Complete Washington Nationals 2015 Season Preview

Danny Garrison@@dannylgarrisonContributor IMarch 24, 2015

Complete Washington Nationals 2015 Season Preview

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    Stephen Strasburg and the Nats starters face enormous pressure to be the best rotation in baseball.
    Stephen Strasburg and the Nats starters face enormous pressure to be the best rotation in baseball.David Goldman/Associated Press

    This winter, the Washington Nationals set themselves up to mow down any team that stands in the way of a World Series title, but now it's time for the Nats to put their $156 million where their mouth is. 

    That number is Washington's total payroll obligation in 2015, according to Baseball Prospectus.

    The Nationals shattered their previous franchise spending record in order to win right now. And it's hard to see them doing anything other than dominating with the roster general manager Mike Rizzo and company have assembled. 

    The list of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez reads more like an All-Star team than a single club's rotation. The offense that supports that squad features two reigning Silver Sluggers in Anthony Rendon and Ian Desmond and a perennial member of the all-potential team in Bryce Harper

    Washington will be called a lot of things if its grand experiment doesn't materialize in a World Series trophy. Failure, disaster and underachiever are some of the nicer insults the Nationals would face in that situation. 

    But the way this team is built, the odds of making a run at the championship aren't exactly stacked against it. 

    What follows is your guidebook to the 2015 Nationals as they kick off the most anticipated season in the franchise's history. 

Spring Training Recap

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    Tyler Moore's explosive spring training should earn him an Opening Day roster spot.
    Tyler Moore's explosive spring training should earn him an Opening Day roster spot.DG/Associated Press

    Accounting for games through March 24, the Nationals are 9-9-3 in spring training contests. 

    There's your meaningless stat of the day, because results of spring training games don't matter.

    Individual performances, however, can make or break a player's chance at a major league roster spot. And three Washington outfielders essentially demanded a reservation for Opening Day with what they showed at the plate in camp. 

    Tony Gwynn Jr., Michael A. Taylor and Tyler Moore—who also moonlights at first base—made up the top three in both hits and at-bats for the Nationals this spring, all while hitting better than .320 through 21 games. 

    I wouldn't have given either of the three better than a 50 percent chance to crack the Opening Day roster when spring training started. But with injuries piling up in camp and making some space on the squad, it looks like all three could wind up on the first 25-man roster of the year. 

    The return of Heath Bell didn't have a happy ending. The veteran, who lost 40 pounds during the offseason, was released before the end of camp. 

    Dan Uggla's attempted revival is still unresolved, but his chances of cracking the roster are slim to none at this point. 

Injury Updates

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    Denard Span will miss at least the first month of the season following a second offseason surgery.
    Denard Span will miss at least the first month of the season following a second offseason surgery.David Goldman/Associated Press

    Denard Span (core surgery)

    Denard Span is the only National who is sure to miss Opening Day. In early March, the 31-year-old underwent surgery on a right core muscle that manager Matt Williams said will keep him out of baseball activities for 4-6 weeks.

    This was the second surgery of Span's offseason. He had a procedure to repair a sports hernia back in December and he's "Not 100 [percent] sure if the first surgery had anything to do" with his core injury, he told The Washington Post's Chelsea Janes via text.

    Following the four- to six-week timetable after which he can resume baseball activities, it's hard to say when he will be back on the field for Washington. But it's safe to assume Span won't reclaim his role in center field until at least May.

    Jayson Werth (shoulder surgery)

    Jayson Werth's status for Opening Day can still be categorized as cautiously optimistic. The 35-year-old's January shoulder surgery kept him on the shelf for the beginning of spring training, but he's since begun throwing and he's set to play in a minor league game before camp ends, according to Janes

    Nate McLouth (shoulder surgery)

    Nate McLouth's shoulder surgery took place about five months before Werth's, but the recovery process isn't going as smoothly for the former. Williams said McLouth's availability for Opening Day is "in jeopardy right now," via MASN's Chris Johnson.

    McLouth has taken five at-bats in spring training, picking up two hits in his limited action.

    Anthony Rendon (knee)

    Washington's Silver Slugger-winning third baseman suffered an MCL sprain in his left knee on March 13. Here we are, almost two weeks later, and the injury the team described as "mild" via CSN's Chase Hughes could sideline Rendon for Opening Day, according to The Washington Post's James Wagner.

    Stephen Strasburg (ankle)

    Now begins the less serious portion of the injury report. Stephen Strasburg was scratched from a start last week after rolling his ankle during conditioning. Williams' tone was not that of a man whose ace was considerably injured, saying Strasburg will rest "a couple days" and "I don't think it's serious," via The Washington Post's James Wagner

Lineup Preview

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    Ryan Zimmerman will retain his spot somewhere near the middle of Washington's lineup.
    Ryan Zimmerman will retain his spot somewhere near the middle of Washington's lineup.Stacy Revere/Getty Images
    Player2014 Stats
    1. CF Denard Span*147 G, .302 AVG, 184 H, 5 HR, 37 RBI 
    2. 3B Anthony Rendon*153 G, .287 AVG, 176 H, 21 HR, 83 RBI 
    3. LF Jayson Werth*147 G, .292 AVG, 156 H, 16 HR, 82 RBI
    4. RF Bryce Harper100 G, .273 AVG, 96 H, 13 HR, 32 RBI 
    5. 1B Ryan Zimmerman61 G, .280 AVG, 60 H, 5 HR, 38 RBI
    6. SS Ian Desmond154 G, .255 AVG, 151 H, 24 HR, 91 RBI 
    7. C Wilson Ramos88 G, .267 AVG, 91 H, 11 HR, 47 RBI
    8. 2B Yunel Escobar137 G, .258 AVG, 123 H, 7 HR, 39 RBI 

    *Injured/possibly out for Opening Day

    Stats courtesy of

    This is the lineup Washington would trot out at full-strength, which it is currently not.

    The best-case scenario would have Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon all patched up for Opening Day. The doomsday option sees Werth, Rendon and backup outfielder Nate McLouth join Denard Span on the DL for the start of the season. 

    In the event the Nats' 1-2-3 hitters are all out of commission, you'll most likely see Michael A. Taylor leading off with Tony Gwynn Jr. and Kevin Frandsen filling out the lineup at Matt Williams' discretion. 

    Injuries aside, most of Washington's bats occupy slots similar to the ones they filled last season. Bryce Harper should see cleanup duty with Ryan Zimmerman's aging-but-potent bat in the middle of the lineup. Through 33 at-bats, Zimmerman only struck out once and picked up eight hits. 

    Wilson Ramos and Yunel Escobar have never been great for-average hitters, so they'll bring up the rear. We didn't get much of a chance to see Escobar in a Nats uniform this spring. An oblique injury postponed his spring debut until March 23.

Rotation Preview

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    The addition of Max Scherzer this winter took the Nats' rotation from great to potentially historic.
    The addition of Max Scherzer this winter took the Nats' rotation from great to potentially historic.DG/Associated Press
    Player2014 Stats
    1. RHP Max Scherzer33 GS, 18 W, 3.15 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 252 SO, 220.1 IP
    2. RHP Stephen Strasburg34 GS, 14 W, 3.14 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 242 SO, 215 IP
    3. RHP Jordan Zimmermann32 GS, 14 W, 2.66 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 182 SO, 199.2 IP
    4. RHP Doug Fister25 GS, 16 W, 2.41 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 98 SO, 164 IP
    5. LHP Gio Gonzalez27 GS, 10 W, 3.57 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 162 SO, 158.2 IP

    Stats courtesy of

    Throughout this season, as Mike Rizzo admires the collection of starting pitchers he's put together, it's not out of the question for him to shout "Are you not entertained?" during games. 

    At the beginning of the offseason, it didn't seem feasible to keep both Jordan Zimmmermann and Doug Fister on the payroll without signing them to long-term extensions. Not only did the two go unsigned and avoid being traded, but the Nationals threw more than $200 million at free-agent righty Max Scherzer to build this potentially historic five-man wrecking crew. 

    But we are exactly zero regular-season games into the reign of Washington's mega-rotation, meaning absolutely nothing is guaranteed. 

    For more than two months now, these guys have heard that failure to reach the World Series will be chalked up as nothing short of a disaster. The story of the season for the Nationals—and arguably baseball as a whole—will be this rotation's ability to meet an unfathomable set of expectations. 

Bullpen Preview

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    Casey Janssen brings veteran experience to an uncertain Washington bullpen.
    Casey Janssen brings veteran experience to an uncertain Washington bullpen.David Goldman/Associated Press
     Player2014 Stats 
    RHP Drew Storen (closer)65 G, 11 SV, 1.12 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 46 SO, 56.1 IP 
    RHP Casey Janssen50 G, 25 SV, 3.94 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 28 SO, 45.2 IP 
    RHP Craig Stammen 49 G, 0 SV, 3.84 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 56 SO, 72.2 IP 
    LHP Jerry Blevins 64 G, 0 SV, 4.87 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 66 SO, 57.1 IP
    LHP Matt Thornton 64 G, 0 SV, 1.75 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 28 SO, 36 IP  
    RHP Aaron Barrett 50 G, 0 SV, 2.66 ERA, 1.3 WHIP, 49 SO, 40.2 IP
    RHP Tanner Roark* 31 G, 15 W, 2.85 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 138 SO, 198.2 IP  

    *Numbers as starting pitcher

    Stats courtesy of 

    The Nationals' all-star rotation can shut out as many teams as it wants, but if Washington's new-look bullpen implodes, so does the season. 

    The Nats dealt their uber-reliable bridge to the ninth inning, Tyler Clippard, to the Oakland A's for stability at second base. The trade can be described as both necessary and terrifying, as Washington's closer and setup man are both different from this time a year ago. 

    What we know: Drew Storen is Washington's closer following the departure of Rafael Soriano. 

    What we don't know: everything else. 

    The Nats brought in veteran closer Casey Janssen in free agency. He'll take on a new role as a middle-innings reliever, competing with Craig Stammen, Jerry Blevins, Aaron Barrett, etc. for playing time. And former starter Tanner Roark is destined to join them in the bullpen in the wake Max Scherzer's addition. 

    How these players handle their new responsibilities will go a long way in writing the story of 2015 for the Nationals. 

Prospects to Watch

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    SP Lucas Giolito (No. 1 prospect)

    Lucas Giolito is a flame-throwing mega-prospect who's not quite old enough to drink yet. The 20-year-old underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012 and spent the 2013 season on a very tight leash, pitching just 36.2 innings in the minors. He rebounded in 2014 with a 10-2 record and a 2.20 ERA, and he seems likely to earn for a September call-up. 

    SP A.J. Cole (No. 3 prospect)

    A.J. Cole co-headlines Washington's plentiful supply of pitching prospects. Unlike Giolito, the 23-year-old Cole was invited to big league spring training this year. He's pitched in four of Washington's 21 games, starting two and earning a 4.22 ERA with a 1.22 WHIP.

    At this stage, with any other club, Cole would probably be knocking on the door of the major league rotation. But Washington is pretty well set in that department, so he'll have to wait until September as well. 

    INF Wilmer Difo (No. 8 prospect)

    Wilmer Difo is one of two prospects on this list who will be in contention for Washington's starting shortstop job in the not-so-distant future. The 22-year-old got his feet wet this spring with his first invite to big league camp. He's hit .318 in 22 at-bats so far in spring training games. He also has a shot at a September call-up, but it doesn't look like Ian Desmond is going anywhere until 2016, so Difo may have to wait another season. 

    INF Trea Turner (Padres' No. 3 prospect)

    Trea Turner isn't a Nationals prospect just yet because of an outdated rule that requires he stay with the team that drafted him, the San Diego Padres, for a full year. Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal broke down the situation pretty exhaustively when the deal was done in December.

    But, when he eventually does arrive in D.C., he'll be the other prospect on this list with a shot to become the shortstop of the future. He won't receive a call-up in 2015, September or otherwise. But the time between now and July 31 will be an interesting saga to follow while Turner is stuck with a Padres team to which he's pretty much useless. 

    *Team prospect rankings courtesy of

Breakout Candidates

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    Michael A. Taylor will take over for Denard Span in center field sooner than expected.
    Michael A. Taylor will take over for Denard Span in center field sooner than expected.Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    CF Michael A. Taylor

    Michael A. Taylor has been Washington's center fielder of the future for a while now. But the future came early when the news broke that Denard Span would be on the shelf for at least a month to start the season. Taylor will be the Nationals' starter in the middle of the lawn on Opening Day and could even find himself in the lead-off spot in the lineup. 

    Taylor's performance in spring training was encouraging. He tore it up at the plate with a .324 average and a 1.072 OPS. 

    And whatever room Taylor is standing in right now, there's a good chance he's the fastest guy there. His range in the outfield with that speed sets him apart on defense, so the offensive prowess he showed this spring helps ease whatever concerns existed about him. 

    RP Aaron Barrett

    Aaron Barrett's first regular season was phenomenal. He finished with a 2.66 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 50 appearances. 

    Aaron Barrett's first postseason was miserable. He faced a total of three batters and issued a series-deciding wild pitch. He's had to live in a world where that video exists for the last six months, and the start of the season offers Barrett a chance to repair his image. 

    The postseason has swallowed up better pitchers than Barrett—see Kershaw, Clayton. So a mishap in the playoffs, however colossal, certainly won't derail the career of one of Washington's most promising young arms. 

Keys to Success

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    2015 is a make-or-break year for Bryce Harper.
    2015 is a make-or-break year for Bryce Harper.David Goldman/Associated Press

    Bryce Harper

    Three years into the Bryce Harper era in Washington, the 22-year-old hasn't even sniffed Mike Trout numbers. It's not exactly fair to compare anyone to Mike Trout, but Nationals fans are getting impatient waiting for cover-of-Sports Illustrated, 502-foot-home-run Bryce Harper to show up. 

    Harper's make-or-break fourth season coincides with a need for run support in Washington. The Nationals can hold their own on offense, but in order to achieve what they're supposed to achieve, they can't afford to leave their bats on the bus like everyone did in the 2014 NLDS loss.

    Everyone except Bryce Harper, who almost single-handedly kept Washington alive against the eventual World Series champions. 

    Harper has to become a leader for this team. He is demonstrative enough off the field to carry the torch, but it's hugely important that he takes a step forward in his career on the field this season. 

    Staying Healthy

    Neither Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos nor Bryce Harper played more than 100 games last season. Anthony Rendon, Yunel Escobar, Denard Span, Drew Storen, Jayson Werth, Nate McLouth and Stephen Strasburg have all been injured at some point during spring training. 

    Washington's stacked roster doesn't do it a ton of good if the main cogs in the wheel can't play.

    Staying healthy was an issue last year, and it will be of massive importance again in 2015.

    Bullpen Stability

    The Nationals lineup and rotation each have just one change from a year ago. The same can't be said for the bullpen.

    Ross Detwiler, Rafael Soriano and Tyler Clippard are all out after being featured heavily in Washington's 'pen last season. Casey Janssen and Tanner Roark join the group in 2015. 

    The uncertainty doesn't stop at personnel turnover. Drew Storen now has the team's full vote of confidence as the closer, a role that he's earned and subsequently relinquished before. Storen does have a fairly high-profile fan in Mariano Rivera, who offered up some praise for the Nats closer in spring training. 

Preview of Opening Series vs. Mets

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    The Nationals and Mets will face off in D.C. to open the season.
    The Nationals and Mets will face off in D.C. to open the season.DG/Associated Press

    The National League East wasn't exactly a juggernaut in 2014. 

    The Braves did Braves things and collapsed after the All-Star break. The Mets and Phillies continued their recent runs of mediocrity and the Marlins, missing Jose Fernandez for most the year and Giancarlo Stanton toward the end, were not yet ready to contend. 

    The Nationals' strong second half helped them run away with the division then. But they could find some company at the top in 2015, starting with New York, who Washington will face to open the season on April 6. 

    The Mets haven't put together a winning record since 2008, but the return of Matt Harvey highlights a surprisingly loaded stable of arms. While Harvey was recovering from Tommy John surgery for all of the 2014 season, Jacob deGrom held down the fort well enough to win the NL Rookie of the Year award. 

    However, the season-long loss of Zack Wheeler is a blow to the depth of New York's rotation. 

    Both the Mets and the Nationals faced semi-controversial decisions regarding their Opening Day starters. 

    Washington tabbed Max Scherzer as their man for Game 1, a decision that makes sense given the large fortune it took to land his services. But if your name is Stephen Strasburg, you have the right to be a little bummed after making three-straight Opening Day starts. 

    The Nats haven't announced their rotation outside of Scherzer's No. 1 spot, but expect to see Strasburg in the following game and Jordan Zimmermann in Game 3. 

    New York decided the best way to showcase its promising young talent would be a Bartolo Colon outing to start the season. After the 41-year-old makes his debut on Opening Day, the Mets will send out deGrom and Harvey in Games 2 and 3, respectively, against the Nationals. 

Best Nats Twitter Follows

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    Jayson Werth doesn't have a Twitter account, but a parody account for his beard has gained an impressive following.
    Jayson Werth doesn't have a Twitter account, but a parody account for his beard has gained an impressive following.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Twitter is a great way to supplement your experience as a baseball fan. 162 games is a grind if you're going it alone, and the Internet offers a chance to see what the local insiders see and let out all your pent up #Natitude. 

    The Nationals have a pretty active social media following, from journalists to fan-made parody account, so chances are you'll find someone you can get along with on Nats Twitter. 

    Here are 10 of the best accounts in D.C.

    Get your hot takes ready.

    William Ladson, @washingnats

    James Wagner, The Washington Post: @JamesWagnerWP

    Dan Steinberg, The Washington Post: @dcsportsbog

    Chelsea Janes, The Washington Post: @chelsea_janes

    F.P. Santangelo, MASN Sports: @FightinHydrant

    Dan Kolko, MASN Sports: @masnKolko

    Mark Zuckerman, Comcast SportsNet: @ZuckermanCSN

    The Nationals Archive: @NatsArchive

    Jayson Werth's Beard: @JWerthsBeard

    The Nats Blog: @TheNatsBlog

    If you know of any good Nationals follows I may have missed, let the people know in the comments section.

2015 Season Outlook

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    The Nationals are in search of their first back-to-back division titles.
    The Nationals are in search of their first back-to-back division titles.Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

    It's been 10 years since baseball came back to D.C.

    It's been three years since winning baseball returned to the capital, when the Nationals claimed their first-ever NL East title in 2012. 

    Now, after picking up another division crown in 2014, Washington is in search of more firsts when it goes for back-to-back NL East titles, a league pennant and a World Series trophy. 

    The division should be more competitive than it was a year ago, but it will be a historic underachievement if the Nationals don't take the NL East in 2015. 

    Prediction: 99-63, NL East Champions

    *All stats courtesy of, unless otherwise noted

    Danny Garrison is a Featured Columnist for the Washington Nationals on Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @DannyLGarrison, where you can reprimand him for jinxing your team and hold him accountable for any wrong predictions from the offseason.