Worst case: Father Time catches up to Werth and a series of injuries mar his final season in Washington. He plays just 95 games and can never find a rhythm, hitting eight home runs with a .630 OPS. Come playoff time, the Nationals platoon Werth with Adam Lind in left field. Werth then signs with the Baltimore Orioles during the offseason to finish his career with the team that drafted him in 1997 as a designated hitter and shaves his beard, hoping looking younger will reinvigorate him.
Best case: Eaton’s moves to the NL and back to center field don’t interrupt his incredible consistency. He registers an .850 OPS and smacks a career-high 20 home runs while stealing 20 bases for the first time. He plays center field as he did in 2014, when he was a Gold Glove finalist, not as he did in 2015, when he was one of the worst center fielders in baseball, and wins his first Gold Glove. By the end of the year, the Nationals look likes geniuses as Lucas Giolito’s luster continues to diminish and the Chicago White Sox convert Reynaldo Lopez to reliever while the 5-foot-8 Eaton becomes a fan favorite with his gritty style. Mighty Mouse becomes the Nationals’ version of the Rally Monkey.
Worst case: Eaton struggles batting lower in the lineup and is even worse in center field. He has his worst offensive season since becoming an everyday player in 2014, posting a Revere-like .650 OPS with five home runs. He steals 15 bases but is caught 10 times. Defensively, the metrics indicate he’s the worst center fielder in baseball, supporting claims that he’s better suited for a corner outfield spot. Meanwhile, the White Sox call up Giolito and Lopez midseason and the two right-handers fuel a surprise playoff push while Dane Dunning emerges as one of the top prospects in baseball. Mighty Mouse T-shirts are burned on South Capitol Street.
Best case: He proves last year was a farce and stays healthy to return to his 2015 out-of-this-world form. He gets pitches to hit because Daniel Murphy and others provide ample protection, and he remains in the hunt for a Triple Crown into September, finishing with 55 home runs, 135 RBI, 30 steals and an OPS over 1.100. The monster season earns Harper his second NL MVP award and he adds World Series MVP to his mantel after leading the Nationals to a championship with 10 postseason home runs. Over the winter, ownership decides he’s worth the money and give him the biggest contract in professional sports history, making him by far the most famous baseball player in the world and shutting down any offseason speculation before it could begin.
Worst case: Another underwhelming campaign makes 2015 appear more and more like an outlier. He hits .250 with 20 home runs and a .775 OPS. Nagging injuries surface, but he plays in 145 games and critics question his place in baseball’s hierarchy. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the Nationals debate whether to trade Harper to a team thirsting for star power in exchange for a massive prospect haul, but they decide not to. One year from free agency the question becomes: Will the hype ever again match the production?
Best case: The baseball world realizes just how good Rendon is. He bats up and down the order, from second to six, and rakes in every spot, becoming the right-handed power source the Nationals need following Wilson Ramos’s departure. The reigning NL comeback player of the year makes his first all-star team as he slugs 30 home runs, smacks 40 doubles and wins his first Gold Glove with his smooth defense, making it all look so effortless, sometimes with his hair braided. To top it off for Rendon — a die-hard fan of the Houston Rockets — James Harden is named NBA MVP and the Rockets outlast the Golden State Warriors en route to the championship.
Worst case: A slow start and more injuries mar Rendon’s season. He plays 100 games and nothing comes easy. He bats .260 with 10 home runs and 15 doubles. His defense suffers, too, as the left side of Washington’s infield becomes one of the weakest defensive duos in baseball. Looking for a change, he goes with a buzz cut, but he can’t snap out of it. Harden loses the MVP to Russell Westbrook and the Rockets are bounced in the first round.
Best case: Turner duplicates his mesmerizing 2016 second half over the course of a full campaign while seamlessly transitioning back to shortstop. He collects the batting title with a .340 average and registers 30 home runs, a 1.000 OPS and 70 stolen bases. He makes the all-star team and is named the NL MVP, becoming the Nationals’ clear best player. People recognize him when he goes to pizza places with Harper.
Worst case: The move to shortstop is disastrous and Turner can’t adjust to the adjustments the league makes against him. His aggressiveness becomes a problem and he struggles to hit anything that isn’t a fastball. He bats .250 with 10 home runs and 20 steals. Eaton eventually replaces him as the leadoff hitter and he makes 40 errors at shortstop. People start recognizing him when he goes to pizza places with Harper — and it’s not a good thing.
Best case: He fights off the anticipated regression and replicates his MVP-like 2016 production, cementing his spot as the best pure hitter in baseball with another ridiculous stat line: .375 batting average, 30 home runs, 45 doubles, 1.000 OPS in 150 games. That’s more than enough to mask his defensive limitations, which aren’t significant as he starts for the NL all-stars, claims the batting crown, and is named NL MVP. Lululemon comes calling with a multimillion dollar endorsement deal.
Worst case: Murphy’s regression is worse than expected. After a strange spring training — he saw limited at-bats because he barely played for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic — Murphy gets off to a slow start and never snaps out of it. His glute injury resurfaces midseason and he misses a chunk of time. His numbers are reminiscent of his time with the Mets: .275 batting average, .735 OPS and 10 home runs. And his defense is worse, warranting him more time at first base.
Best case: Zimmerman’s tweaks and upper-echelon exit velocity produce exit hits (credit: Dusty Baker), and he bounces back from the worst season of his career to resurrect peak face-of-the-franchise Zimmerman. He smacks 25 home runs and posts a .900 OPS in 150 games. He makes his second all-star team, wins a Silver Slugger and earns a Gold Glove. Major League Baseball then announces spring training has been cut in half starting in 2018.
Worst case: Exit velocity is irrelevant again as Zimmerman’s career continues tumbling with another injury-riddled season. He hits .210/.270/.360 with 10 home runs in 100 games, ultimately replaced by Adam Lind at the everyday first baseman in September. There is no denying Zimmerman’s best days are far behind him and the Nationals enter the offseason needing to address first base. Major League Baseball then announces all teams must begin spring training Feb. 1.
Best case: Wieters, 30, finally meets the expectations he garnered as a prospect a decade ago. The catcher more than replaces Wilson Ramos’s production and registers
career highs across the board: .300 batting average, 30 home runs, 100 RBI and a .900 OPS. He stays healthy, catches 140 games and becomes one of the best pitch framers in baseball. The all-star season — his fifth — produces a $100 million contract.
Worst case: He is a steep, steep dropoff from Ramos. He can’t stay healthy and catches just 100 games. When he is on the field, he hits .240/.300/.700 with 10 home runs. He remains one of baseball’s worst pitch framers, and his caught stealing rate tumbles from 29 to 20 percent three years after Tommy John surgery. The forgettable season forces Wieters to opt into his contract for 2018 instead of testing free agency again. Meanwhile, down in Tampa, Derek Norris and Wilson Ramos become the American League’s best catching duo and combine to bat .320 with 40 home runs.
Best case: Michael A. Taylor cuts down his strikeout rate and proves he is a legitimate big leaguer. Adam Lind provides his typical power regularly filling in for Zimmerman and Werth. Stephen Drew avoids any vertigo-like symptoms and records an .850 OPS with his usual steady defense at three positions. Chris Heisey continues delivering in pinch-hit situations, and Jose Lobaton provides outstanding defense with the occasional timely hit, none bigger than the game-winning grand slam in a hailstorm off Wade Davis at Wrigley Field in Game 6 of the NLCS.
Worst case: Taylor is sent down to the minors by the middle of April because his strikeout rate is still huge, leaving the Nationals without a natural backup center fielder. The Difo outfield experiment doesn’t go nearly as well as Trea Turner’s last year, but he sticks around as the utility infielder because Drew can’t stay healthy. Heisey can’t continue his pinch-hit prowess and Lind struggles coming off the bench for the first time in his career. Meanwhile, Lobaton’s offensive struggles lead to the Nationals trading him and promoting Pedro Severino to back up Wieters.
Best case: Mad Max shows no signs of slowing down. His ring finger stress fracture is quickly forgotten as he takes the ball every fifth day with his typical vigor, regularly flirting with no-hitters while anchoring the best rotation in baseball. His home run problem doesn’t resurface, and he sets career bests with 22 wins, 300 strikeouts and a 2.30 ERA in 230 innings pitched. He is even better in the postseason, which he concludes with a shutout victory in Game 7 of the World Series. When he wins the Cy Young Award, his third, he’s on a spaceship, not a boat, and he conducts his interview with the MLB Network while floating.
Worst case: The stress fracture resurfaces and Scherzer ends up on the disabled list by the end of April for the first time since 2009. He misses a month and can’t get on track when he returns. He has his worst season since 2011, recording an ERA over 4.00 and winning just 10 games. Having turned 33 in July, some wonder whether Scherzer’s best days are behind him.
Best case: Strasburg’s decision to pitch from the stretch is a massive success. He stays healthy and confirms that when he is healthy he is one of the best — if not the best — pitchers in baseball. He makes every start for just the second time in his career and throws a career-high 220 innings. He wins 20 games, has a 2.30 ERA, leads the majors with 275 strikeouts, wins his first Cy Young, and the Nationals ride the one-two punch of Scherzer and Strasburg to a World Series five years after the infamous shutdown.
Worst case: Strasburg struggles early and bails on his plan to exclusively pitch out of the stretch after a month. Returning to the windup doesn’t change the results, and another series of nagging injuries shuttle Strasburg on and off the disabled list. An MRI exam reveals he needs a second Tommy John surgery, ending his season and placing his career in jeopardy.
Best case: Another standout season provides further evidence that Roark is indeed one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, and he finally garners the recognition. He makes his first all-star team and finishes in the top five in the Cy Young vote after going 18-6 with a 2.75 ERA and 180 strikeouts in 215 innings.
Worst case: Roark’s 2016 workload and an unusual spring training — he, too, was idle for a long stretch on the Team USA roster — catch up to him. The 30-year-old right-hander has his worst season, by far, as a major league starter and lands on the disabled list for the first time. His ERA soars over 4.00, and he is left off the playoff rotation.
Best case: Gonzalez reaches his goal of making his third all-star team and first since 2012. He isn’t as dominant as he was then, but he avoids the high pitch counts that haunted him in recent years and regularly pitches deeper into games, reaching 200 innings for the first time since the 2011 season, which vests his $12 million option for 2018. After posting a 4.57 ERA in 2016, he slices the number to 3.30 and wins 15 games.
Worst case: Gonzalez’s maddening inability to put hitters away continues, and the left-hander’s steady downhill trajectory reaches its end with an ERA over 5.00 at the all-star break. The Nationals decide to trade Gonzalez, who has an option for 2018 that vests if he logs 180 innings, concluding his career in Washington after 5 1/2 seasons.
Best case: Ross adds an effective change-up to his sinker-slider repertoire and, most importantly, stays healthy to become the best fifth starter in baseball. He pitches 175 innings and wins 15 games as a groundball specialist at the back end of the top rotation in the majors, sealing the case that the Nationals’ trade for him and Turner was one of the most lopsided in recent history.
Worst case: Consistency eludes Ross as injuries interrupt another season. When he pitches, his mechanics are erratic and that change-up doesn’t develop into anything useful, leaving him with two pitches to get through lineups a second and third time. The lack of an effective third pitch means Ross might be best suited as a reliever in the future.
Best case: Blake Treinen disproves the closer stereotype and excels in the role, nice guy and all. He emerges as the National League’s Zach Britton and the rest of the bullpen takes shape around him. Shawn Kelley and his twice-repaired elbow continue defying science by pumping sliders past hitters as the primary eighth-inning option. Joe Blanton and Koda Glover — veteran and rookie — are just as effective when Kelley needs a day off, while Enny Romero’s 100 mph fastball, Sammy Solis’s success against both righties and lefties, and Oliver Perez’s experience round the bullpen — baseball’s deepest — from the left side.
Worst case: Trienen flops as closer, forcing Glover into the role by the end of May — earlier than the Nationals would prefer — and he also flounders, which compels the Nationals to address closer at the trade deadline for the third straight year. Kelley’s elbow doesn’t hold up, age catches up to Blanton, Romero can’t find the plate again, Solis can’t stay healthy and Perez can’t reverse his downward spiral. Mark Melancon saves 50 games and closes Game 7 of the World Series for the Giants.