So here we are, the first opening day of the rest of the Nationals’ life. It feels like another new era will start when the offseason ends in eight hours or so, with Ian Desmond digging in against Ryan Dempster.
The occasion has been soured a bit by John Lannan’s trade request, another step toward an ugly end for a long-tenured, popular player. General Manager Mike Rizzo will presumably address the issue pregame.
The Lannan saga provides an unfortunate sidebar, but it is hard to dampen a day with bunting hanging from the Wrigley Field walls, when anything seems possible. In that vein, we’re tackling the same exercise as last year on opening day – describing the best case and worst case for each Nationals regular, along with the rotation, the bullpen and the bench.
And like last year, these are not going to be realistic. In most cases, they are going to be quite ridiculous – it’s either complete elation or total doom and gloom, pure, goofy fun. The Best Cases are too optimistic and the Worst Cases are unfair. Here they are:
Best case: Desmond really is the player from the final quarter of last season. He emerges as one of the best defensive shortstops in the majors, slashing his errors to 16 and making plays most shortstops can only picture in their mind. He may not see many pitches, but he still slaps up a .335 on-base percentage and smacks 15 homers. The Nationals are happier than ever they didn’t trade him.
Worst case: The ups and downs in Desmond’s game never go away. He boots routine balls in the field, and at the plate his free-swinging ways doom his on-base percentage, which hovers around .300, along with the Nationals offense. By July, the Nationals decide it is Desmond they move to make room for Anthony Rendon, and a long union comes to a sour end.
Best case: Remember Espinosa’s first half last season? Multiply it by two. He leads National League second basemen with 28 home runs and, with Desmond consistently reaching base ahead of him and Ryan Zimmerman looming behind him, he drives in 90 runs. He makes the all-star team, wins a Gold Glove and further entrenches himself as a piece of the Nationals’ future.
Worst case: Remember Espinosa’s second half last season? He cannot ditch his bad habit of overworking and overanalyzing. The internal pressure combines with opposing pitchers further finding and exploiting holes in his swing, and he strikes out once every 3.2 plate appearances while hitting .224. Espinosa still plays great defense, but by August Anthony Rendon starts playing an awful lot of second base at Class AA Harrisburg.
Best case: With the Nationals gaining more notice, Zimmerman goes from maybe the most underrated player in baseball to simply one of the best. In his age 27 season, everything comes together. He hits .305/.400/.525, wins the Gold Glove and, riding the Nationals’ ascension, wins the Most Valuable Player award. His six-year, $100 million contract extension looks like a brilliant investment.
Worst case: He cannot catch a break. Yet another injury interrupts Zimmerman’s rise, and it makes you wonder if it will ever really come. Zimmerman hits .280/.360/.430 in 95 games and, after gathering rust on the disabled list, the throwing problems he worked so hard to eradicate return. The Nationals aren’t worried about the extension, but doubt starts to creep in.
Best case: Morse returns from his lat injury the day before the Nationals home opener, and it never becomes an issue for the rest of the season. Healthy and hitting cleanup, Morse turns out to be the slugger he was last season – just better. Morse slugs .570 and hits .315, with 34 homers and 115 RBI. His athleticism allows him to play left field to a draw. He finishes in the top six in MVP voting and solidifies himself as one of the game’s best sluggers.
Worst case: Morse suffers a setback with his lat strain while rehabbing in Hagerstown, and he doesn’t debut until the middle of May. He still hits the ball hard, but not as consistently as last year – putting up a monster year with a 3.5-1 strikeout-to-walk rate really is unsustainable. He hits 18 homers, and by the end of the season Morse starts losing playing time in a platoon. The Nationals believe he can return to his 2011 form if healthy, but they have to wonder.
Best case: The Nationals never had any reason to worry about LaRoche’s bone bruise in his foot, as he plays 145 games. And he plays well, too. His natural talent and athleticism makes the time he missed last season irrelevant. Finally, at age 32, LaRoche sheds his slow-starting ways and over the whole season hits .295/.354/.535 – his career averages in the second half. No one saw it coming, but picking up a $10 million option for LaRoche in 2013 becomes a no-brainer.
Worst case: Not only does LaRoche’s left foot ache, but his surgically repaired left shoulder starts barking again. He starts terribly, as usual, and his weakened throwing arm makes him a liability at first base before landing on the disabled list. The platoon with Mark DeRosa ends – when the job becomes DeRosa’s. LaRoche plays in 65 games. Tired of dealing with injuries, LaRoche leaves baseball to pursue hunting full-time.
Best case: Werth proves himself right – last year was a blip. Feeling more comfortable his new team, Werth hits .279/.376/.513 with 29 homers, his exact averages from his final three seasons with the Phillies. He toggles adeptly between center field and right field whenever the Nationals ask. Teddy wins the Presidents Race opening day, carrying a sign that reads, “Thank you Jayson Werth.”
Worst case: Werth feels more comfortable with his surroundings, but that cannot stem baseball’s natural aging process. He improves from last year, but just barely, and actually loses a little power, hitting .240/.335/.380 with 17 home runs. His defense slips, and the Nationals abandon the notion of him playing center, even though they desperately need him there after Bryce Harper fails in center at Syracuse. Teddy never wins the Presidents Race, and the Nationals suspend him for a game after he clotheslines George.
Best case: Ramos becomes the best story in all of baseball. Putting behind his harrowing kidnapping incident, Ramos builds off his excellent rookie season and becomes an all-star. He throws out 40 percent of base stealers, continues to be a target pitchers love throwing to and smacks 25 homers. He is not only the Nationals’ rock, but also an ultimate fan favorite.
Worst case: Despite showing no signs during spring training, Ramos is understandably shaken by the events of his offseason. His weight balloons. He regresses from his rookie season as pitchers study his swing more. He hits nine home runs with a .305 on-base percentage. By the end of the season, he starts losing playing time to Jesus Flores, and the Nationals are suddenly unsure which catcher is their backstop of the future.
Best case: Ankiel’s new, relaxed approach at the plate leads to his best season in years. Hitting the ball to all fields, Ankiel has his best season since 2008, slugging .475 with a .330 on-base percentage. Once Bryce Harper is promoted, Harper punches up an .850 OPS and Ankiel becomes a valuable bench player, spot starter and defensive replacement, exactly the kind of player Johnson has wanted.
Worst case: Ankiel returns from his left quadriceps injury on the day of the Nationals’ home opener, but his lack of at-bats disallows from finding comfort at the plate. Unable to get into a rhythm, like much of last season when he toggled between the field and the disabled list, Ankiel hits .230/.285/.330. He loses playing time to Roger Bernadina, who isn’t much better. In Syracuse, Bryce Harper struggles more than anyone expected, and at the trade deadline Peter Angelos strikes down the trade Dan Duquette and Mike Rizzo agreed to for Adam Jones. The Nationals’ center field position remains a quagmire.
Best case: Strasburg, simply, is the most dominant pitcher in baseball. He adjusts perfectly to his approach, sacrificing velocity and strikeouts for precision and weak contract. He manages to duplicate his ridiculous 12-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate from last year, striking out 160 batters and walking 13 before the Nationals shut him down. There is no controversy, and Ross Detwiler steps in for Strasburg and pitches well enough to push them into the playoffs. With his 2.04 ERA and 16 wins, Strasburg still receives a boatload of Cy Young support despite his truncated season.
Worst case: The inconsistency most pitchers face when returning from Tommy John surgery strikes Strasburg. His plan to decrease his velocity only makes him closer to ordinary. He’s still effective, but not dominant, posting a 3.70 ERA with nine wins. He starts to hit his stride right when the Nationals shut him down. With the Nationals on the edge of a playoff race, Washington erupts. Without their best pitcher, the Nationals fade to an 82-win season and never factor into the postseason discussion.
Best case: Pitching in the National League, Gonzalez’s electric stuff looks even more dominant. He makes the all-star team, posts an ERA right around 3.00 and wins 18 games. Once Strasburg’s season ends at 160 innings, the Nationals lean on Gonzalez to carry them into the playoffs – and he does, winning six consecutive starts in August and September. Nationals officials start counting the money they saved by signing Gonzalez to a five-year, $42 million extension last year, instead of waiting until this season.
Worst case: Pitching outside Oakland’s cavernous stadium, Gonzalez struggles to adjust, and it doesn’t help that he gets bad luck on fly balls. He allows 37 home runs and his ERA skyrockets to 4.45. The Nationals are confident he’ll bounce back in his second season, but they start wondering if maybe they should have waited on his extension.
Best case: People start wondering if maybe Zimmermann is the best of all the Nationals’ young arms. With his new change-up flummoxing hitters, Zimmermann takes a step forward form his excellent 2011 season and punches up a 2.95 ERA while winning 18 games. At the all-star break, before he pitches in the game, the Nationals sign Zimmermann to a five-year, $45 million extension. With Strasburg on the shelf, he pitches Game 1 of the World Series, the first Washington pitcher to start a World Series game since General Crowder.
Worst case: Zimmermann’s fly ball-to-home run rate regresses to the mean, and that’s enough to have a significant impact on his season. His ERA jumps to around 4.00. He still cannot quite perfect the change-up, which limits his effectiveness pitching deep into games, unable to show hitters a different look. His surprising inconsistency makes the Nationals rethink any extension talks.
Best case: The Nationals prove right when Jackson’s mechanical tweak allows him to hide the ball in the wind-up. The league hits .246/.308/.385 off him – the same triple-slash Jackson allowed with runners on base. He posts a 3.35 ERA, throws 220 innings and wins 15 games. Jackson loves the idea of playing in one place for a few years, and he loves Washington, too. He ignores Scott Boras’s advice and signs a team-friendly, four-year deal in September.
Worst case: The toll of 806 innings in four years finally catches up to Jackson, who lands on the disabled list for the first time in his career. He throws 140 innings, leaving the Nationals scrambling for innings after they received little in return when trading John Lannan. When healthy, Jackson can’t find consistency with his new mechanics and has a 5.16 ERA, the same he had over 21 starts with Arizona in 2010. The Nationals kick themselves for choosing him over Lannan, and then in the offseason, the Phillies re-sign Cole Hamels and the Nationals have to scrape the bargain bin to fill out their 2013 rotation.
Best case: Wang remains ahead of schedule in his recovery from a strained left hamstring, and he returns in late April. Once he returns, he pitches like he did against the Yankees in spring training, throwing cannonball sinkers at 93 miles per hour and mixing them with biting sliders. Wang punches up a 121 OPS+, the same total he had from 2006 through 2008. He is one of the best stories in baseball.
Worst case: Too anxious to come back and pitch, Wang suffers a setback to his strained hamstring during a minor league rehab start in Potomac. He returns in June, and by then he’s not the same pitcher the Nationals fell in love with this spring – his slider is flat, his velocity hovers in the high 80s, and his ERA sits at 4.50. In August, Wang’s surgically repaired shoulder shows wear. Sadly, Wang’s comeback hits another hurdle. The Nationals end up trading John Lannan, a move they regret as innings from their rotation run dry.
Best case: After Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez hold down the fort and collect four saves apiece, Drew Storen records a save April 15, his first game back from elbow inflammation. He goes on to surpass last year’s total and saves 44 games. Rodriguez becomes, bar none, the best set-up man in baseball. Lidge is a versatile weapon, striking out 12.1 batters per nine, which allows the Nationals to give Tyler Clippard the rest he deserves. Clippard, in turn, produces another all-star season, and as he gains recognition he actually receives a few fringe Cy Young votes. Sean Burnett rebounds and Tom Gorzelanny becomes an effective left-handed specialist. It is the best bullpen in baseball.
Worst: Storen’s elbow soreness lingers until mid-May. Lidge and Rodriguez never settle into a rhythm when Davey Johnson couldn’t decide between them, and they blow four saves combined by that point. Storen struggles to find himself after returning, and the ninth inning is a disaster. Batters finally solve Clippard’s change-up, and the wear from his past two seasons finally takes its toll. Burnett is the same pitcher he was last year. Somehow, all of the Nationals’ great relief arms turn into a mess.
Best case: With his wrist fully healthy, Mark DeRosa plays in 100 games, becoming part of an effective platoon at first base and one of the league’s best pinch hitters. He also gives the Nationals the best clubhouse chemistry in the league. Every team wonders how the Nationals unearthed Chad Tracy. Jesus Flores looks like his old self, and with Jhonatan Solano making progress at Syracuse, the Nationals trade Flores for a key outfield bat at the deadline. Brett Carroll is a stellar late-innings defensive replacement, and he hits five pinch-hit homers. Steve Lombardozzi gets exactly 300 at-bats, and does damage with them, hitting .300/.375/.410.
Worst case: Once DeRosa’s surgically repaired wrist flares up, the bench becomes a disaster. Tracy has nothing left, and the Nationals see why Carroll spent all of last season at Class AAA. Lombardozzi sits on the bench for a month before the Nationals realize they should send him down, but the experience stunts his development and he regresses from his Class AAA stats from last season. Flores grouses about playing time constantly, and the Nationals trade him at a discount – at which point he turns back into the player he was at the start of 2009.
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FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL