On Tuesday afternoon, Patrick shared some of the predictions that he contributed to a post with PressBox DC. It's time for me to share some thoughts on the upcoming Nats season as well. Some of these will be "bold" predictions. Others will not be so bold. We'll begin today with more of a broad look, but some of these predictions are things that I'm going to expand into stand alone articles over the next few days.
Let's start with the questions that Patrick answered for PressBox DC...
How many games will the Washington Nationals win?
Let's go with 97. Even with all of the injuries that the Nats are dealing with heading into the regular season, the depth in the starting rotation is so strong that it's difficult to see them getting out of the gate slowly. While I do feel that the overall roster is better than the 2012 squad that won 98 games (a squad that also dealt with a lot of injuries), I have a hard time predicting that they'll finish with a triple digit win total.
Do you think the Nationals will make the postseason? If so, as a Wild Card or by winning the division?
The Nats will win the NL East by about ten games and finish with the best record in the National League. The Marlins will hang with them until about August and may win a wildcard spot.
Who will be the Nationals' breakout star or key factor for the team?
There's no doubt in my mind that Bryce Harper will be the breakout star on this team. I mentioned at the top that some of the topics I'll gloss over briefly will be things I'll expand upon in separate posts because I think they're worth a closer look. This will be one of them. Since we're going with a broad look today, Harper is a player who covets being on the big stage. With all of the hype surrounding the 2015 Nats, the spotlight was already on the team. With the preseason injuries to Rendon, Werth, and Span, Harper will suddenly get even more attention. He may have to carry this offense a bit in April. He'll soak up the opportunity and ride a big start to a huge season.
While Harper will be the Nats' breakout star in 2015 and a key factor, the key factor will be the Nats' vaunted starting rotation. Max Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann, and Stephen Strasburg will all finish in the top ten in Cy Young voting. Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez would be near the top of half the rotations in MLB, but they'll be pitching at the back of the Nats' rotation. While the offense should be above average when everyone is healthy, the Nats' starters should be able to carry this team as long as the offense is giving them an average of three runs of support per game.
Just for fun, let's predict the NL East standings
*This is another thing I'll probably expand upon... Let's generalize today
The Marlins appear to be the biggest threat to the Nats in 2015. They have one of the best young outfields in baseball and a rotation that has a pretty solid front three even before Jose Fernandez returns.... Even without Zack Wheeler, the Mets may have the second best rotation in the division. A healthy Matt Harvey and Jake deGrom give them a scary 1-2 punch moving forward, while Big Bart just refuses to go away. Niese and Gee would be miscast pitching higher in the rotation, but they're terrific for back end starters. The Mets offense and bullpen don't look like they're strong enough to contend for the division, but the rotation will help them stick around in the wildcard race until September... The Braves can really pitch as well, with a pretty imposing front three of Julio Teheran, Shelby Miller, and Alex Wood. However, their offense figures to be Freddie Freeman and a bunch of guys who are barely better than replacement level... The Phillies continue to trend in the wrong direction, and it's possible that this is the year that Ruben Amaro, Jr. finally starts accepting some deals for his aging, overpriced former stars. With Cliff Lee's injury, they don't have much in the rotation behind Cole Hamels. They don't have much support offensively behind 36-year-old Chase Utley either. I predicted they'd stay under 100 losses, but it would be far from shocking to see that guess be a tad low.
Let's focus more on some predictions that are specifically about the Nats now.
1) Drew Storen will lead MLB in Saves
OK... I'm probably not going out on too much of a limb here. The Nats are being pretty much universally projected to have the best record in baseball, so it would follow that their closer should be near the top of the leaderboard in Saves. Of course, wins don't always lead to save opportunities though. With the offense banged up to begin the season, the Nats may struggle a bit to score runs even when Werth, Span, and Rendon return. None of those three players saw much spring training action, so it may take a few weeks for them to find their timing and get in a groove at the plate. With the strength of the rotation, the Nats still figure to win a lot of close low scoring games, which means Storen will see more action than most closers early in the year. He'll lead the majors with 53 saves.
2) Ian Desmond will fall short of joining the 20/20 club for the first time since 2011
This isn't to say that Desmond won't have another strong season in 2015, though. This may sound weird, since Desmond is still just 29. However, as Desmond's strikeout (and walk) production increased last season, he seems like he could be starting to trend a bit more towards old player skills. We've seen a variety of 20/20 (or 30/30) types start trending towards more power and less stolen bases as they age.... players like Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Vladimir Guerrero, Carlos Beltran, Hanley Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano... Two of those guys are big PED names. Some of the others have dealt with leg injuries. Regardless, it is something that we've seen many times before. Call it a hunch. Desmond will hit 25 home runs in 2015, but he won't run as often as he has in the past... not with a big payday on the horizon.
3) Danny Espinosa will lead Nats' second basemen in WAR
Espinosa will see most of his time as the utility infielder for the Nats, but he will show some progression with the bat this season as he acclimates himself to batting only right-handed. Still, the reason that he'll lead the Nats second base options in WAR will be because Yunel Escobar and Dan Uggla just aren't very good. Escobar can blame his poor defensive showing (defense is his best asset) in 2014 on injuries, but he's already suffered another core injury this spring, so I'm not all that optimistic about his defensive contributions. Uggla's power and strong walk rate make him the most intriguing second base option from an offensive standpoint (despite all of the strikeouts), but his strikeout problems and lack of a glove in the field severely limit his overall contributions. Espinosa will probably only be good for about 1.0-1.5 WAR, but he'll lead the three second base candidates in 2015.
4) Michael Taylor will finish with more WAR than Denard Span
Taylor won't Wally Pipp Span, but he'll finish the year with more WAR than Span. Neither will really provide a great overall package offensively. Taylor should provide some power, patience, and speed early in the year, although he'll likely strike out in 25-30% of his at bats. Both are outstanding defensively, but Taylor will get more love by defensive metrics than Span tends to. With the bat, Span has taken a little while to get going in the past couple of years. In 2013, he hit .263 in the first half and .302 after the break. Last season, he hit .269 in the first half and .346 after the break. The concern here is that it takes some time for him to find his flow offensively. He's now missed all of Spring Training, so there's a chance that he doesn't heat up for quite some time after he comes back in May.
Unlike the second base race, we're not dealing with players who figure to be risks to provide negative WAR. The fact that Span is projected to see more time (barring more injuries or a setback) than Taylor should give Span an edge here. There's an excellent chance that Taylor goes back to Syracuse when Span returns so that Taylor is playing every day. However, neither Bryce Harper nor Jayson Werth have proven to be the most durable players in recent years, so there's a good chance that Taylor will play more than just five or six weeks in the majors this season.
5) Blake Treinen will pitch in the bullpen in D.C. all year... and he'll have a leverage role by the end of April
Casey Janssen's tendonitis seems to have opened the door for Treinen to start the season in the big league bullpen. He'll probably have about two or three weeks to prove that he's one of the best seven arms in that bullpen, and he'll outpitch Aaron Barrett, Tanner Roark, and/or Craig Stammen in the early going to force his way into a setup role. When Janssen is ready to return, either Barrett or Roark will end up heading to Syracuse. Treinen will remain with the big club all season, pitching primarily in games that are close and late.
I'll be back tomorrow with a closer look at my predictions for Bryce Harper. While that prediction will be more juicy than any of the five predictions above, it's worth a stand alone article. We'll also take a closer look at each of the other four teams in the division leading up to Opening Day.