Best Case: Scherzer throws another no-hitter Monday and never looks back, feasting on the weak lineups in the National League’s lower tier, striking out 280 batters and winning 20 of his 34 starts. His cutter emerges as a force against left-handers, and he keeps his walks — and therefore his pitch counts — down. He throws three no-hitters, and still finishes second to Stephen Strasburg in the Cy Young voting.
Worst Case: Scherzer struggles like he did in July and August of 2015, throwing too many pitches, his mechanics just off — then thrown off further by tinkering. He allows too many home runs, leaves starts too early and tires down the stretch. National League teams adjust to him in his second year, and that $210 million contract begins to look like it may be a terrible misuse of resources.
Best case: This is the year Strasburg he ascends to the realm of the transcendent, and overachieves even by the standards of his own monstrous expectations.He averages 14 strikeouts per nine innings, his change-up once again unhittable. He continues to come out of his shell, continues to emerge as a leader, and wins 20 games while striking out more than 300 batters. He strikes out 20 in a game once and 15 in a game thrice on his way to the National League Cy Young Award — then the free agent says he wants to return to D.C. at whatever price is friendly to the organization long term.
Worst case: Strasburg pitches well for stretches, but wanes in others. He spends a month on the disabled list, feels the pressure of his upcoming free agency, and crumbles somewhat beneath it. He wins 10 games, strikes out 150 and slides unceremoniously out of D.C. as a hard-to-evaluate free agent.
Best case: Gonzalez figures it out. Now 30 and a new father, Gonzalez matures. Under Mike Maddux’s tutelage, he flourishes, harnessing his stuff and reemerging as one of the more baffling left-handers in baseball. Gonzalez wins 18 games, strikes out 240 and gives the Nationals a potent left-handed complement to Strasburg and Scherzer at the top of the rotation.
Worst case: Gonzalez stagnates in inconsistency. He makes 31 starts but lasts past the sixth inning in seven of them. He strikes out 150 batters but walks 100, too, wins 10 games but taxes the bullpen, and forces the Nationals to re-evaluate his place in their rotation long term.
Best case: Roark reverts to his 2014 form, and does so with something to prove after he won 15 games that season then was bumped from the rotation. His strong spring carries into a strong start to the season, and he adheres to lessons learned in the bullpen about the importance of letting his two-seamer run, instead of trying to throw it through the glove. His command stays steady, and he continues to display a knack for getting out of jams. He wins 15 games again, pitches to an ERA in the low 3.00s, and leaves no doubt that he is a more-than-serviceable major league starter.
Worst case: Roark struggles with consistency like he did in 2015, sometimes overthrowing, sometimes missing sharp command of his secondary stuff. His walk count climbs again, his ERA hovers in the 4.00s, and he fails to go deep into ballgames, giving the Nationals cause to consider Bronson Arroyo or Lucas Giolito as potential replacements in the middle of the season, sending Roark back to the bullpen.
Best case: Ross pitches the way he did when he first came up for a full season, sustaining the sharp slider that earned him 11 strikeouts in his third major league start in 2015. His change-up improves, giving him a bona fide third pitch to complement the slider and sinking fastball. He builds consistency with his mechanics and hones his approach to hitters, learning to adjust to them as they adjust to him. Still on an innings limit after throwing just more than 150 last season, Ross wins 14 games and forces the Nationals to consider how far they may be able to push him into October.
Worst case: Ross struggles against hitters seeing him for the second, third, and fourth times. His change-up does not develop enough to be relied upon, leaving him to use his fastball and slider and rely on command. He struggles, and the Nationals decide to send him back to the minors to hone his mechanics, approach, and that change-up.
Best case: “Different” equates to better, and the Nationals’ new-look corps of veteran relievers provides stability and consistency they did not have last year. Yusmeiro Petit and Matt Belisle prove Stammen-esque in middle relief, while Oliver Perez pitches to the best version of himself. Blake Treinen and Felipe Rivero both maximize their potential, giving the Nationals two strong set-up options for Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon endures early boos to pitch like the guy who didn’t blow a save until August of last season. The bullpen can be relied upon, and trends toward strong as Treinen and Rivero establish themselves as late-inning locks.
Worst case: “Different” equates to “about the same” or “worse,” and the Nationals’ new-look bullpen stumbles. Shawn Kelley’s velocity dips. Oliver Perez’s command wanes. Matt Belisle does not pitch to his resume, and Blake Treinen still struggles against left-handers. Jonathan Papelbon shows his first signs of fraying, and suddenly experiences intermittent bouts of questionable command. The Nationals must scour the market and their farm system to find reliable arms, as their bullpen costs them games yet again.