The grind begins today.
The Nationals take the field at 1:05pm against the Mets, having spent last October at home and out of the playoffs, and with all manner of new perspective that failure amid the predictions of greatness. Last year, there were quite a few that put the Nationals atop the NL East and heading deep into the postseason, but they fell far short. This year, the expectations game is different. While the critics are predicting many accolades, there are just as many asking hard questions about the core of the Nationals lineup.
After the fan euphoria of 2012, and the attendant disappointment that went into 2013, Nats fans going into Opening Day 2014 are a lot more sanguine about the franchise. They have every reason to be excited, but yet they understand what it is to be humbled by a 162-game grind that puts even the most well-trained professional athlete through a brutal ringer. That’s not to say that all fans are fatalistic ones, that they toss blades of grass into the wind to find their direction, but rather that this might be the sort of realistic season where the sine curve of fullest rabidity and fullest despair are not vacillated between in an hour.
Let us take stock of where we stand: The Nationals carry one of the best young pitching rotations in the game. Stephen Strasburg, 27, has developed an additional pitch in Spring Training, a thoroughly filthy slider, and has finally taken to holding runners to their bags, adding to his considerable arsenal of talent. Jordan Zimmermann, 28, carried a spring ERA in 5 starts of 0.50. He allowed one run in March, walked one, and struck out fifteen. It’s safe to say he’s ready to go. Gio Gonzalez, 28, faltered a bit in Spring, but he kept his walks down in relation to his strikeouts (6:18) and traditionally Gonzalez is not a strong March performer. At the back half of the rotation are Taylor Jordan, 25, and Tanner Roark, 27, both coming into their own as strong pitchers in their sophomore seasons. I am most excited to see how these two develop while Doug Fister heads to the DL with a lat strain, and while Ross Detwiler works from the long relief slot for the Nationals. Roark’s 7-1 debut season might have been the biggest (and best) surprise from the 2013 season, and Jordan’s four September starts demonstrated a great deal of promise.
The biggest question becomes the biggest fear: can newly-acquired Fister recover rapidly from the lat strain in time to start in May, or will his path back to Washington be a longer one? We can hope this is a minor blip on the scale for the 30 year old veteran hurler, especially after his 14-9 season with Detroit last year.
The Nationals biggest problem last year was run production. So where does their offense stand a year later? Largely unchanged. The Nationals’ only free agent signing in the off-season came in the form of bench addition Nate McLouth, and the standard array of LaRoche/Rendon/Desmond/Zimmerman and Werth/Span/Harper remains the exact same core of the order as it was last year. What’s changed? Well, Rick “Big Hoss” Schu’s promotion to hitting coach toward the end of last season did pay some late dividends, so it will be interesting to see what he can do with a full season, but the problems there aren’t nearly so simple.
Injury remains the biggest question. Harper spent half a season with knee trouble that bothered him at the plate. Ryan Zimmerman had shoulder issues that slowed his bat, and so did Danny Espinosa, who had a broken hand. It’s hard not to see the injury problem being core to the 2013 Nats’ struggles, and I suspect it’s just as big a worry for this season. The Nationals were atrociously bad scoring 2 runs or less last season, which they did in 65 games last year, winning just 8 of those tilts. Now, you should lose the majority of the games you don’t score more than 2 runs in, but it should never be so lopsided as that.
This may sound thoroughly obvious, yet it needs to be said: If the Nationals can’t spark their offense, this season will be no better than the last.
The Nats’ other primary off-season addition came in the form of Oakland left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins, attempting to fix the Nationals’ LOOGY problem from last year. The bullpen was fairly well atrocious in relief last year, but has a much different makeup this time out. Returning are veteran late inning hurlers Clippard, Storen and Soriano, and they are joined by long men Stammen and Detwiler, and lastly Blevins and rookie Aaron Barrett. If you feel good about the return of Clippard and Storen, you should, though Soriano’s spring should make you worry. Last year’s free-agent response to the devastating 9th inning of Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS has fared worse and worse of late, and it should concern you that he’s your opening day closer. You should feel good about middle relievers Stammen and Detwiler. Both are former starters that have terrific stats their first time through the batting order, so when Roark or Jordan are starting, expect to see one or both in the sixth and seventh innings getting regular work. Detwiler gives the Nats a crafty lefty out of the bullpen, to go with their fastballer in Stammen. This can be used to devastating effect, so look for that to happen often.
That doesn’t mean I’m pessimistic on the potential of this ball club — far from it — but it does mean that I don’t think they’re shoe-ins for the playoffs, the pennant or the World Series. No, this is a club that is going to have grit it out, play hard, and put everything together. In their tenth season back in the District, though, I believe this is a team that wants it more than ever, with a core of players that have seen hundred loss seasons, a 2012 run to the division title, and a 2013 collapse. This is a team who has triumphed suddenly, failed just as suddenly, and now understands that nothing can be taken for granted, no late inning comeback guaranteed, no shutout ordained, no title bestowed without the crucible of July and August, a strong June and May, the optimistic rush of April, and lastly the final death march through September and October.
This is a team that has all the pieces, helmed under new managed Matt Williams who’s fairly well the analytical opposite of his predecessor. I would expect 89-92 wins for this Nationals team, but I’ve learned not to make predictions about how these things will end up. Suffice it to say: Nationals Park is a great place to be this summer, and you’re going to see a lot of curly W’s, a lot of Bang Zoom go the Fireworks, and a lot of See. You. Later. on your television. Can they go all the way and match the expectations? Yes, if they put those same expectations out of their minds and play like zen masters. Can they? I think that Williams may find himself able to channel Phil Jackson by May 1. Let’s hope so.
Other Required Reading
Adam Kilgore on Matt Williams
Adam Kilgore on Ian Desmond
Barry Svrluga on Ryan Zimmerman
Bill Ladson on Denard Span
Dave Nichols on the Nats Top Ten Prospects (a series)
Joe Drugan and Will Yoder on the NL East (audio)