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Revenge of the Fallen - A Washington Nationals preview

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A look ahead at the current NL East leaders

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David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals' fall from grace during the latter stages of the 2015 season was one of the biggest stories in baseball last year. What made their fade unique was that it was the underlying narratives, not terrible baseball, that made the collapse feel so tremendous. After all, the Nationals went 29-32 over the last two months of the season. That's not exactly a dream record for a team with playoff aspirations, but it's also not indicative of a team taking a total nosedive either. If one just looks at the respective game logs, the NL East was decided more by the New York Mets getting hot than the Nationals forgetting themselves. Other than the Mets emerging as a force to be reckoned with, there were plenty of reasons the Nationals' slide was so newsworthy.

The Nationals were projected to be really, really good in 2015.

The Nationals had baseball's best pitching staff in 2014. It seemed that no further upgrades were necessary, but they signed ace Max Scherzer to a long-term deal in January 2015, turning a great rotation into a potentially historically dominant one. Scherzer's well-versed in sabermetrics and pitches like it; you'd have to go all the way back to 2011 to find a season in which he was outside the top-5 in baseball in strikeout rate. A flyball pitcher, Scherzer's numbers have been inflated this season by a shocking 16 home runs allowed.

Scherzer joined Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and a presumably still-good Doug Fister to create a formidable one-through-five (with Tanner Roark manning the Drew Smyly "overqualified sixth guy" role) heading into the 2015 season. Had anyone known that superstar Bryce Harper was about to put up the best offensive season since Barry Bonds logged a .609 OBP in 2004, the Nationals may have felt justified printing World Series tickets in April.

Injuries

Several key offensive players missed significant time for the Nats, which both stopped them from building up a cushion in the first half and prevented them from getting out of their rut in the second. Outfielder Jayson Werth had offseason shoulder surgery and was in and out of the lineup all year long. When he played, he was unable to square up the ball or even make contact at any level resembling that of his former self, causing his batting average to take a nosedive. That's the version of Werth that has shown up in 2016 and at age 37, this might be the end of the line.

Third baseman Anthony Rendon was one of baseball's best players in 2014, but a sprained MCL during spring training meant he wouldn't play until June. When he came back, he was still able to draw a lot of walks, but his formerly good power disappeared. Fortunately for Washington, Rendon has 18 extra-base hits this season and remains a strong defender at third base, so they have their all-star back, albeit one that probably won't be receiving MVP votes anymore.

At the other infield corner, Ryan Zimmerman fought a battle with plantar fasciitis and wound up playing fewer than 100 games. Zimmerman remains a power threat, but he no longer seems capable of posting an average in the high .200s. Add in the fact that Denard Span missed most of the year and the Nationals lineup was flimsier than planned for much of 2015.

The whole Matt Williams thing

There's a lot of negative opinions floating around on Robin Ventura and the job he's done with the White Sox, but at the very least, there's been no evidence that his players don't respect him. Last year, Matt Williams was an example of a manager that not only was making questionable tactical decisions, but had a dugout with a sizable contingent of players that didn't much care for him either. The result was an explosive situation that basically demanded his dismissal.

During the Nationals' late-season stretch, Williams bunted in strange spots and withheld his high-leverage relievers from key situations. He didn't have much of a feel for matchups in his bullpen and was overall a very weak tactical manager. Worse still, during one of the last games of the season, closer Jonathan Papelbon physically choked Harper after not running out a pop-up and Williams subsequently sent Papelbon out to pitch the final inning, oblivious to what had happened in his own dugout. That he won the NL Manager of the Year award in 2014 is solid proof that the honor is far more about the talent on-hand and narratives than the ability to get the most out of one's players.

Williams has been replaced this season by Dusty Baker, a man who is no strategic genius himself. However, Baker's held in high regard within baseball and has a reputation for getting along well with players. Similar to how Ventura helped the White Sox in 2012 simply by merit of not being Ozzie Guillen, Baker seems to benefit the Nats by simply not being Williams.

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Fast-forwarding to 2016, the Nationals returned mostly the same roster and appropriately, they were once again projected to be one of the best teams in a very polarized National League. Zimmermann and shortstop Ian Desmond departed for free agency, but the Nationals proved themselves very able to secure replacements. Three True Outcomes second baseman Danny Espinosa slid over to short to replace Desmond and the Nationals signed postseason hero Daniel Murphy to take over at the keystone. What looked to be a standard mid-tier free-agent signing has worked out far better, as Murphy has been one of the best players in the major leagues. Murphy's postseason power surge turned out to be very real and he's got baseball's best batting average by a country mile thanks to a low strikeout rate, hard contact, and some luck.

Zimmermann's spot in the rotation was filled by the sinkerballer Roark, whom the White Sox will not face. In addition to Scherzer, we'll see Joe Ross and Gio Gonzalez. Ross is Tyson's younger brother. The righty dominates same-handed batters with his sinker/slider attack, but he struggles with lefties because his changeup is still a work in progress. On most teams, Gonzalez would be a legitimate number-two starter, but with the Nationals, he's just another guy. Throughout most of his career, Gonzalez has been tough to take deep and has relied on his excellent curveball for whiffs and weak contact. These guys will likely be caught by Wilson Ramos, who's been just average defensively but rates as the best offensive catcher in the game this year.

A very strong rotation and an offense fueled by Murphy, Harper, and Ramos have put the Nationals exactly where everyone expected they'd be this year and last: on pace for at least 90 wins. They may get another boost soon, as top prospect Trea Turner could potentially take over for the combination of Espinosa and Stephen Drew at short if they don't start hitting. Washington will have their work cut out for them to stave off the Mets, but this is a playoff team, and a dangerous one at that. There's some chance that they falter down the stretch again, but part of the reason last season's breakdown was so notable is that it's not the sort of thing you'd bet on repeating itself.

Projected Record and Finish: 93-69, first place NL East

Probable Starting Pitchers

  • Tuesday, June 7: Mat Latos vs. Joe Ross
  • Wednesday, June 8: James Shields vs. Max Scherzer
  • Thursday, June 9: Carlos Rodon vs. Gio Gonzalez

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Ben Revere - CF

SP1. Max Scherzer - RHP

2. Jayson Werth - LF

SP2. Stephen Strasburg - RHP

3. Bryce Harper - RF

SP3. Gio Gonzalez - LHP

4. Daniel Murphy - 2B

SP4. Tanner Roark - RHP

5. Ryan Zimmerman - 1B

SP5. Joe Ross - RHP

6. Anthony Rendon - 3B

CL. Jonathan Papelbon - RHP

7. Wilson Ramos - C

RP1. Shawn Kelley - RHP

8. Chris Heisey - DH

RP2. Blake Treinen - RHP

9. Danny Espinosa - SS

RP3. Felipe Rivero - LHP