operation in three months, and will miss at least the next month. That’s a huge blow to the Nats after Span led the NL with 184 hits in 2014 while batting .302 and adding 39 doubles, eight triples, 94 runs, and 31 steals. He’ll be sorely missed and his injury is worth monitoring when he returns but Span has really developed into a very impressive all-around outfielder.
Jayson Werth is working his way back from offseason shoulder surgery and may not be ready for the start of the season. Werth has been rock solid for the Nats the last two seasons after disappointing in his first two years in Washington. Over the last two years, he has batted .318 and .292 with 82 RBI in both and 84-85 runs. He hit 25 home runs in 2013 and while that fell to 16 last season he saw his doubles jump from 24 to 37. A healthy Werth should be able to produce another good season at the plate with 80+ RBI and the increased doubles give him all the more value. He doesn’t have a great glove and his speed is significantly diminished but the 35-year-old can still swing a bat.
Michael Taylor has only seen 43 Major League plate appearances but has a chance to start Opening Day with the outfield all banged up. Baseball America’s No. 32 prospect entering the season, Taylor has monster potential, having hit as many as 23 home runs and 41 doubles in a single season while stealing as many as 51 bases in the minors. His batting average isn’t great and he strikes out a lot but he also draws a decent amount of walks and terrorizes the basepaths when he’s out there. The Nats already have a strong outfield, when healthy, but the future looks even brighter with Taylor.
Nate McLouth is also recovering from surgery but has already gotten some at-bats in spring training and should be good to go by Opening Day. Regardless, McLouth’s move to Washington has been a disaster thus far as he batted a career-low .173 in 79 games last season. He’s only a year removed from stealing 30 bases but he’s a liability and has the Nats praying Werth and Span get healthy sooner than later.
Stephen Strasburg has posted a 3.10 ERA and 1.11 WHIP over the last three seasons and, while all those numbers looked the same as we’ve seen over the last couple seasons in 2014, he finally pitched more than 200 innings for the first time and saw his strikeouts skyrocket to a league-leading 242. This rotation is insanely good and Stras is the best pitcher to anchor it.
Max Scherzer seems like overkill, seeing as the team already owned the league’s best ERA in 2014. Scherzer struck gold this offseason, inking a seven-year, $210 million deal after leading the AL in wins in back-to-back seasons. He wasn’t quite as untouchable last year as he was in 2013, but Scherzer continued to dominate as he went 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA, 1.175 WHIP, and 252 K to 63 BB. He does a great job of keeping the ball in the park and his numbers may get even better with a move to the NL and a fairly weak division.
Jordan Zimmermann put up his second straight All-Star season and arguably the best year of his career as he went 14-5 and with a 2.66 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 182 K to 29 BB in 2014. He hasn’t posted an ERA over 3.25 in four straight seasons and is one of the best pitchers in the league, even if he is third in the rotation.
Gio Gonzalez has been one of the most consistent pitchers in the league over the last five years, posting ERAs between 2.89 and 3.57 in each. He keeps the ball in the park, strikes out better than nine batters per nine innings, and stays healthy. What does that kind of production get you? The fourth spot in the most stacked rotation in all of baseball.
Doug Fister was good with Seattle and Detroit but looked unbelievable after moving to the NL last year, going 16-6 with a 2.41 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 98 K to 24 BB. He finished eighth in NL Cy Young voting last year and that gets you fifth place in this monstrous rotation.
Tanner Roark had to be the only person in Washington who was unhappy when the Nats inked Scherzer because he pitched well enough to be many teams’ ace last season but can’t even crack the rotation on this team and will be relegated to the pen until one of their pitchers gets hurt. In his first full season in the league, Roark went 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and 138 K to 39 BB.
Drew Storen posted video game numbers in 2014 and will return to the full-time closer’s job for the first time since 2011. Last year, Storen put up a 1.12 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and 43 K to 11 BB. He did struggle in 2013, putting up a 4.52 ERA but he owned a 2.37 ERA in 2012 and a 2.75 ERA and 43 saves as the Nats’ closer in 2011. Rafael Soriano and Tyler Clippard may be gone but the Nats won’t miss them.
Casey Janssen had a great run with Toronto as he posted ERA’s of 2.56 or better in three straight years as their closer/set-up man. He wasn’t quite as good last year, saving 25 games but blowing five opportunities and posting a 3.94 ERA. He was killed by home runs and base hits and will need to get both down, and his strikeouts back up, if he’s going to bounce back to an elite reliever.
Matt Thornton has been in the league since 2004 but put up arguably his best season last year as a lefty specialist for the Yankees and Nats. Thornton posted a career-best 1.75 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 64 appearances and still has it at age 38.
Aaron Barrett struggled a bit with walks in his rookie season but put up a very good season overall as he posted a 2.66 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 49 strikeouts to 20 walks in 40.2 innings. He strikes out a ton of batters and if he can just get his 4.4 BB/9 down to a reasonable number he could be one of the best bullpen arms in the NL.
Craig Stammen fell off a bit in 2014 as he posted a 3.84 ERA and saw his strikeouts drop from 8.7/9 to 6.9. He had posted a 2.34 and 2.76 ERA over his previous two seasons and still has that ability but he’ll need to stop giving up so many hits (9.7 hits allowed per nine last year) if he’s going to be effective.
Jerry Blevins was good last season. But he posted a 4.87 ERA. What gives? Blevins had one of the most unlucky seasons for a pitcher as he put up an ERA close to 5.00 but posted a FIP (measures field independent pitching, how well a player limits HR, BB, HBP and causes strikeouts) of 2.77. That’s a two-run difference, almost unheard of.
His hits per nine stayed about the same, he allowed just three home runs after giving up seven in each of the previous two seasons, allowed one more walk per nine but also saw his strikeouts skyrocket from 7.8 to a career-best 10.4 per nine. It’s one of the more improbable seasons given that he was arguably better in his 4.87 ERA season than his 2.48 ERA season so Nat fans need not worry.
Defense: B to B+
Starting Pitching: A+