No, the game isn’t played on paper (or a computer screen). And no, the 2015 Washington Nationals, fine as their press clippings may be, are not assured a 100-win season and safe passage to the World Series.
Yes, Matt Williams’ club actually does have to play the 162-game schedule without a Fall itinerary, like the rest of the league’s teams. But no, the Miami Marlins, while intriguing in their cute little way, do not pose a legitimate challenge to Washington’s repeating as National League East champions.
Yes, those Matt Harvey versus Max Scherzer matchups will be fun to watch – Harvey/Strasburg was pretty great – but even if the Mets were to win one or two of those games, they’ll fall well short over the other 158 or 159. Yes, the Braves are rebuilding. And no, I didn’t mention the Phillies. The NL East is the Nationals’ division to win, and they’re going to win it going away. In fact, they’ll be baseball’s first team to clinch.
And finally, yes, because they are a baseball team, with a roster full of humans, the Nats have issues. It’s just that their issues are less worrisome than most teams’, and their strengths are, well, stronger.
With Denard Span coming back from core (or “sports hernia“) surgery and Jayson Werth nursing a right shoulder, Washington’s outfield has health concerns that may or may not linger. Rookie Michael Taylor, impressive in the spring and last year at AA Harrisburg, may be tested early.
Third baseman Anthony Rendon was hobbled by a sore left knee for most of March and new second baseman Yunel Escobar (currently filling in for Rendon at third) was out with an oblique for a chunk of exhibition play. Perhaps most importantly, longtime third baseman and team leader Ryan Zimmerman is coming off a 100-games-missed 2014 season while being asked to change positions.
Generations ago, before free agency, it was normal for a club to move a player to first base in the twilight of his career. Now, teams endeavor to station a big stick there, and preferably one with Gold Glove credentials, while putting the old guy out to pasture. Pause at the “twilight of his career” label if you will; a 10-year veteran with an increasingly questionable throwing arm, Zimmerman is likely a former third baseman going forward. And you don’t just move across the diamond with a snap of the fingers. This particular transition from third to first is far from a slam-dunk, and the team will surely miss Adam LaRoche’s play on both sides of the ball.
So much for the issues. Washington fans have much to hang their cool cursive-“W” caps on.
Span, Werth and Rendon will be present and accounted for plenty during the long season, with career-average seasons within reach. More, in Rendon’s case. Bryce Harper, at all of 22, is another year older and more experienced, and coming off a rather showy, three-home-run 2014 postseason.
Shortstop Ian Desmond will spend the summer auditioning for free agency, which is as good a motivating force as exists in baseball. He’s averaging .276/.326/.465, 23 homers and 81 RBIs since 2012, taking a Silver Slugger Award home each year. And he’s better than that.
But Washington’s Nationals are all about starting pitching, and oh, what starting pitching it is. Nothing you’ve read, seen or heard about new ace Max Scherzer and the men who follow him can be fairly summarized as hype. It’s admiration.
Scherzer is going to enjoy facing the eight-batter lineups of the National League. In his last three seasons, he’s started a grand total of five games in NL parks (with no designated hitter). Out of 97. During that time he’s gone 55-15, with a 3.26 ERA, 723 strikeouts in 622 1/3 innings, a 1.128 WHIP and an opponent’s batting average of .229. That’s .229, almost entirely vs. American League hitters.
I’m sorry if you think that wins are “stupid.” 55-15 is substantial in the 21st century, as it was in the 20th. Max Scherzer is that good.
Jordan Zimmermann (14-5, 2.66, 1.072 in 2014) is too, and if not for an ill-advised, one-out-away managerial decision which changed the trajectory of the 2014 postseason, not to mention the destiny of a great and long-suffering baseball city entirely…well, we’ll never know.
Next in line is Stephen Strasburg, now four years removed from Tommy John surgery and coming off his strongest season, with the 34 starts and 215 innings as significant as the 14-11, 3.14 and NL-leading 242 Ks.
Gio Gonzalez (10-10, 3.57, 1.197 in 2014) is a fine fourth man, and Doug Fister, a number-two starter on a bunch of teams, goes fifth. With Fister producing a 16-6, 2.41, 1.079 line in 2014, he’s so good it’s almost unfair to pitch him fifth. Not to him; to the rest of baseball.
Tanner Roark (15-10, 2.85, 1.092 in 2014), has been bumped to the bullpen with the addition of Scherzer – though, really, he’s the Nats’ sixth starter. Washington’s pen, like most clubs’, is a work in progress; a bit of question mark. To be fair, so is Matt Williams. It’s doubtful, however, that Williams will blunder into a rookie-manager mistake in 2015 to compare to the history-changing boner of last October. He won’t be a rookie manager, after all.
But again, and not to beat a dead division here, the Nats have six quality starting pitchers. Count em; six. And we can do better than “quality.” Theirs is a simply glorious rotation. Scherzer, Zimmermann, Strasburg, Gonzalez, Fister. In case of emergency, break glass; employ Roark.
Predicted record: 97-65