TAKING A LOOK AT the Washington Nationals:
Manager: Matt Williams
Last 5 years: 2014: 96-66, first place; 2013: 86-76, second place; 2012: 98-64, first place; 2011: 80-81, third place; 2010: 69-93, fifth place
Additions: Righthanded pitcher Max Scherzer, second baseman Yunel Escobar, utilityman Kevin Frandsen
Loses: First baseman Adam LaRoche, righthanded pitcher Tyler Clippard, second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera
What to expect: A year after dealing three prospects to the Tigers to grab Doug Fister (2.41 earned run average, 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings in 2014), the Nationals once again landed another starter who played for Detroit. This season's newest pitcher is 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer (3.15 ERA, 10.3 K/9 in 2014), a free agent who signed a 7-year contract worth $210 million last month, the largest ever for a righthanded pitcher.
Scherzer's arrival gives Washington five starters capable of posting sub-3.00 ERAs. In addition to Fister, the rest of the starters can rack up strikeouts in a hurry. Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez (9.2) led the AL and NL, respectively, in K/9 in 2012, and flamethrower Stephen Strasburg has averaged 10.2 K/9 over the last 3 years.
The Nats' rotation should be striking out hitters as frequently as Ian Desmond (24 homers in 2014) and Anthony Rendon (21) hit balls out of the park. Washington placed fifth in the NL last season in homers.
The loss of Adam LaRoche (team-high 26 HRs) hurts in the power department. However, a reinvigorated Ryan Zimmerman, who hit at least 25 home runs in 2012 and 2013, shifting to first to make room for Rendon at third should help prevent another injury-plagued season that limited Zimmerman to just 61 games in 2014 and even out LaRoche's departure.
While Bryce Harper has yet to put together an MVP-caliber season, his first 3 years in the big leagues haven't been a disappointment by any means. Despite quarrels with manager Matt Williams and pitchers around the league, Harper has produced a robust triple-slash line (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) of .272/.351/.465 in 1,489 career plate appearances. Those numbers would be well above average for an outfielder in his prime, let alone for a player who couldn't legally buy a beer until after his second season in the bigs.
The average minor league player in high-A ball in 2014 was just over 22 years old, per FanGraphs. At 22, Harper is already a two-time All-Star.
With a young core of talented positional players and an influx of experienced, successful starters, it's hard not to view this year's Nationals as having enough talent to win the division.
Prediction: Rendon will take over the title as the majors' best third baseman, while Harper puts together a top-five NL MVP finish despite only displaying flashes of his generational power potential. The NL's best rotation will help Washington cruise to its third division title in 4 years, as the Nats reach their first World Series.
1. Centerfield: Denard Span
2. Third base: Anthony Rendon
3. Rightfield: Jayson Werth
4. Leftfield: Bryce Harper
5. Shortstop: Ian Desmond
6. First base: Ryan Zimmerman
7. Catcher: Wilson Ramos
8. Second base: Yunel Escobar
Righthander: Stephen Strasburg
Righthander: Max Scherzer
Righthander: Jordan Zimmermann
Lefthander: Gio Gonzalez
Righthander: Doug Fister
Righthander: Craig Stammen
Lefthander: Matt Thornton
Closer: Drew Storen
Farm forecast (from Baseball America): "[Righthanded pitcher Lucas] Giolito ranks atop the team's prospect list for the second straight year after making a full recovery from Tommy John surgery and dominating low-Class A hitters as a 19-year-old . . . Because several of Washington's top picks flew to the majors in a hurry, its system is top-heavy. Still, the Nationals have been rewarded for their philosophy, and they look poised to compete for championships for the foreseeable future."