I don’t know what to think of this team. The Nats have baseball’s most successful franchise over the past three years, and all they have for it are two first-round losses in the playoffs. Both of those series featured epic defeats: The crushing loss to the Cards in ’12 when the Nats blew a six-run lead overall and a two-run lead in the ninth; and the longest-playoff-game-ever loss last year to the Giants, where every second-guesser on the planet wondered how Matt Williams could have pulled Jordan Zimmermann in the 9th (for the record, I was not one of those people).
The Nats traded away their bullpen depth in the offseason and made an enormous free agent buy in Max Scherzer that added to what already was the strongest starting rotation in baseball. This is turning the pitcher who arguably was their most consistent starter last year into a long reliever — and more honestly, a spot starter who will step in if a nearly inevitable injury comes to another starter. Second base remains a question mark, but second base is a question mark (or worse) on a lot of teams.
Still, there are plenty of other potential issues for the Nats. Already, they’ve been hit hard by injuries. It’s unrealistic to expect Denard Span to replicate a truly great 2014, and he’s reaching an age where his stats might start to slump. Jayson Werth is even older and it’s *really* a lot to ask him to contribute at 2014 levels, especially after shoulder surgery in January. I have no idea how Ryan Zimmerman is going to turn out; he gets hurt a lot and while playing first base will help cover up his shoulder woes, that chronic problem could affect him in all sorts of ways.
So for me, this season comes down to two issues: Answering the question marks in the bullpen and the development of stars-in-training Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper.
The bullpen…well, we’ll just have to see. Drew Storen now has blown pivotal saves in two different postseason series but it’s hard to argue against his overall career; he’s now the no-doubt closer and if he fails, the Nats are in trouble. There’s serious loss of depth behind him (although still some proven pitching) until you get to long reliever Tanner Roark, who would be a starter in quite possibly any other rotation in baseball.
Rendon was one of the National League’s most valuable players last year and looks like a genuine star. He’s back in his natural position and I still think he’s got a good chunk of upside. He needs to be great again for this team to really break out.
And then there’s Harper. What the Nats really need to round out their offense, I believe, is a genuinely terrifying power hitter. The Nats do have moderate power distributed through their lineup and make things super-hard on pitchers, but Harper is the one who could become a truly prodigious power hitter. His injury issues have hampered his development and have started making people ask if he’ll ever get near his ridiculous hype. Still, he was one of the few Nats on offense who didn’t disappear during the San Francisco series, launching a couple of epic homers that made fans like me think, “He’s arrived.”
If Harper — and to a lesser extent, the oft-injured Wilson Ramos — can increase their power numbers, this is a team capable of winning more than 100 games. If not, I think this is a team that could finish in third place and out of the playoffs.
I’ve given up on predicting the postseason; it’s clear now that the expanded baseball playoffs have cheapened the regular season and turned the championship into a crapshoot, especially with the silly 3-out-of-5 series that begin the playoffs for most teams. But if the Nats get there, *that’s* when I’m going to love the addition of Max Scherzer. He is my favorite kind of pitcher — an unflappable ice king (which is also what Zimmermann has become). The moment won’t be too big for him, and that’s going to make it easier on people like Strasburg. But a crazy power hitter sure would help here as well.
Standing in the Nats’ way is Miami, which I think will be baseball’s most improved team in 2015 (and among the most entertaining if they stay healthy). They could contend for the NL East title. And the Mets don’t look bad, either; the Nats’ domination of the Mets last year (15-4) actually may have kept New York out of the playoffs. The Phillies are in terrible shape on many levels and Atlanta looks to be retrenching (but still has enough talent to cause trouble).
I’d be disappointed if the Nats didn’t win 93 or so games, and lots of Baseball Smart People are predicting 100 wins. At this point, the East is theirs to lose, and then we head into the playoffs with a veteran team that is unlikely to be bug-eyed. After this year, free agency and other developments are likely to blow a hole in the team. It really is now or…well, possibly not again for a while.