WASHINGTON, January 25, 2016 — After a disappointing 2015 season and the departure of some core team members this off season, it would be easy for baseball fans to assume that the window to win a World Series title for the Washington Nationals is closing quickly. However, with the amount of turnover in the Nats clubhuse, players returning from injury, and even a new manager it remains a mystery how the Nats will fare in the 2016 season.
The key losses for Washington were outfielder Denard Span, infielders Ian Desmond and Yunel Escobar, and starting pitchers Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann. As devastating as these departures sound, Jordan Zimmermann might be the only player that the Nats would want a do-over to try and re-sign.
Span was a valuable piece of Washington’s lineup for three seasons which was more evident than ever last year when he only played 61 games. The Nats never found a suitable replacement and their offensive numbers suffered as a result. Now going into his age 32 season, it seems unlikely that Span’s best years are ahead of him, especially considering the defensive position he plays.
Taking Denard Span’s place in centerfield is Ben Revere. Revere has been one of the more consistent players in the NL East in the last three years before a trade to Toronto, with a .306 batting average and striking out just under 50 times a season. His one glaring weakness on offense is that he draws relatively few walks leading to a lower than ideal OBP.
However, Revere is coming off his best year with a 2.6 WAR heading into his age 28 season with two more years of control left on his contract. This should provide Washington with an adequate amount of time to find out if Michael A. Taylor can be their centerfielder of the future.
Ian Desmond’s departure was probably the most disapointing for Washington fans. A solid starting shortstop since claiming the job in 2010, Desmond will be missed even more for his leadership and locker room presence. As popular as he was, the former all star and three time Silver Slugger began to show a noticable decline in offense over the past few seasons and his best years are likely behind him.
One of the more interesting Spring Training stories for Washington will be the battle to replace Desmond at shortstop. Although Danny Espinosa is the most likely candidate to claim the job, Mike Rizzo has stated that Stephen Drew and Trea Turner will have an opportunity to compete for the starting position. Assuming the job does go to Espinosa, the Nats will likely see a slight decrease in offensive production from the shortstop position, but on defense, Espinosa will most likely be an upgrade with a better range and a very strong arm.
With Espinosa likely moving over to shortstop, the new second basemen will be free agent acquisition Daniel Murphy. While defense has always been an issue with Murphy, his offense should more than make up for it. In the last five seasons he has batted .281 or higher and averages under 70 strikeouts a year. His left handed contact bat will be a welcomed addition to what was previously a very right handed dominant lineup.
Washington’s starting rotation will be an interesting story to follow this year. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez will all return to reprise their roles, but Joe Ross and Tanner Roark, who will fill out the last two spots, will have have major questions to answer.
The most significant loss for the Nationals will be Jordan Zimmermann. Since he became a full time starter in 2011, he has been Washington’s most consistent player. Over the past four years, he averaged over 200 innings a season, an ERA+ of 124, and a K/BB ratio of 4.37. No matter how you look at it, these are difficult numbers to duplicate.
Ross did a comendable job last year filling in for the injured Stephen Strasburg, making 13 starts and at times displaying a filthy repertoire. He only pitched 76 innings, so it will be interesting to see how much the Nats can get out of the young starter going into his age 23 season. If Ross can build on a successful rookie season, the Nats may have found a hidden gem for their rotation.
The other mystery piece to the rotation will be Tanner Roark. Roark struggled much of last year, never settling into a defined role for Washington. He started 12 games and was a reliever in 28 other games. The Nats hope to get the starter they had in 2014 when Roark went 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA. If Roark can be closer to the pitcher he was two years ago then the Nats will once again have a very formidable rotaion.
The Nats will appear to stand pat at the catching position. Wilson Ramos finally stayed healthy last year, playing in a career high 128 games. However, 2015 proved to be his worst overall offensive season with a slash line of .229/.258/.358 and a 64 OPS+, which hardcore baseball fans don’t need to be told, is dreadful.
It wasn’t all bad for Ramos. He was a finalist for the Gold Glove award, eventually won by Yadier Molina. Ramos caught both of Max Scherzer’s no-hitters and threw out 44 percent of base runners attempting to steal. Even with some offensive improvement, and a capable backup in Jose Lobaton, Washington’s catching situation might be in flux at the trading deadline unless Ramos can finally have his breakout year.
Perhaps the biggest question to be answered by this team will be how they bounce back from the several injuries that many of their core players sustained last year. Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, and Ryan Zimmerman missed a combined 223 games last year due to injury. While one can never expect Zimmerman and Werth to stay off the DL, if each of those three can manage to play at least 100 to 120 games next year, the Nats should be in good shape.
Rendon will be heading into his age 26 season. For the next few years, if he can stay healthy, he could put up the best numbers of his career. Even if Rendon could keep his production level close to where he was in 2014, the year he came in 5th place in the NL MVP voting, the Nats will have even more production out of the third base position than they did with Escobar patrolling the hot corner. Escobar had a great year, but it was likely a career offensive year for the infielder now playing for the Angels.
Ryan Zimmerman will be another player who will be looking for a bounce back season this year. After playing in a combined 156 games in his last two seasons, Zimmerman will try to prove that he can once again be the player who played in at least 142 games a year in six of eight seasons from 2006 to 2013.
Clint Robinson did an honorable job filling in for the Z-Man last year, but if he’s playing more than 40 games at first base this season, there’s a problem. Conceivably, Zimmerman still has some good years left going into his age 31 season. If he can pull it off, he’ll once again be one of the top run producers in Washington.
Coming off the worst season of his career, Jayson Werth has a lot to prove. Considering that he turns 37 in May, it is probably safe to assume that Werth’s best baseball is behind him. In a familiar theme, his primary concern will be to stay healthy. Unlikely to be a major offensive force, Werth must continue to show discipline at the plate and intelligence on the basepath. Only time will tell if he has enough left in the tank.
Many would argue that Washington’s biggest weakness last year was their bullpen. While Drew Storen was having a career year in the first half of the season, it was difficult for the rest of the bullpen to pick up the slack and provide him with a lead in the ninth inning.
When Mike Rizzo made the questionable move to trade for Jonathan Papelbon, Storen seemed to colapse in the setup role with Papelbon not performing much better as the closer. The Nats hope that their bullpen can exceed expectations, something they have not done in the last few seasons.
Washington has added to their bullpen this offseason with the acquisitions of veteran relievers Yusmeiro Petit, Oliver Perez, Shawn Kelly, and youngster Trevor Gott. Petit will be Washington’s long man in the bullpen, taking over the roll from Tanner Roark who is moving back into the rotation this year. Gott and Kelly don’t seem to have defined roles yet, but will likely compete for a late inning setup role. Perez seems to be a lock to fill the roll as a lefty specialist.
There will be a few familiar faces returning to the bullpen in 2016. Blake Treinen and Felipe Rivero will both be back for 2016 although under different circumstances. Treinen took a step back last year when his walks more than doubled from 13 to 32 in only a handful more innings, and his ERA rose from 2.49 to 3.86. One positive was his SO9 or strikeout rate per nine innings increased from 5.3 to 8.6. But with that came many more free passes which often returned to haunt him.
Rivero, on the other hand will be looking to build on his own impressive rookie season in which his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) of 2.64 means that he probably pitched a little better than his still impressive 2.79 ERA. He kept runners off the basepaths with only 11 walks in 48 innings and a WHIP of 0.952. If Rivero can duplicate or even improve these numbers, look for him to be the primary setup man in Washington’s bullpen.
The closer position will be closely monitered this season by the front office as well as the fans who are still reeling from the altercation Jonathan Papelbon had with Bryce Harper last year. Papelbon will be going into his age 35 season, and although his traditional numbers from last year weren’t terrible, more advanced statistics like FIP suggest that he was not as good as his ERA showed.
Papelbon finished the season with an ERA of 2.13 between his time with the Phillies and the Nationals. However his FIP, which accounts for only results that a pitcher can control (i.e. Ks, BBs, and HR per 9IP), was at 3.70 which would be the worst season of his career since 2005 in which he only pitched 34 innings. Signs seem to point to a regression to the mean next year, which will not be good news for the Nationals.
The biggest story last year was, of course, Bryce Harper who not only had an MVP season, but one of the most historically dominant years of any baseball player. Harper led the league with 118 R, 42 HR, .460 OBP, .649 SLG, 1.109 OPS, 195 OPS+, and a WAR of 9.9. Paul Goldschmidt had the next highest WAR for a position player at 8.8 which means Harper was at least 1.1 wins better than every other hitter in the NL. The big question will be how he follows a performance like that.
Managing the Washington Nationals in his first year with the team will be Dusty Baker. Although not a favorite among sabermetric enthusiasts, Baker’s resume speaks for itself. His players all speak highly of him and he has won everywhere he has managed. A three time manager of the year in 1993, 1997, and 2000, Baker’s leadership and player management skills will definitely be a net plus despite his old school approach to the game.
162 games is a long season where there will, no doubt, be many surprises along the way. Pre-season predictions are often a fool’s errand. In 2012, the Nats were still thought to be a year or two away from contention and last year they were picked by many to win the World Series. One can never tell exactly how a season will play out. Of course this is why they play the games. The Washington Nationals will have more questions than answers heading into the 2016 season, but on paper they have the potential to be a championship contender once again.