Matt Williams will lead a big league dugout for the first time this afternoon, and the best thing about his opening day must also be the scariest: the next six months present only a vast range of possibility.
The Nationals know baseball’s vagaries more intimately than most. With roughly the same core of players, they won 98 games in 2012 and 86 one year ago. The sport swings fortunes like few others. Great teams can be reduced to forgotten ones. Flawed clubs can find breaks and wreak havoc into late October. There’s no way to know.
With that in mind, it’s time for annual exercise in silly theoretical forecasting: the best case and the worst case for every Nationals player in 2014. As always, these are not going to be all that realistic or, really, fair. In many cases, they are going to be quite ridiculous – it’s either complete elation or total doom. The only aim is pure, goofy fun. The Best Cases are too optimistic, and the Worst Cases are too bleak. And here they are:
Best case: Ramos stays healthy and satisfies his curiosity about what it would be like to get 450 plate appearances in a season. The result: The Nationals have one of the best five catchers in baseball. He clobbers 27 home runs with a .285/.340/.505 line. His pitch calling and framing make him a staff favorite. Pitchers give him a chance to showcase his arm, and he throws out 35 percent of base stealers. He and his new wife welcome a baby girl, and they celebrate a five-year, $60 million contract extension.
Worst case: Ramos’s run hard of luck continues. Hamstring injuries surface again, and he misses a month on the disabled list. He still hits for power, but his plate discipline remains static. He hits 15 homers with a .260/.305/.445 line. The time missed prevents from continuing to develop rapport with pitchers. Jose Lobaton gets exposed from the right side of the plate as he fills in, and Nate Karns’s incredible September leads the Rays to the AL East title.
Best case: He may not reach the career peak of 2012, but LaRoche leaves behind the horrific 2013. His excellent defense returns, and with his weight back to normal, he’s the same consistent slugger he was for years. Hitting seventh, LaRoche hits constantly with runners on base and totals a career-high 108 RBI and hits 27 home runs with a .275/.345/.475 line. His bounce-back success leads to him to join his “Duck Dynasty” pals on the best-seller list with a workout manual: “Lifting Lions: How to Build Strength And Add Muscle Hunting Large Cats.”
Worst case: It turns out LaRoche’s problem last year wasn’t losing weight. It was losing bat speed. At 34, his best years are behind him and he’s unplayable against left-handed pitchers. Kevin Frandsen doesn’t hit enough to start at first base against lefites, and when Ryan Zimmerman moves there, Danny Espinosa’s bat is an albatross in the lineup. LaRoche’s defense, Gold Glove-caliber in 2013, continues to regress. In August, the Nationals face a decision about whether or not to release a beloved teammate and positive clubhouse force.
Best case: Building on his rookie season and fortified for the grind of a full season, Rendon becomes one of baseball’s brightest breakout stars. He both scores and drives in 100 runs, ranks among league leaders in doubles and flirts with a .400 on-base percentage. With experience under his belt, he plays above-average second base. He gets down-ballot MVP votes, and he smiles so much local dentists line up to hire him as an endorser.
Worst case: Everyone stopped calling him “injury prone” after Rendon made it through last season unscathed. Even though he added 18 pounds of muscle, though, the constant injuries that plagued him since college – the only thing that can stop his sweet swing – return. Rendon misses half the season, and questions about his durability make the Nationals wonder if they have a future star.
Best case: Remember last September? That’s Zimmerman for a whole season. It’s easy to forget Zimmerman has yet to reach 30, and he’s young enough to have more potential for powers. He posts career highs with 35 homers and a .905 OPS. Most important, another year removed from shoulder surgery, Zimmerman plays above-average third base. He may not be the Gold Glove virtuoso he once was, but the Nationals are convinced he will stay at third for at least another two or three years. He finishes in the top 10 in the MVP vote.
Worst case: Zimmerman’s throwing issues reach a critical mass. His shoulder is as healthy as it will get, but the wear over years and the attempted mechanical overhauls take a toll. After Zimmerman makes 15 throwing errors, the Nationals pull the trigger: he becomes a first baseman. Matt Williams struggles to find at-bats for Adam LaRoche, who the Nationals trade for a horrible return. The mental toll of changing positions wears on Zimmerman, and it shows at the plate, where he posts a .775 OPS. His career comes to a crossroads.
Best case: He leaves no doubt: Desmond is one of the three best shortstops in baseball and one of the 20 best players overall. He plays great defense, serves as the team’s rudder and hits 30 homers with an .875 OPS. After he finishes in the top five of the MVP vote, the Nationals come to their senses and extend his contract to make it a total of eight years, $125.5 million.
Worst case: Two large steps forward in the past two seasons come to a surprising halt. He can’t help from changing his approach at the plate while hitting second, and it takes him a while to click at the plate. He’s solid in the field, but scouts wonder if Danny Espinosa is actually the Nationals’ best shortstop. Desmond does not have a bad season, but minor regression doesn’t help him and the Nationals come closer to an agreement on his value.
Best case: The first month of last season portended what he can do over a full, healthy season. He posts an OPS over 1.000, pushes 40 homers, wins the MVP and makes bicoastal Harper-or-Trout rivalry the Magic-or-Bird of baseball. The Nationals add extra padding to the left field wall, but Harper never needs it. He’s the best player in the National League, and is poised to remain so for years. Use of the phrase “Clown question, bro” becomes legally punishable by federal prison sentence.
Worst case: The silly debate over Harper’s weight gain actually has merit. The extra bulk makes it harder to tame his swing early in the season. He rebounds, but even then problems persist against left-handed pitchers. The punishment of the season undoes his grueling rehab, and Harper’s left knee limits him on some days. He presses, and airmailed cutoff men and outs on the bases rile teammates. Harper finishes with numbers worthy of a star at 22 – 25 homers, .370 on-base percentage, 90 RBI – but he does not leap into another level yet. He does, however, play well enough to raise his arbitration value. The Nationals do not let him opt into arbitration, and a tense grievance ensues, embittering the Nationals’ best player and biggest star against them.
Best case: Working with hitting coach Rick Schu, Span continues his torrid end to 2013 and his outstanding spring training. He provides the Nationals exactly what Matt Williams wants at the top of the lineup. He steals a career-high 32 bases and matches his .392 on-base percentage from 2009. In center field, Span wins his first Gold glove. His $9 million team option for 2015 becomes a bargain, the Nationals can’t pick it up fast enough. Both Michael Taylor and Brian Goodwin thrive, and Mike Rizzo spins one of them into a dominant reliever and a decent infield prospect at the trade deadline.
Worst case: For some reason, Span’s finish turns into a mirage. His on-base percentage hovers around .320, and Matt Williams drops him in the order. Despite his excellent defense, the Nationals do not think Span will be the answer in 2105. The problem is, Michael Taylor’s bat doesn’t come, Brian Goodwin’s plate discipline doesn’t improve and Steven Souza grows out of center field.
Best case: Last July and August offered a preview of Werth’s 2014 season. Werth’s penchant to keep honing his swing allows him to have one of the best seasons of his career – he hits .301 with a .905 OPS and 30 homers. He remains a plus-defender in right field. He makes the second all-star game of his career and beats the eighth-place MVP finish he earned in 2010. His contract begins to look more like a bargain than an albatross.
Worst case: Werth still has his moments and hits for power, but in his age 35 season, the years begin to catch up with him. He spends two short stints on the disabled list with nagging muscle strains. He can’t recapture his swing from last season, and he hits .260 with an .795 OPS. Quietly, his defensive range regresses to the point it makes him a liability.
Best case: His ceiling has always been “best pitcher in baseball” and this season, he reaches it. Without bone chips interfering in his elbow, Strasburg gains full extension with his arm. With a new daughter fueling his perspective, he gains full command on the mound. Strasburg’s slider works right away and makes his other pitches even more diabolical. He throws 220 innings, wins 20 games, punches up a 2.30 ERA and wins his first Cy Young award.
Worst case: It’s always something. Strasburg’s ongoing fight against perfectionism remains a work in progress. Healthy after offseason surgery, Strasburg still has a solid year. But he doesn’t quite make a leap, and bad luck on balls in play nudges his ERA to 3.40. He wins 13 games. He’s one of the best pitchers in the game, but we’re still waiting for a signature season.
Best case: He runs back his 2012 season, but a little better. He has more luck on balls in play, and a third year of pitching coach Steve McCatty in his ear leads to fewer walks – he decreases his walks per nine innings from 3.5 to 2.5. Gonzalez finishes in the top three of the Cy Young vote, and he exceeds 195 innings for the fifth straight year. He’s viewed as one of the most durable, most consistent starters in the baseball.
Worst case: The wear and tear of 800 innings over 129 starts in four years catches up to Gonzalez. He’s always been more about dominating stuff than command, and with his stuff just a tick down from the past, he struggles for the first time in his career. It’s a relative struggle – Gonzalez still punches up a 3.90 ERA – but instead of a borderline ace, Gonzalez pitches like a No. 3 or 4 starter.
Best case: Content to let others suck attention from him, Zimmermann will have no chance at avoiding the spotlight. His change-up keeps getting better, he gets a little luck on balls in play and, after making 29 quality starts and throwing five complete games, Zimmermann finishes two spots ahead of Stephen Strasburg and wins the NL Cy Young award. The hardware puts the Nationals in a public relations bind, and even if they don’t want to, they give Zimmermann a six-year, $120 million contract extension.
Worst case: Zimmermann can’t solve his one issue: a stretch of shaky starts sometime shortly after the all-star break. He’s still not sure why it happens, but rather than taking a step forward, Zimmermann takes a small step back and finishes with 12 wins and a 3.90 ERA.
Best case: Fister makes his first start April 27, beats the Padres and no one ever thinks about his elbow or his lat again. Pitching in the National League for the first time, with an athletic, shift-happy infield to suck up all the grounders he creates, Fister puts up a career-best 2.75 ERA. His professionalism and team-orientated outlook have a strong effect on the rest of the rotation. He gets to his fourth straight postseason, only this time he wins a World Series.
Worst case: Fister starts out behind schedule, and all season long he’s running uphill. He doesn’t return until May 10, and once he gets back he never quite settles in. Fister lands on the disabled list again shortly after the all-star break, and when he comes back, he has trouble locating his sinker. The Nationals are still happy they have Fister under team control next season, but they can’t help but notice Ian Krol’s 1.98 ERA, Steve Lombardozzi’s .300 average and Robbie Ray landing in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospect leading into 2015.
Tanner Roark/Taylor Jordan
Best case: They have different personalities and pitch with different styles, but in black and white their success comes down to the same qualities: they don’t walk hitters and they keep the ball in the park. Roarkis not going to have a 1.51 ERA, of course, but his splash last season was not a fluke, the sign of a revamped pitcher – he revamped his sinker and improved his mental outlook heading into last year, his best by far as a pro, and he rolls over the success into this season. Roark stays in the rotation all season and puts up a 3.40 ERA in 33 starts. Jordan makes five solid-to-excellent before Doug Fister returns, then dominates at Class AAA and makes strong spot starts when needed.
Worst case: Roark eats regression for breakfast and hitters start to figure out Jordan’s heavy sinker. Both struggle early on, and when Fister suffers a setback and is ruled out until the all-star break, the Nationals wish they had figured out a way to hold onto Chris Young. Scrambling for another starter, the Nationals sacrifice Brian Goodwin in a trade.
Best case: Nate McLouth is a perfect fit, spelling all three spots and mashing against right-handed pitchers – he posts an .830 OPS in 300 plate appearances and steals 20 bases. Danny Espinosa’s elite defense and improved plate approach make him one of the best reserves in baseball. Scott Hairston crushes left-handed pitching and hits three pinch-hit homers. Pitchers love throwing to Jose Lobaton, and he even provides a threat as a left-handed pinch hitter. Kevin Frandsen is a gem in the clubhouse and he hits .338 with an .834 OPS – the same numbers he put up over 210 plate appearances in 2012.
Worst case: McLouth struggles to adjust from the everyday role he had last season, and hits .241 with a .694 OPS, like he did in 2012. Danny Espinosa hits like he did last season and, despite his incredible glove, gets shipped back to Class AAA devoid of all trade value. Scott Hairston gets released after two dreadful months, and Steven Souza Jr. struggles with big league pitching when he replaces him. Jose Lobaton’s poor offensive spring carries into the season. Kevin Frandsen is a gem in the clubhouse but he hits .234 with a .637 OPS – the same numbers he put up over 274 plate appearances in 2013.
Best case: Rafael Soriano, slimmer and more focused in a contract year, converts 47 of 48 save chances and finishes 61 games – one fewer than needed to activate his $14 million vesting option for 2015. Drew Storen pitches like he did after returning from Class AAA last season. Tyler Clippard keeps on keeping on, and for the fifth straight year he’s one of the best setup relievers in baseball. Ross Detwiler turns into Justin Wilson, and Aaron Barrett turns into the Nationals future closer. Jerry Blevins makes Freddie Freeman wish Billy Beane and Mike Rizzo never met.
Worst case: Rafael Soriano may be slimmer and more focused, but it doesn’t matter – at age 34, he can’t recover his velocity and his slider remains flat. He would lose his closer job, but the Nationals don’t have anyone to fill it – Storen reprises the first half of his 2013 season, and the wear and tear of throwing more innings than any reliever in baseball over the past four years catches up to Clippard. Ross Detwiler cannot make the adjustment, and instead of gaining a dominant lefty reliever, the Nationals just lost a solid No. 3 starter. Jerry Blevins punches up a 4.25 ERA while people start calling Billy Hamilton the AL version of Billy Burns.
FROM THE POST
Ten years into his professional life, Ian Desmond binds the Nationals together, on the field and off.
The Nationals will start to answer their questions opening day, Boz writes. He seems excited.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY